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Most of us enjoy a little tipple now and then. Let’s face it: a party just doesn’t quite feel like a party without a little liquid cheer. For millennia, we’ve used booze both to toast our celebrations and to drown our sorrows.  Even Jesus couldn’t allow the wedding wine to run dry!

But the truth is the way we look at alcohol, and alcoholics is a lot different today than it was in the 18th century. We might understand addiction far better today than they did two hundred years ago. When it comes to alcohol use, though, compared to our Founding Fathers and their contemporaries, we’re lightweights.

A “Little” Means a “Lot”

Turns out, the 18th century wasn’t all pantaloons and revolutions. Those Enlightenment-era lads and lasses also knew how to have a good time. Alcohol, in fact, was pretty much a staple of daily life. And we’re not just talking an after-dinner cocktail or a soothing cordial to warm you up on a cold night.


In the 1700s, you were probably going to be drinking something alcoholic throughout most of your day, if you had the resources — and probably even if you didn’t. You’d likely start with a beer at breakfast, even for the rugrats, and another one or two throughout the day.


By evening, you would probably have switched to something a little more “adult,” such as wine or whiskey. In fact, Thomas Jefferson was a well-known expert on wine, often consuming several glasses before bed. And the father of the nation himself, George Washington, topped off his fortune later in life, literally, by starting his own whiskey distillery.

Bad Medicine?

Of course, all this daily drinking wasn’t just for fun (Heaven forfend!). It also was good for you, too! Or, at least, that’s what the great minds of the 18th century believed. And, really, in a lot of ways they weren’t far off the mark. In an era of atrocious sanitation and rampant waterborne disease, alcohol was widely perceived to be a safer alternative to water.


That doesn’t mean, though, that there were no limits. To be perceived to be dependent on alcohol was decidedly not okay. But alcohol dependency was widely thought to be a scourge of the lower classes almost exclusively.


To not be able to manage one’s liquor was thought to be a sign of bad breeding, a weakness that a man of intellect, reason, and self-control would be invulnerable to. Of course, they had little understanding of the mechanisms of addiction, even as the Opium Wars raged and opiate abuse flourished.


Today, of course, we understand that alcohol use disorder is a diagnosable and classifiable disease, as defined by Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines. This speaks to the reality that, as a disease, it is largely out of the sufferer’s control, unless and until she decides to get treatment, of which there was precious little in the 18th century.  We also understand that alcohol addiction has deep and complicated roots.


A victim might develop alcohol use disorder, for instance, because of the brain and body’s physiological response. For people who are genetically or biologically predisposed to addiction, even limited alcohol exposure can be enough to trigger full-fledged physical dependency.


The disorder can also be a secondary sign of another problem, such as an untreated mental illness. In the 18th century, society wasn’t exactly up on the issue of psychiatric care. There certainly were none of the highly effective psychotropics available today to treat mental health conditions, such as major depressive disorders. And so they tried to self-medicate with alcohol.


But whether you’re over-indulging in a colonial tavern or drinking alone while you binge-watch Netflix, the often devastating health impacts of alcohol abuse have not changed over the last two hundred years. Alcohol affects nearly every bodily system.


However, alcohol’s impacts on the vascular and circulatory systems can be especially brutal. Alcohol addiction not only wreaks havoc on your liver, but it also puts you at significantly higher risk for stroke, heart attack, blood clots, and other vascular diseases.

The Takeaway

Folks in the 18th century understood what we all know today, what humans have recognized for thousands of years. That a little wine can be a lot of fun. But the way that alcohol is used, and abused, has changed a good deal over the centuries. In the 1700s, alcohol played a much more important role in daily life than it does for most of us today. And the reasons weren’t always just recreational, because, in a lot of cases, alcohol could be safer to drink than water. At the same time, though, they had very little understanding of addiction, and that left a lot of people to suffer alone. Addicts were readily condemned for a perceived lack of self-control or poor breeding. And that allowed a lot of mental and physical illnesses associated with alcohol abuse to go unrecognized and untreated.


About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho, and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.