The Pilgrims who came to America on the Mayflower were headed toward Virginia, where they had a land grant from King James. Instead, they landed illegally in Massachusetts because they were running out of beer. So says historian, Susan Cheever in her just-released Drinking in America: Our Secret History. Cheever, a sober alcoholic, documents the pendulum swings of our national love-hate relationship with alcohol as she explores an important but little-known aspect of our past.
Alchohol was a factor at critical turning points in American history. It is likely that the shot heard round the world was fired by one of the seventy militiamen awakened by Paul Revere, who passed the time while waiting three hours for British troops at the Buckman Tavern on Lexington Green.
According to Cheever, for all the volumes written on the civil war, no one has documented the considerable effect of alcohol on this conflict. General George McClellan wrote, in February, 1862, “No one evil so much obstructs this army…as the degrading vice of drunkenness.” McClellan, who did not drink, was relieved of command for indecisiveness in battle – or sanity, as Cheever suggests, while “His colleagues who succeeded on the battlefield – Grant, Meager, and Hooker, for example – were drinkers whose performance was often affected by their whiskey intake.”
Most who have studied the war know about Grant, but not as many realize that because of the riotous condition of his camps, some credited General Hooker for lending his name as an epithet for prostitute. General Thomas Meager fell off his horse while drunk as he led his troops into action at Antietam. He drowned in 1867, after drunkenly falling off a riverboat in Montana.
Grant managed to sober up before his election as president, while Richard Nixon is revealed as an angry blackout drinker whom National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, and White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman had to protect from his own drunken rages. They “danced around the president’s homicidal, drunken orders to bomb the shit out of this or nuke the shit out of that – orders usually not even remembered the next morning. ‘If the president had his way,’ Kissinger told his aides, ‘there would be a nuclear war each week.‘”
Cheever’s survey not only covers political and military history, for drinking plays a part in our folklore and arts as well. John Chapman, aka, Johnny Appleseed, did not tramp around the countryside planting apples for pies, but for cider, and five of the seven 20th century American writers who won the nobel prize – Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck – were alcoholics. That there is no inherent connection between writing and alchohol is shown by a similar list of 19th century literary greats who did not drink to excess: “Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Longfellow, the Alcotts, and…Whitman.”
This underscores the paradox of the poles in our cultural history: “temperance and intemperance, drinking and abstinence, liquor and sobriety, addiction and recovery. Our country has been, at times, the drunkest country in the world; our country has been, at times, one of the least drunk countries in the world.”
As she sums up the “objective” view of modern historical authors, Susan Cheever notes that the “broad, dispassionate view,” often misses the “moments that make up our lives.” One of those things often missed by American historians is the effect of drinking on our history and national character.
“What is history?: a way to sift through the past in an effort to comprehend the world we live in; a way to understand ourselves; a way to make meaning of our lives by finding meaning in the past. How can we do that without acknowledging something many of us do every day, the thing that we use to punctuate our lives in celebrations and in sadness; how can we do it without acknowledging that glass of wine or whiskey neat or dry martini that has been such a powerful and invisible part of our life as a nation?”