Bradford Wright
9/5/03
Alcohol, which has an interesting and far-reaching history, has been
discovered, used and prohibited throughout the ages. Long before the
evolution of humans, alcohol had always existed in nature as part of the
living process in plant and animal life. Man has never had to manufacture
alcohol. Small but definitely measurable quantities of alcohol are
normally present in many parts of the human body: in the liver, brain and
blood; from bacteria in the large intestine; and in the muscles.


Alcoholic beverages were probably discovered accidentally.

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People would have first tasted alcohol in fermented fruit; they were quick
to take to and improve on this strange, new taste. People discovered that
alcoholic beverages could be produced from practically any fermentable
material: fruits, berries, flowers, honey, the sap of trees, milk and from
almost any plant or animal substance containing carbohydrates or sugar. In
the tropics, people learned to use the sap of palm trees and cactus. In the
Far and Near East and in Europe, they used honey and milk. In the New
World, they used corn, barley, wheat, sugar cane, potatoes and a wide
variety of other plants.


By the time recorded history began, only a few people had not
discovered alcoholic beverages, mainly because they were geographically
isolated from the main continents. These exceptions have led many
scientists to theorize that wine and alcoholic beverages produced from
grains appeared only after agriculture was established in the economic life
of man.


Actually, alcoholic beverages were as important to primitive man
as they are to modern man. They were the soothing substances which
permitted him to escape from the constant threats of his hostile world–
cold, hunger, warfare and illness. Alcohol also became an important part of
early tribal and religious life. While severe intoxication was often a
welcome part of many religious festivals and tribal ceremonies, personal
drunkenness apart from ceremonials was generally frowned upon, as it is
now.


Earlier civilization developed many reasons or occasions for
drinking. Ancient civilizations used alcohol to welcome friends and to take
leave of them. They drank in honor of new leaders, new years, marriages,
births and deaths. People drank to each other’s health and to avoid each
other’s illnesses. They drank to launch ships, to celebrate victory, and to
forget the misery and defeat of war. They drank in luxury as a symbol of
their wealth and in poverty to forget their hunger. They drank to their
gods and to many earthly things.


However, all throughout the history of alcohol, there were always
people who preached against the sin. In 2300 BC, history records (in the
Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon) a number of price-fixing and dispensing
controls of alcoholic beverages. These statutes were directed at
tavernkeepers of the time. Some years later, in ancient Egypt, the
priesthood issued a number of proscriptions against drinking in excess.

These were among the earliest instances of a religious caste concerning
itself with the problem of excess alcohol consumption. Attempts to deal
with the problems of excessive drinking were also recorded throughout
Persian, Cretan, Arabic, Greek, and Roman history.


Prohibition as one means of coping with the excess consumption of
alcohol was attempted in many forms throughout history. The rulers of many
countries tried to enact these restrictions. That prohibition never
succeeded in its purpose is always seen in its early repeal. In general,
early laws were directed against the consequences of excessive drinking,
rather than at drinking itself. Drinking, by itself, was not regarded as
sinful by the early Christian church. Such laws originally adopted by the
princes of the church were directed not against drinking, but against
drunkenness, specifically among the clergy. As the influence of the church
grew during the Middle Ages, these ordinances were broadened to include the
population as a whole and, in effect, became common law. However, none of
these factors accounts for the prohibition of alcoholic beverages among the
people of certain Far and Near Eastern religions, such as Islam. Some
scholars believe that the Islamic prohibition against alcohol resulted
mainly from their religious rivalry with the Christian church, and also
from their belief that wine was polluting and their desire to prevent the
excesses commonly associated with drinking.


Condemnation of drinking by the Christian church as sinful and immoral came
into being in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Protestant Reformation.

The preaching of temperance by Calvin and Luther had a profound effect on
not only Europe, but upon Colonial America, which was just being settled by
pilgrims of these faiths.


Until the 18th century, wine, beer and ale had satisfied most of
the civilized desire for alcoholic beverages. Once more variety of drink
came about, people tended to drink in excess more often. This excess of
drinking became a public concern. Public leaders everywhere (doctors,
ministers, artists, writers, etc.) began to speak out against the excesses
of alcohol. Despite the severity of the problems associated with excessive
drinking, national prohibition did not succeed then for precisely the same
reasons (social, economic, and political) that it fails today. Back then,
instead of prohibiting excessive drinking, dilution of alcoholic beverages
was encouraged.


In 18th century England, distillation as an industrial process
was encouraged. England’s traditional animosity toward France culminated
during this time in the imposition of heavy tariffs on French wine imports.

As a substitute for the light wines of France, the smuggling of Dutch gin
became a major industry until English production of distilled spirits got
underway. Then, within a short period of time, the English changed from a
dilute alcohol drinking nation to a relatively “hard liquor” drinking
nation. The drinking pattern suddenly changed from beer and ale (containing
8% alcohol) to port (18%-22% alcohol) to gin (35%-45% alcohol). Gin was
cheap and every encouragement was given to the people to purchase it.


By the middle of the 18th century, England came to regret its
earlier policy of encouraging the production of gin and other distilled
spirits. The government embarked on a permanent program of coping with
drinking excesses by levying higher and higher taxes on distilled spirits.

Along with these increasingly prohibitive costs to consumers, came more
rigid regulations concerning the manner, times and terms of sale of
alcohol, and the licensing of pubs. The success of these laws and
regulations can be proven by the fact that today England is once again
primarily a dilute alcohol drinking nation, a country of beer and ale
drinkers.


In the United States, we were as picky in our drinking as in all
other things. Founded precisely at the time when distillation was rapidly
becoming an important industry in other parts of the world, America
immediately became a “hard liquor” drinking nation in which gin and
whiskies played an important part. Although the early colonists had to
satisfy their meager drinking wants mostly with home-brewed beer, ale and
wine, by the late 1600’s, rum was imported from the Caribbean islands and
the distillation industry was established and encouraged.


The history of New England is noted for its laws involving a wide
variety of prohibitions and penalties. The laws of Colonial America
preempted those of the church. Drunkenness, defined as a sin by church law,
was translated in precisely those terms into secular law, where it has
remained practically unchanged to today. Punishment, including fines,
flogging, imprisonment, censure, instead of treatment, has likewise
remained the primary discouragement to excessive drinking.


Drinking excesses mounted throughout the last half of the 18th
century. Communities all over America were manufacturing their own
distilled whiskies. The people west of the Allegheny Mountains were cut off
from the supplies of gin on the eastern seaboard and also from supplies of
rum from the islands. So they discovered a way of distilling alcohol from
their bulk products–corn and grain–by converting them into a kind of
liquid gold. The bourbon whisky they distilled was small in bulk,
relatively easy to transport, and had a high money value. It became much
more than mere spirits; it actually became a medium of exchange, to the
extent that bottles of bourbon were occasionally placed in church coffers
instead of cash.


Before the Civil War, Americans of drinking age drank large
amounts of hard liquor, primarily rum, whisky and gin, and small amounts of
beer and wine. After the Civil War, coinciding with the immigration of
German and Scandinavian beer-drinking peoples, a radical change in American
drinking patterns became evident. By 1915, Americans were consuming large
amounts of beer and much smaller amounts of hard liquor. The American
drinking style has remained much the same to this day. Despite brief
flirtations with such hard drink as the 1920s “bathtub gin” and the 1980s
designer vodkas and single malt whiskies, Americans generally remain
content with the consumption of softer products such as beer and wine. The
popularity of alcohol is likely to continue despite the regular eruption of
temperance movements; this and the current 20th century’s focus on the
illegality of drugs seems to predict that national alcohol prohibition will
never again be attempted in the United States. One encouraging note is the
recent consideration of alcoholism as a disease and the emphasis placed not
on punishment, but on treatment of alcoholics

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