Interesting, but unconvincing

The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition W. J. Rorabaugh, 1979

Interesting, but unconvincing.

Rorabaugh believes that between 1790 and 1830, “the United States underwent such profound social and psychological change that a new national character emerged,” and that excessive drinking during this period was a symptom of this stress (xi). America’s democratic ideals and cult of individual freedom made men (after a few initial remarks, he doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about gender differences in consumption) desire independence and achievement, but Rorabaugh says they lacked the will or “motivation” to really work for their goals until the Second Great Awakening (yeah, so you can already see what my problem with this is going to be).  Their frustration and guilt led them to alcoholism, and maybe other forms of social action.  Rorabaugh claims there is “little psychological difference between a drunkard’s hallucinations and an Anti-Mason’s hysteria” (173). “America,” Rorabough concludes, “was left as a culture dominated by an ambivalence that could be transcended only through an anti-intellectual faith” (219). Or, as his data shows, by drunkenness.

Rorabaugh introduces clergymen and temperance moralists in the first paragraph of the book; but in a study that purports to deal with hidden psychological causes, he never really addresses
their motivations (5). The data, especially on changing rates of per capita consumption, is sometimes startling.  Americans now drink more than 18 gallons of beer per capita! (9) I wonder who is drinking mine?  Similarly, I wonder about the distribution and change over time of early drinking patterns.  Rorabaugh says that by the 1820s “half the adult males...were drinking two-thirds of all the distilled spirits” (11). At least, I think that’s what he said -- the endnotes are completely impossible to follow.  A reviewer actually attacked the Oxford Press for the illegibility of the references in this book.  The problem is, they exacerbate the overall lack of specificity in the text, by making it impossible to nail down times and places where critical observations were made, or check the sources who made them.  Another reviewer complained of the overgeneralized, almost caricature way that Rorabaugh talked about his subjects. Americans ate too quickly and drank too much because their food was horrible (118). Farm owners were not heavy drinkers, but “is it any wonder that farm hands turned to strong drink?” (128)

In spite of these flaws, Rorabaugh provides some interesting data, and a perspective that shines light on the nineteenth century from an interesting angle.  “Between 1790 and 1810,” he observes, Americans managed “to bring into production almost as many acres as had been planted in the preceding two centuries...In 1790, only one hundred thousand of four million Americans resided in the West; by 1810 one million of seven million did” (126). This is dramatic change, and it seems reasonable to suspect that it created social stresses that may have driven some increased alcohol consumption, although I don't think drinking was probably the most interesting or important result of these stresses.  And then there’s the supply side.  Rorabaugh provides a really good synopsis of early American distilling, especially “across the Appalachians” where corn was abundant, but too bulky to bring to market.  His depiction of the west as a cash-poor land of unprecedented farm surpluses helps explain the growth of western distilling in the decades before canals and railroads (80). “From 1802 through 1815,” he says, “the federal government issued more than 100 patents for distilling devices...more than 5 percent of all patents granted” (73). By 1810, distilling was concentrated in Kentucky, Ohio, western PA, and upstate NY, and these four areas produced more than half of the nation’s grain and fruit spirits (77). Western New York production peaked in 1828, and continued even while flour shipments ramped up.  “By 1840 distilleries in southwest Ohio, upstate New York, and...Pennsylvania distilled more than half of the nation’s grain spirits.” (85)  New York state’s distilleries peaked in 1825 at 1,129, producing an estimated 18 million gallons. By 1840, the industry seems to have consolidated, with 212 distilleries producing 12 million gallons. In 1850, 93 distilleries made 11.7 million gallons, and in 1860, 77 distilleries made 26.2 million gallons (chart, 87).

This data is really useful to me.  Rorabaugh’s analysis is less helpful, but still instructive. Although his chart shows a steadily increasing value of the product of New York distilleries, Rorabaugh’s narrative describes a “whiskey glut” that he says “exemplified the inability of Americans who clung to traditional agrarian values to promote change.” The “surplus grain had the potential to become either food for industrial workers or, if sold in the market, the means of acquiring money that could be used as capital to build factories” (88). But western farmers lacked the author’s 20:20 hindsight. Rorabaugh’s response to their choice to make whiskey rather than become industrialists illustrates a problem faced by contemporary historians looking at the rural past.