“Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History,” on exhibit at the National Archives through January 10, is a lot like a 2 a.m. barroom yarn: rambling, studded with odd and fascinating moments, but lacking the one thing that might make it all make sense.
The show is partly sponsored by the History Channel (which contributed some poorly-contextualized video clips) and the booze industry. It begins with an impressive reproduction of one of George Washington’s own stills. At the entrance to the show we get a reminder of just how sloshy the American past could be: Gallon jugs filled with water show how much “absolute alcohol” the average American drank per year at times ranging from 1830 to the late 1970s. In 1830 the average American drank 7.1 gallons of alcohol, almost all of that beer. We’ve never gotten nearly that boozy again, hovering between two and four gallons ever since, but we remain beery: Only in 1860, one of our least-sozzled years, do we approach a half-and-half split between beer and hard liquor.
“Spirited Republic” is organized mostly-chronologically. The opening sections make creative use of the archival material to tell the story of alcohol’s role in early American civic history: A reproduction of George Caleb Bingham’s 1852 painting “The County Election” shows drunk men nodding off at the polls while a swing voter asks for a bribe; a medical dispensary’s records show the brandy, wine, and whiskey prescribed to soldiers.
This show is a strangely official, utilitarian history of the world’s most beloved intoxicant. The benefits of alcohol explored in it are largely commercial and medical or quasi-medical. Alcohol pacified and motivated the troops, from the Founding through World War II. A 1780 petition from a man who rejoiced in the name of Gossinus Eketens asked the Continental Congress to provide the army with whiskey. Alcohol taxes fueled the new government—the Whiskey Rebellion gets a short and neutral depiction, with a letter from George Washington ordering strict prosecution of the rebellious farmers—and the show includes two letters from distillers asking for governmental help in opening up foreign markets for trade. (How does Kentucky liquor get to Oman and Samoa? This show answered a question I never thought to ask.)
There are occasional sentimental appeals, mostly in the context of commercial or military success. The lovely 1864 label for “Simon Crow’s Pure White Wheat Whiskey” shows a pastoral scene of drinking in celebration of the harvest. And toward the show’s entrance there’s a striking black and white photograph of upstate New York champagne makers in 1906. Tippling men smile at the camera, some triumphant and others a bit dreamy; one man’s wedding ring gleams on his work-roughened hand as he watches his companion pour out for him. In the World War II section we get an ad depicting a soldier’s home-front fantasy: Our man lazes in his hammock as blonde beauty Hazel nuzzles him with a wildflower—while matching glasses of beer await them on a table in the background.
Alcohol’s role as social lubricant makes it especially useful for Americans, with our national culture of universal and generic friendliness. A little booze makes a man a diplomat, and one of the most charming sections of “Spirited Republic” honors alcohol’s role in political alliance. We see a wooden beer cask topped with a tippling Cossack, a gift from a Russian mayor to Bill Clinton; there’s a History Channel video loop showing U.S. presidents toasting the Shah and the people of Iran (!), Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela, and more.
If the benefits of alcohol depicted in this show are largely economic and medical, with a sideline in social ease, the drawbacks of overdoing it are medical and moral. Concern about chronic drunkenness emerged early in our history.
The show includes a reproduction of “A Moral and Physical Thermometer,” composed in the 1780s by signer of the Declaration Dr. Benjamin Rush. Drinking things like water, milk, or small beer would lead to “Serenity of Mind, Reputation, Long Life, and Happiness.” If you turned to cider, wine, or strong beer you could attain “Cheerfulness, Strength and Nourishment,” though only if you drank in moderation. The harder stuff would lead to vices such as “idleness, gaming, horse-racing,” as well as medical consequences like hand tremors and “puking.” Eventually you could end up stealing, perjuring yourself, or murdering; with epilepsy or dropsy; in madness or despair. The thermometer presented a linear progression: “Debt. Jail. …Hospital or Poorhouse.” And, at last, the gallows.
This model, with only minor tweaks to reflect changing moral fashions, holds true throughout the rest of the show. The assumption is that everyone wants to drink enough to be cheery and healthy, but no more than that. Medical, moral, and legal discourses interweave seamlessly.
A caption notes that temperance activists argued that men’s drinking “left women and children without financial support and promoted domestic violence, prostitution, venereal disease, and political corruption.” The tragedy of Prohibition—which illustrates the essential conservative insight into human weakness, our endless ability to fix a bad situation into a worse one—is that all of this was true. (The myth that Prohibition led to an increase in American drinking took hold so early that “Spirited Republic” shows John D. Rockefeller, Jr. retailing the falsehood even as he switches sides to support the 21st Amendment. The Archives note in a wall caption that Prohibition in fact reduced drinking.) Temperance activists even claimed that banning booze would reduce the prison population, by reducing crime overall. It turns out that locking up husbands and fathers did not make family life secure; tightening regulation rarely reduces political corruption; and making popular pleasures illegal didn’t empty the prisons.
The show’s penultimate section focuses on a more effective counterweight to alcoholism: the recovery movement, which in this show (as in mainstream American culture) is represented exclusively by Alcoholics Anonymous. There’s a serenity medallion from the Betty Ford Center, which was given to Mrs. Ford herself upon the Center’s opening. There’s a letter to Mrs. Ford from Johnny Cash, in which the great man writes in poignantly plain therapy-speak: “I have been in recovery now for two weeks since I completed treatment….My love to the staff. I look forward to coming back next Christmas for my first birthday cake. Respectfully, Johnny Cash.”
The Archives has offered a love letter to AA (“still the most popular treatment organization in the world”), including a very by-the-Big-Book explanation of the tradition of anonymity that sits oddly next to the ads and letters of Mrs. Ford and Mr. Cash. The curators may not have found much material on the most countercultural aspects of AA, such as spiritual surrender. Even the explanation of anonymity echoes the group’s language of placing “principles before personalities,” but doesn’t mention that anonymity also offers members practice in humility. As for people who haven’t chosen AA—I know the show is constrained by what it can actually dig up from its archives, but it was a bit odd that there was no mention of the presidential sobriety of George W. Bush.
“Spirited Republic” is enjoyable and imaginative: the Prohibition-era ads for “free samples” from a winery; the capsule biographies of government agents, including a lady who pretended to faint outside a bar so she could arrest the Good Samaritan who revived her with whiskey; the model Drunkometer, a predecessor of the Breathalyzer and a surprisingly respectable contraption despite its name; the gorgeous Art Deco cocktail shaker owned by Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the caption describing the after-work parties he held throughout Prohibition—which “Eleanor, whose father and brother were alcoholics, rarely attended.” There are photos of prohibitionist slogans (LAW BREAKERS MUST NOT BE LAWMAKERS) and “Last Call” ads outside 1919 liquor stores.
A black-and-white TV ad lays out the conventional wisdom most clearly: “There’s something about a drink that’s warm and cheerful,” that classic fatherly voice of the 1950s declares. “But there’s something about too many drinks that’s mean and ugly. Diluting the alcohol and spacing out your drinks are useful if you want to keep your drinking social and under control.”
It’s a practical ad offering a technique for social success. What it won’t ever tell you is why so many people don’t care. Why doesn’t everybody just “keep their drinking social and under control”? In order to understand alcohol—and to represent its history honestly—you have to admit that people don’t just like drinking. They like getting drunk. Whether for relief after trauma, emotional release, or escape from the shackles of the self, human beings often prefer ecstasy to happiness, drunkenness to rationality, and danger to serenity.