On the market value of a happy national inclination toward sottishness.

What, we ask with a suitably stem-winding rhetorical flourish, is perhaps the lengthiest thread to run its crooked course through the rich tapestry that is our Grand Republic? One would do worse than to claim for this place in the national character the twinned pursuits of the production of ardent spirits (and kindred fermented beverages) and the consumption of same.

I am in mind of such spirits even at this early hour because I had been following with a certain professional interest yesterday the fate of a copy of Samuel M’Harry’s The Practical Distiller (Harrisburgh, Penna., 1809) at Pacific Book Auction Galleries (the acution house known to some in the trade as P-BAG, a perhaps affectionate echo of another San Francisco institution that itself boasts a certain association with pursuits Gambrinian, the Washbag). This copy of The Practical Distiller, cellophane tape repairs and all, was knocked down for $4600 — a practical measure of its scarcity in the trade and one which left my hopeful absentee bid panting in a ditch as the price raced ever upward, bearing its banner with strange device.

Much has been written about the use of distillation and fermentation as a means of preserving food on the frontier, viz. the itinerant Swedenborgian nurseryman John Chapman who sold his wares in order that the pioneers of the Old Northwest would have the means to produce hard cider. The farmers of Western Pennsylvania, of course, had also long converted their excess grain into more portable spirituous form — their unhappiness with the taxes upon such production leading to the first test of the strong federal government in the new republic.

Of course, the desire to bring beverages other than branch water to the frontier did not always meet with unalloyed success, as those involved in the Tombigbee Association would find. This project began with a Congressional land grant in 1817 and aimed to settle Bonapartist exiles in Alabama to produce wine and olive oil, though as as Thomas Pinney notes in his History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition (Berkeley, 1989),

the whole thing was grandiose, impetuous, and vague–grandiose because it was seriously maintained that the French would supply the nation’s wants in wine; impetuous because the would-be planters began settling even before they knew where they were to settle, with disastrous consequences, as will be seen; vague because no one knew anything about the actual work proposed or had any notion of ways and means. The idea that the veterans of the greatest army ever known, men who had been officers at Marengo, Austerlitz, Moscow, and Waterloo, would turn quietly to the American wilderness to cultivate the vine and the olive, emblems of peace, has a kind of Chateaubriandesque poetry about it, but little to recommend it to practice.

After these ersatz Cincinnatuses settled the village of Demopolis, they were forced to move over a land dispute and settle the town Aigleville. The French succumbed to fevers and the European vines succumbed to the Alabama weather; within ten years the project had washed up and any remaining settlers had turned to cotton.

M’Harry is admirably grounded in local conditions for his recipes, though, noting the suitability of corn, turnips and pumpkins in the distillation process. He includes some recipes for wine as well, though for much of the early history of America the common man would in general eschew the fruit of the vine for his more homely spirits. Indeed, Peter Buell Porter, the Secretary of War for John Quincy Adams, argued in 1829 in a letter to namby-pamby critics in the House of Representatives that, in effect, an army marches [or perhaps staggers along] on its ration of liquor:

The practice of indulging in the use of spirituous liquors is so general in this country, that there is not, it is believed, one man in four, among the laboring classes, who does not drink, daily, more than one gill; and it is from these classes that our Army is recruited. To subject, therefore, persons of such habits, at once, to a total deprivation of a beverage, to the free use of which they have long been habituated, would not only impair their health, but induce them to resort to means for gratifying their propensity which a moderate indulgence of it by the Government might prevent.

Such benevolent paternalism seems perhaps out of keeping with our image of the frontier as a place of rugged individualism, but I am here to provide the raw material of history and not to judge it.

This entry was posted in auctions, miscellanea. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply