Books · Emotional Health

Book Review: ‘Drinking in America: Our Secret History,’ by Susan Cheever

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.



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Americans have a love/hate relationship with alcohol, and in some important ways it has had a crucial impact on our history as a nation. That’s the central idea behind Susan Cheever’s fascinating new book Drinking in America: Our Secret History. Starting with the earliest settlers, she traces the startling influence that our devotion to imbibing has had on our national culture and character:

“Since the beginning, drinking and taverns have been as much a part of American life as churches and preachers, or elections and politics. The interesting truth, untaught in most schools and unacknowledged in most written history, is that a glass of beer, a bottle of rum, a keg of hard cider, a flask of whiskey, or even a dry martini was often the silent, powerful third party to many decisions that shaped the American story from the 17th century to the present.”

The influence of booze on the history of our nation goes back practically to day one: the Pilgrims altered their plans and landed at Plymouth (rather than Virginia, their intended destination) because they had run out of beer. They may have been devout, but they were far from abstinent when it came to liquor. No one could afford to be in those days, even children. It was almost impossible to store potable water on a long sea journey, and without resorting to fermented liquids the Pilgrims could not have survived.

Dependence on beer and other spirits continued to be important in the colonies, and Cheever describes how during the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the other communities surrounding it, “the tavern became the center of town.” The Puritan elders struggled with ambivalence toward the issue, claiming that spirits were gifts from God, but drunkenness was the work of “the devil.”

Cheever is full of fascinating details of very specific ways in which the number of drinks served may have literally changed the course of our history. For example, George Washington, roundly defeated in his first run for the Virginia Assembly in 1755, delivered 144 gallons of assorted spirits to the voters in 1757 when he tried again and “got a return on his investment of almost two votes per gallon,” thus beginning a great political career (and tradition).

Another time in our history when alcohol may have had a positive effect in turning the tide is during the Civil War. Lincoln, though not a drinker himself, recognized the talent of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who was known to have a serious drinking habit. Ever perceptive, Lincoln was able to see beyond this debilitating problem: His “. . . affection for Grant was based on his simplicity and his bravery. . . Unlike other generals Grant did not look for excuses to avoid an advance.”

Did the kind of bravery that he displayed come from “Dutch courage”? Probably not, but reinforcement from the bottle may have helped. In any case, Cheever asserts that despite considerable evidence of his binge drinking, “. . . there is no evidence that drinking made Grant a lesser general or less effective leader; quite the opposite. Grant had courage when none was called for; he had confidence in the face of what a sober man might have thought of as defeat.”

Lincoln’s decision to put Grant in charge over the sober Gen. George B. McClellan may have been a turning point in the war.

Unfortunately, the history of the United States has been affected negatively by drinking as well, and Cheever maintains that part of this has to do with the way we Americans take things to extremes. Prohibition represents one of those wild swings, when, in January 1920, in an effort to protect our citizens from the bad effects of drinking, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, also called the Volstead Act, outlawed the sale, transportation and manufacture of alcohol in the United States. From the beginning, it was a disaster, not only failing to do what it set out to do, but also bringing with it all kinds of unintended and unforeseen consequences. It failed to limit many people from drinking, as Cheever reports, and in most urban areas it was a joke. In New York, for example, “speakeasies” popped up overnight and became all the more chic and popular for the extra hint of naughtiness Prohibition provided. In Washington, President Warren G. Harding gave “famous parties, where even Alice Roosevelt got drunk . . . (and) liquor was sometimes provided from the Prohibition Unit’s confiscated stock.”

Not only did Prohibition fail to do what it set out to do, but it also created the problem of organized crime. Cheever writes that “criminals, once fragmented and disorganized, came together around what Prohibition created: one of history’s great opportunities for creating illegal fortunes.” Everyone is familiar with the famous gangsters of the roaring 20s and their counterparts in law enforcement (e.g. Elliot Ness) who waged war against them, made legendary by so many movies and TV shows. But the templates they created still survive. The patterns begun in the 1920s of mobsters importing illegal substances for sale in the United States are being emulated by cartels and drug traders almost a century later.

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  • douglas mcintyre October 29, 2015 at 7:11 am

    Outstanding review