American Spirits

The first thing to do is be honest, to admit that this column is, for the most part, a book plug. The second thing to do is make it worth your while anyhow. Or at least try. Here goes:

The book in question is "The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol," which I have been writing, off and on, for several years now. It is in the stores, and available through, this week.

The past has long been a passion of mine. Among the reasons is that it enables me to escape from the demands of the present, the feeling, as Wordsworth famously put it, that “[t]he world is too much with us.” In fact, immersing oneself in history is, in some ways, better than taking a vacation. The latter only puts you in a new location; the former alters your time as well as your place.

But as a journalist, I am constantly amazed by the extent to which today’s tentacles reach back into yesterday, which is another way of saying that, even when you write history, you are coming to grips with the here and now.

For instance, I explain in "The Spirits of America" that 19th century alcohol reformers referred to their cause as a “temperance” movement. But they did not want people to drink temperately; they wanted them to drink not at all. In other words, they were being duplicitous; theirs was in truth an “abstinence” movement.

But “temperance” had a gentler sound to it, seemed a more achievable goal than total repudiation, so that was the name they chose.

And so it occurs to me that “spin,” which we think of as a relatively modern technique for deception, is almost two centuries old.

For another instance, I write about the cold-hearted efficiency of the Anti-Saloon League, which, more than any other group, was responsible for Prohibition. I tell of its monomaniacal devotion to the banning of alcoholic beverages, and the ruthless techniques it sometimes employed to defeat “wet” candidates for public office.

And so something else occurs to me: the political action committee, with its destructive emphasis on the single issue at the expense of the more general good, and which we think of as a relatively modern organization, is more than a century old.

Nothing surprised me more, in writing The Spirits of America, than learning the importance of alcoholic beverages to America’s founders; drinking was truly, as one of the book’s chapter headings has it, “The First National Pastime.” Consider this description, from that chapter, of the typical colonial courtroom:

“A spectator at a trial would . . . bring a bottle of cider with him. He would . . . take a sip, and pass the bottle up to the plaintiff. The plaintiff would empty a bit of the vessel himself, then forward it to his lawyer, who would, in turn, gulp down his own share of the pick-me-up and send the remainder along to the defendant. From the defendant, the cider was relayed to the defendant’s counsel and from him perhaps even to the judge and jury, who were as likely to finish off the beverage and toss the bottle away as they were to return it to the spectator who had started it on its journey in the first place.

“This being so, it seems that the distinguishing characteristic of colonial justice was probably not blindness as much as double vision.”

But why did our ancestors drink so much?  Did they have different beliefs about alcoholic beverages than we do today? What were those beliefs? How did they manage to put away so much spirituous beverage at the same time that they were creating the grandest nation that the world has ever known?

In other words, even as a historian, one must at times think like a journalist, grilling a politician at a modern-day news conference and insisting on the answers before press time.

The lesson in all of this, I suppose, is that, in writing The Spirits of America, I did not, ultimately, escape from my own time. But at least, in ducking back into the past, I gained a better understanding of the present

So can you. At your local bookstore, or through

End of plug.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT. He is the author of several books, including The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol (Temple University Press, 2003).

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