Beer, wine, and spirits have shaped United States history from the voyage of the Mayflower in 1620 to President Nixon’s drunken diplomacy and beyond. Booze has left an indelible mark on the nation’s culture, and has been intertwined in its trajectory from day one.

The effects of alcohol are just as strong as the United States’ ambivalence toward its intoxicating properties. Some nations consume more alcohol than the United States does, and some consume less. But no other nation has gone from being one of the world’s drunkest, in the 1830s, to outlawing alcohol entirely a hundred years later, with Prohibition. Drinking has always been a cherished national custom: a way to celebrate, a way to grieve, and a way to take the edge off. At many pivotal points in U.S. history—the illegal Mayflower landing at Cape Cod, the enslavement of African Americans, the witch-hunts of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, to name only a few—alcohol has acted as a catalyst. 


The Pilgrims first escaped religious persecution in England by resettling in the Dutch town of Leiden. The town provided few economic opportunities, however, and many of the English immigrants began to dream of sailing across the Atlantic to a new world of religious freedom and economic opportunity. To prepare for their voyage, they secured a charter for land in Northern Virginia from King James I. Virginia would be a welcoming place; it was known to be a harbor-rich coastline with other existing colonies.

As the would-be colonials wrapped up their personal and business matters in Leiden, they procured supplies and a small ship to make the voyage. The Speedwell was chosen by the Pilgrims to bring some passengers first from the Netherlands to England, and then on to America. The Mayflower was also leased for transport and exploration, meant to follow the Speedwell after it reached land in Virginia. The Speedwell failed to make it past Plymouth in Britain, forcing a change of plans (and ships) for many of the voyagers. Almost everything went wrong on the Mayflower, a boxy repurposed wine ship, as well. After many mishaps—including a dishonest captain, a shattered beam in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and a four-month delay in leaving the British Isles—the desperate passengers had their first landfall in November. The first thing they saw was the dunes of Cape Cod.

“They came into the harbor at Cape Cod,” Pilgrim leader William Bradford wrote in Mourt’s Relation, his account of the Mayflower’s journey, “and they saw nothing but a naked and barren place.” It was dauntingly far away from lush Northern Virginia, their official, approved landing place, but only a day’s sail from two of the greatest harbors in the world—New York and Boston.

In the end, the Pilgrims chose to make the illegal landing on a wind-swept sand spit. They were panicking about their dwindling supplies—the most necessary of which was beer. The ship’s allotment was doled out a gallon a day for each man, woman, and child. “We could not now take time out for further search or consideration,” Bradford wrote. “Our victuals being much spent, especially our beer.”

An illustration from Poor Richard's Almanack, 1743.
An illustration from Poor Richard's Almanack, 1743.
Beer was the liquid gold of the seventeenth century—a drink that could be stored in barrels and that quenched thirst without the dangers of dysentery that lurked within many water supplies. For the most part, water was thought to be undrinkable. And—in a time before medicine or sewage treatment—it really was sometimes, especially onboard a ship. Beer, however, was thought to prevent scurvy; it was a necessary alternative to the scummy water stored in old wine barrels on the Mayflower.

Soon after setting up the Plymouth Colony, settlers erected the town’s first tavern. Early colonists were an integral component of the world’s rum production. The Whiskey Rebellion, which was an uprising in response to a tax on whiskey, and was the first tax levied against a domestic product in the United States, would serve as the first domestic test of U.S. President George Washington’s term in office. The role of alcohol in U.S. history would only grow from there—sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse.


The American Revolution would not have happened without a copious supply of beer and rum; even Paul Revere stopped for a few draughts at his friend Isaac Hall’s tavern on his famous ride to Lexington. The defiance, which led to the revolution, began with anger against a series of British taxes levied on the new colony, including the 1733 tax on imported molasses used to make rum. Americans, already robust drinkers, resented the levy.

Meeting in the basement of the Green Dragon Tavern in the 1770s, the Sons of Liberty schemed against their British rulers. When the Crown taxed tea, a group of the Sons boarded three British tea ships to secure the tea so that it could not be unloaded, therefore enacting a British law that required the return of unloaded cargo after 20 days if not delivered. Under the influence of alcohol, these colonists suddenly had a better idea—unloading the tea themselves by throwing it overboard. “Last night 3 cargos of Bohea tea were emptied into the sea,” the American revolutionary and later U.S. President John Adams wrote in his diary the next day. “This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important consequences and so lasting, that I can’t but consider it as an epocha in history.” 

An illustration of the Green Dragon Tavern, a public house used as a tavern and meeting place located on Union Street in Boston's North End.
An illustration of the Green Dragon Tavern, a public house used as a tavern and meeting place located on Union Street in Boston's North End.

Ethan Allen, one of the great Revolutionary War heroes, was a proud Vermont drunk with a storied capacity for alcohol. Fueled by his usual cocktail of rum and hard cider, Allen broke into Fort Ticonderoga in the early morning hours of May 10, 1775, with a small force of loyal Green Mountain Boys, a local revolutionary militia. This ragtag force boldly (and drunkenly) marched up to the quarters of Captain William Delaplace of His Majesty’s 26th, the fort’s commandant. Delaplace had not even managed to get his pants on before Allen burst into his bedroom, and the masterful takeover of the fort proved to be a turning point for the Colonial Army. It demonstrated that the British could be outsmarted, even if they had greater numbers and more ammunition. The Ticonderoga cannons were later carried south, mounted on Dorchester Heights, and used to drive the British out of Boston. 

Throughout American history, American armies were likewise fueled by liquid courage. Washington himself said he would never send men into battle unless they were moderately drunk. And indeed the tide of the Civil War turned after Lincoln appointed the Union army to a man who had already resigned once from the army due to his drinking. “What if Abraham Lincoln had not gotten around to replacing the sober General McClellan with the heavy-drinking General Grant,” wrote foreign policy analyst Strobe Talbott in a famed Los Angeles Times article. “Would the Union have lost to the Confederacy, and would some distant cousins of mine in Texas be living in a separate country?”


Drinking in the United States has also affected the nation’s history in times of peace. The American frontier and the settling of the western states—including the discovery of a safe route over the Continental Divide—was accomplished by intrepid trappers and hunters who got together once or twice a year to trade in their pelts for cash. At these annual rendezvous, teams were created and plans were made to push further west—to explore rivers where the beavers were still copious, and to settle the lands in between.

A satirical cartoon from the the Hawaiian Gazette depicting the Anti-Saloon League and the Women's Christian Temperance Union's activities in Hawaii.
A satirical cartoon from the the Hawaiian Gazette depicting the Anti-Saloon League and the Women's Christian Temperance Union's activities in Hawaii.
The rendezvous was a wild gathering—a kind of secular, alcohol-fueled Burning Man. Historian Ted Morgan writes of these gatherings in his book Shovel of Stars, saying, “The proceedings reached their climax when the whiskey kegs were bunged and a saloon was improvised under a tent.” Elsewhere along the frontier, pioneer John Chapman—better known as Johnny Appleseed—was driven by the marketing possibilities of liquor. Johnny Appleseed did not give out seeds for the planting of edible apples, but rather for the growth of apples in order to produce liquor from their juice, otherwise known as applejack. His presence in the community provided frontiersmen with access to one of the strongest drinks on the frontier. And for this he was, as food historian Michael Pollan has noted, “the American Dionysius.” 

As the American experiment continued, however, attitudes toward drinking began to shift. What had been acceptable in a farm community where farmers kept a jog at the end of every row as they worked was less acceptable in a factory where physical mistakes cost money. The combination of good liquor and bad effects created a robust temperance movement by the 1840s—one that enlisted writers, such as Walt Whitman and Jack London, showmen such as P. T. Barnum, and women struggling to overcome societal subjugation such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In many ways, this tension—between the Wets and the Drys, the supporters of tavern life and the supporters of home life—has also shaped our country.


In retrospect, Prohibition seems like an act of national recklessness. Three historical shifts made it possible: the powerful forces of women’s suffrage at a time when liquor was thought to be a man’s vice; the influence of World War I and the national fears of immigrants who brought their German beer and their Italian wine with them; and the institution of a personal income tax, slated to replace the more than thirty per cent of the federal budget, which came from liquor taxes.

And so, on the night of January 16, 1920, New York City joined the rest of the United States in an act of mourning. In the city, the air smelled of snow, and sad groups of men traveled from bar to bar. Black-bordered funereal invitations summoned the faithful for what they assumed would be their last legal drink ever. At Healey’s Bar, guests tossed their empty glasses into a coffin, and every customer got a small casket as they left to remember the fallen. Prohibition would last for 13 years, and to date, it still serves as the most extreme example of the United States’ national desire to control the ill effects of drinking—namely, drunkenness. At other points in U.S. history, the better effects of drinking had swept away all of the nation’s inhibitions. It had made colonists search for safe harbor, and it helped settle the frontier.

And despite periods of abstinence and chaste attitudes toward alcohol, it is the colonial attitude toward drinking that has survived to the present day. There have been many successful efforts to minimize the bad effects of drinking too much. Traffic fatalities are down thanks to groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Car manufacturers are working on technology that will make it impossible to start a car if the driver is drunk, and many states employ add-on devices that require a Breathalyzer exam in order to start a car. At the same time, the negative effects of drinking are often left out of the national conversation about alcohol—as if giving liquor its due might cause it to be taken away. Domestic violence and campus sexual assaults, for example, are but two problems intertwined with drinking that are often written about as if they had nothing to do with alcohol.

From the very beginning, the United States has been ambivalent toward alcohol. Drink has been seen as a necessity and a pleasure, but drunkenness has been blamed on the devil, and is a condition that is not to be tolerated. “Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness,” wrote Increase Mather a decade after the Pilgrims’ landing in his treatise Wo to Drunkards. “But the abuse of drink is from Satan, the wine is from God, but the Drunkard is from the Devil.” But the very spirit that gave many of the United States’ Founding Fathers the confidence to press ahead against the odds has a strong presence within the nation’s history—even if its presence is not always welcomed.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now