The First American Liquor Laws

Alcohol has been an essential part of American culture since settlers first arrived at Jamestown in 1607. That’s partly because alcohol was important back in Europe: the water in many cities there was liable to kill you, so alcohol (specifically, low-ABV beer) was the only sane choice. The Mayflower famously landed on Cape Cod instead of its intended destination (Long Island) in part because the ship ran out of beer. Some of the first buildings constructed in any community were taverns and breweries (though cider became by far the most popular beverage). Jamestown colonists had ads in English papers as early as 1609 (two years after the colonists first arrived) urgently seeking brewers to come join them. Massachusetts Puritans, New York Dutch merchants, Philadelphia Quakers, Delaware Swedes, Maryland Catholics, Virginia planters… up and down the coast, alcohol was a basic part of life.

Social drinking norms also carried over from the old world. While occasional, mild inebriation was an accepted side effect of imbibing, you were supposed to keep quiet about it. Sloppy or boorish behavior was a big no-no. Puritan leader Increase Mather famously wrote that “drink in itself is a good creature of God… but the abuse of drink is from the Devil. The wine is from God, but the drunkard is from Satan.” It’s a quote I’ve used a few times on this site, because it captures the strange (and religiously-tinged) duality with which we’ve always viewed alcohol: drink good, drunk bad.

But some of us were definitely getting drunk, especially once we stopped relying on imported ale and got hooked on local hard cider and rum. Almost from the get-go, colonial governments were trying to figure out how to keep alcohol out of the hands of known problem drinkers. These are really the first liquor laws in America: punishments for habitual misuse and abuse. “From the first session of the first assembly” of the Virginia colony, says one author, “no legislative means were left unemployed to accomplish” that goal,[i] while up in the Plymouth Colony drunkenness was illegal with fifteen years, when the colony was still only a few hundred people large. The reason, apparently, “was one John Holmes, who got so drunk that his punishment was time in the stocks and a twenty-shilling fine.”[ii] Over time, the penalties for drunkenness got larger and larger, from a talking-to by your minister in 1610s Virginia to whipping, fines, a trip to the stocks, and a scarlet letter “D” to wear around your neck in 1670s Plymouth.

The other way government was impacting alcohol from the beginning was through taxes and fees. There weren’t many taxes in colonial America (there was little cash about, collecting was a huge challenge, and there wasn’t much government to fund, anyway) but what few taxes and fees there were often involved booze. At first it was license fees for taverns and brewers/distillers, and then as population and imports grew, alcohol was one of the first things to have a tariff – a way of getting revenue, controlling supply, and encouraging domestic production. In Pennsylvania they also taxed domestic production of liquor (something that would cause a famous rebellion when Hamilton did it 100 years later). As the 18th century wore on, The British government began imposing taxes on the colonies as well, some of which (like the sugar tax) impacted booze. Those taxes would play a role in the coming Revolution.

There’s a few more interesting little laws – bans on paying your workers in liquor in a few colonies, on drinking to someone’s health in Boston (too much flattery and pleasantness for the Puritans), and a law prohibiting ministers from being drunk on Sundays in Virginia, to name a few – but overall that’s it: a bunch of punishments for drinking too much, and some licenses, taxes, and fees. It’s a simple version of the ways government regulates alcohol today.

There is one final story from the period that’s worth retelling – a time when government went quite a bit further. In the 1670s in Virginia, a disgruntled settler named Nathanial Bacon and his supporters briefly overthrew the English-appointed governor (they were mad at him because he wouldn’t let them kill quite as many Native Americans as they wanted. Our history is not pretty, example 10,000). Among the many laws the rebel government passed was to revoke all the tavern licenses, save two at major ports, and ban any private selling of alcohol to boot. The law, it seems, was an extreme measure to combat excessive drinking – the first prohibition law in the future US. We’ll never know how it would have gone, though, because Bacon died of dysentery after a month or two and English reinforcements quickly scattered the rest of his followers. It would be another 150 years before that little dream flourished again.

[i] Peeke 25

[ii] Cheever 26

Peeke, Hewson L. “Americana Ebrietatis.” Privately Printed, New York: 1917.
Rabushka, Alvin. “The Colonial Roots of American Taxation, 1607-1700.” Hoover Institution, 2002.
Rorabaugh, W.J. “The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition.” Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1979
Cheever, Susan. “Drinking in America: Our Secret History.” Twelve Publishing, New York, NY: 2015
Devers, A.N. “A Pilgrim’s Drunken Progress.” Lapham’s Quarterly, 2013

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