The Spirit of America

The Role of Alcohol in U.S. History

The Village Tavern, by John Lewis Krimmel. Toledo Museum of Art

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

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