8 Founding Fathers’ Insane Drinking Habits
James Madison was known to consume a pint of whiskey a day, but you know what? James Madison isn’t on this list of hard-partying Founding Fathers, because in a time when the average citizen was rated a one-, two-, or three-bottle man and alcohol was safer than water, a pint a day just isn’t that impressive. Prepare to be stupefied by who did make the cut:
Washington was a regular drinker -- oftentimes a bottle of Madeira at night, accompanied by rum, punch, or beer -- though that was relatively temperate for those days. But he could bring it when it counted. He once consumed enough “Fish House Punch” that he couldn’t bring himself to even mention it by name in his diary for three days. His expenditures for alcohol in 1775 were 1,000% higher than the average upkeep for the habit. He spent a full 7% of his income while in office on booze. His infamous farewell party tab totaled over $15,000 present-day dollars. He had to change out his teeth because they would become stained with brandy and wine. His estate, according to the estimable Modern Drunkard, was at one point America’s biggest whiskey producer, bottling (barreling?) an astonishing 11,000 gallons in 1799 alone.
The precocious Adams was busted drinking rum during his senior year at Harvard. He was fined five schillings, but avoided being “degraded in class." Later he spent so much time swigging ale in radical public houses that his enemies nicknamed him “Sam the Publican” (he wore this as a badge of honor). The dude also threw epic parties, highlighted by a 1768 Stamp Act Riots commemorative bash that featured no less than 45 toasts to celebrate the planting of a Liberty Tree.
The patriot’s love of food and drink was typified in a remark made to Elbridge Gerry at the signing of the Declaration of Independence: “I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are hung for what we are doing. From the size and weight of my body, I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air and hour or two before you are dead.” He was so well known for his love of vice that John Adams called him “another Falstaff” -- the 18th century version of “another Sheen.”
The British would never get him. Gout, the result of spending too many afternoons slugging burgundy with his pals, claimed his life in 1791 during, what else?, a party celebrating his most recent election.
Yes, Adams did start most of his mornings from his collegiate days onward with a gill of cider, but a gill is only about 3oz. A baby could do that! More impressive: even at 40 he partied six hours a night for seven straight weeks with the younger men of the Continental Congress. He also once attempted to use his diplomatic immunity bring in 500 bottles of French Bordeaux without paying taxes, failing, and then making Jefferson do it for him. Purchases like that fueled scenes like this one, described by Moreau de St. Méry, a French dignitary staying with the Adamses, who professed shock at their “barbaric” stamina:
[Dinner was] washed down with cider, weak or strong beer, then white wine…they keep drinking right through desert, toward the end of which any ladies…leave the table and withdraw by themselves, leaving the men free to drink as much as they please, because the bottles then go the round continuously, each man pouring for himself. Toasts are drunk, cigars are lighted, [and] diners run to the corners of the room hunting night tables and vases which will enable them to hold a greater amount of liquor.
Born William Alexander, “The Dean Martin of the Revolution” (so said legendary Newsday columnist and historian Marvin Kitman) rather randomly decided he would take up the disputed English title of Earl of Stirling, and refused to be told that he couldn’t. Initiative! A close confidant of Washington (who gave away Stirling’s daughter at her wedding), and a Major General of such lionheartedness that his revolutionary efforts earned him a rep as “the bravest man in America,” Stirling also drank, like, a ton. Though no one ever accused him of being drunk on duty, he was known to enjoy a “bottle full as much as becomes a Lord, but more than becomes a General." His boozing made him the target of satire by jerks like loyalist poet Jonathan Odell:
What matters what of Stirling may become?
The quintessence of whisky, soul of rum;
Fractious at nine, quite gay at twelve o’clock;
From then ‘til bed-time stupid as a rock
He didn’t just drink it though -- he was also one of the first people to produce wine in the Colonies, and was awarded a gold medal for his viticultural experiments (in New Jersey!) by the Royal Society of Arts.
Most famous for leading The Green Mountain Boys, the scrappy militia responsible for winning Fort Ticonderoga, Allen was a two-fisted drinker and bon vivant about whom it was said, “None spoke oftener, laughed louder, drank deeper than he who had been chief hero." He often enjoyed Stone Walls (a combination of rum and cider) to the point of having to be loaded on a hay cart for the return to home. One afternoon, after drinking with his cousin, Allen fell into a deep sleep during which he was bitten by a rattlesnake -- causing the snake to be drunk, and Allen to awake complaining of “mosquitoes” (this story might be apocryphal).
During his three-year capture by the English, when he was trotted out as exotic entertainment before gentlemen and ladies, he’d demand his captors serve him boozy punch. They’d send a servant to do it, but Allen would refuse it until they served it themselves, at which point he’d down it in one gulp and tell them about how kickin’ rad America was. He was correct.
Of the Maryland lawyer who refused to sign the Declaration of Independence on the grounds that it insufficiently respected states rights, historian Lawrence Goldstone wrote: “No one, perhaps in the whole of American history, could drink with Luther Martin.” The “heaviest drinker of that period of heavy drinking men” would excuse his habit with quips like “In the heat of the summer, my health requires that I should drink in abundance to supply the amazing waste from perspiration.” The brilliant Martin was high-functioning enough to get away with it, though sometimes he had to get creative: once when representing a Quaker in court he committed to “not drink a drop," so instead poured 90-proof brandy over bread, ate it with a fork and knife, and then proceeded to win.
If Martin can’t be matched for enthusiasm, Jefferson can’t be matched for appreciation. As Emily Bosland writes in Thomas Jefferson: A Free Mind, Jefferson singlehandedly upped America’s wine game, serving as “official wine advisor” to Washington, Madison, and Monroe, and allocating 200 acres of Monticello to viticultural experimentation overseen by the Italian Phillipo Mazzei, who apparently really knew his ***t. As President, he was the first person to stock the White House with wine (and spent a third of his salary on it during his first year), and convinced the Secretary of Treasury to lower the duty on wine to boost its consumption and stifle sales of whiskey, which he saw as a scourge of drunkenness, as opposed to wine’s “innocent gratification." Post presidency, he stayed very innocent -- between 1822 and 1824, receipts indicate that he consumed 1,200 bottles. He is currently starring on Cougar Town.