Monday, November 3, 2008

Rye whiskey and elections in America

If you only know a little bit about the early history of the United States, you've likely heard about the role of liquor in elections. In the first years of the republic, politicians of every stripe turned to distilled spirits and cider as tools for turning the votes their way. Polling places sported kegs of whiskey or barrels of cider, with drams ladled out to whomever wanted them. The more alcohol, the merrier. The candidates who offered the most often earned the most votes.

Most who relate this history suggest that by using liquor to blackmail of voters, office seekers corrupted the democratic process. These commentators point out that thankfully, the carefully regulated election venues of our time display no such irregularities.

But consider this, from historian William J. Rorabaugh's classic, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition:

"An office seeker who furnished strong beverages to the voters was expected to drink freely with them, and, by his drinking, to prove the soundness of his democratic principles, that he was independent and egalitarian, indeed truly republican. Many an aspirant for office became inebriated in order to show the voters that he was an autonomous, independent being. At the same time, a candidate's good nature and congeniality in his cups demonstrated his respect for his peers, the voters, and thereby confirmed his egalitarianism. Thus it was that a Pennyslvania tavern crowd stated that one popular contender's election was certain because he could and would 'get drunk with any man.'"

Proving one's republicanism, one's dedication to liberty, through the public consumption of spirits. It's foreign to us. But maybe we need just a little of that tomorrow, as we trudge off to the polls. Like that crowd in Pennsylvania, I'm going to have a shot of rye before I head to my polling place, and I hope that all you patriots do the same. Turn democracy in a bottle--rye--into a force for social and political change.

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