George Washington, it seems, had a bit of a booze problem. That is not to say he was a problem drinker. On the contrary, he also seems to have been quite temperate. No, his problem was a hypocritical streak about as wide as the Potomac.
Biographer Ron Chernow, in his book Washington: A Life speculates that the man who would become the first president learned to hate liquor when he saw how indolent, insolent, and desert-y it made his Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War. He would eventually deliver 50 lashes for militia men under his command caught drinking, in the spare time, in gin shops. (66)
As president, of course, one of his first tasks was to enforce with violence the levying of a whiskey tax which had resulted in a small insurgency in Pennsylvania (more on that later)*
So this temperate man who hated booze and understood its powerful corrupting influence must have been quite strict in how he thought whiskey, wine, and beer should be enjoyed, no? Indeed he was!
He, for example, opened a distillery on his Mt. Vernon property. You can even visit the distillery today if you’d like. There’s nothing quite as charming or heroic as a guy who will sell you a drink with one hand and then beat you for drinking it with the other.
And let’s not forget how he won his first elected seat in the Virginia House of Burgess. In 1755 Washington ran for the House of Burgess and was trounced, receiving only 40 votes. His competitors won 271 and 270 votes. Three years later, so as not to relive the shame of his earlier defeat, Washington deployed what had been and would continue to be a potent grassroots vote getting weapon: booze.
On election day, July 24, 1758, the absentee candidate [Washington was off fighting the French and Indian War, still] engaged in the popular, if technically illegal, custom of intoxicating local voters. His campaign forwarded him an expense account for thirty-four gallons of wine, three pints of brandy, thirteen gallons of beer, eight quarts of cider, and forty gallons of rum punch, costing the candidate a sizable thirty-nine pounds of Virginia currency. Accepting this expense, Washington hoped that his backers had plied all voters impartially with strong beverages: “My only fear is that you spent with too sparing a hand.”
Nothing like living up to your family motto, I suppose: Exitus acta probat.**
*On another blog a cadre of friends and I are reading presidential biographies. One per month, chronologically. I haven’t gotten to the Whiskey Rebellion yet, but when I do, you can be sure I’ll have something to say about it here.
**This was seriously his family creed. Apparently the Washington’s were one of the families in Game of Thrones.