Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Our ethanol connection...

I get castigated everytime I suggest the Founding Fathers were mere mortals like...well, me, but this news leads me to think we could have found some common ground.
A more interesting data series is per capita alcohol consumption, which covers a longer period and indicates how heavily people were drinking. In their indispensable 1982 book Drinking in America, Mark Edward Lender and James Kirby Martin report that "the period from the 1790s to the early 1830s was probably the heaviest drinking era in the nation's history." They estimate that per capita alcohol consumption among people 15 or older rose from 5.8 gallons in 1790 to 7.1 gallons in 1810 and remained at that level until 1830 at least. (These numbers convert various alcoholic beverages to gallons of pure ethanol.) By contrast, per capita consumption was about 2.1 gallons in 1850 and about 2.3 in 2007.
Despite what today looks like heavy drinking, Lender and Martin write, "America's colonists were not problem drinkers—at least not if social policy directed at alcohol abuse is any indication....The provincials heard little public outcry against alcoholism….A general lack of anxiety over alcohol problems was one of the most significant features of drinking in the colonial era." That changed after the American Revolution, when social and economic changes simultaneously loosened the communal constraints that had deterred drunken misbehavior, created anxieties that encouraged people to drink more, and made drinking throughout the day (especially at work) more problematic. [More]
Our species' long history with fermented anything is conveniently forgotten too often, IMHO.  The desire for an altered state of consciousness (being inebriated) has propelled economics of such events as the Whiskey Rebellion and colored the history of almost every culture.

There was also the issue that water was generally bad for your health.  Wine and beers at least had alcohol to partially offset the inherent contamination present in virtually all water save pristine lakes and streams. Only after safe water was available for most did such moral movements as the Prohibition gain steam.
Alcoholic beverages have long served as thirst quenchers. Water pollution is far from new; to the contrary, supplies have generally been either unhealthful or questionable at best. Ancient writers rarely wrote about water, except as a warning (Ghaliounqui, 1979, p. 3). Travelers crossing what is now Zaire in 1648 reported having to drink water that resembled horse's urine. In the late eighteenth century most Parisians drank water from a very muddy and often chemically polluted Seine (Braudel, 1967, pp. 159-161). Coffee and tea were not introduced into Europe until the mid-seventeenth century, and it was another hundred or more years before they were commonly consumed on a daily basis (Austin, 1985, pp. 251, 254,351, 359,366).
Another important function of alcohol has been therapeutic or medicinal. Current research suggests that the moderate consumption of alcohol is preferable to abstinence. It appears to reduce the incidence of coronary heart disease (e.g., Razay, 1992; Jackson et al., 1991; Klatsky et al., 1990, p. 745; Rimm et al., 1991; Miller et al., 1990), cancer (e.g., Bofetta & Garfinkel, 1990) and osteoporosis (e.g., Gavaler & Van Thiel, 1992), among many other diseases and conditions, and to increase longevity (e.g., DeLabry et al., 1992). It has clearly been a major analgesic, and one widely available to people in pain. Relatedly, it has provided relief from the fatigue of hard labor.
Not to be underestimated is the important role alcohol has served in enhancing the enjoyment and quality of life. It can serve as a social lubricant, can provide entertainment, can facilitate relaxation, can provide pharmacological pleasure and can enhance the flavors of food (Gastineau et al., 1979, p. xx).
While alcohol has always been misused by a minority of drinkers, it has clearly proved to be beneficial to most. In the words of the founding Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, "... alcohol has existed longer than all human memory. It has outlived generations, nations, epochs and ages. It is a part of us, and that is fortunate indeed. For although alcohol will always be the master of some, for most of us it will continue to be the servant of man" [More]
At any rate, the more we know about our forebears the more we can realize how extraordinary their accomplishments were compared to many eras.  Despite being folks like us they seemed able to advance the cause of man and civilization when the moment presented itself.


Bill Harshaw said...

Just reading the new biography of Betsy Ross: one of her sisters was an alcoholic and was ousted from the Quaker meeting because she was unable to reform.

And the good Presbyterians who erected a church near Geneva, NY in the early 1800's supplied a whole bunch of liquor for the event.

And, if I remember correctly, there was a fuss over how much liquor to supply to the British prisoners of war near Lancaster, PA as part of the daily ration.

Anonymous said...

You've written many great posts but I think this was my favorite thus far. Thanks.