Attitudes toward Alcohol

Alcohol, a drug with a long history of easy availability and widespread consumption in the West, provides instructive examples of these dramatic shifts of opinion and their impact on ethical positions. The history of fermented beverages such as beer and wine goes back millennia, and distilled spirits began to be produced by about 1300 in Europe. For centuries afterward, nearly pure alcohol was produced in small amounts, and extraordinary characteristics were attributed to it. Aqua vitae, as certain distilled alcohol products were termed, was said to prolong life. In its qualities it approached the quintessence, or fifth element (along with earth, air, fire, and water). The "spirit" derived from distillation, according to John French, a seventeenth-century English physician, had wonderful "vertues ... for there is no disease, whether inward or outward, that can withstand it" (p. 132).

In England, new scientific data challenged the old beliefs during the "gin epidemic" of the eighteenth century. For the first half of the century a battle raged between the populace—especially in London, where gin was cheaper than an equal volume of beer —and some religious and secular leaders who were appalled by the spiraling number of public drunks, "weak, feeble, and distempered children" (Plant, p. 9), and deaths attributed to the massive and cheap consumption of distilled spirits. Hogarth's print Gin Lane of 1751 captures the social destruction resulting from a substance that once had been thought of as an unadulterated good.

The new view of distilled spirits was incorporated into voluntaristic plans for self-improvement, most notably the religious movement led by John Wesley. In his attempt to revitalize the Church of England and establish a strict morality of behavior, Wesley argued for a distinction between fermented spirits and distilled spirits. He described distilled spirits as "a certain, tho' a slow poison," although he conceded that they might have medicinal uses (Wesley, p. xix). Eventually Wesley's Methodism moved, especially in the United States under the guidance of Wesley's chosen missionary, Francis Asbury, to a rejection of alcohol in any form.

In addition to moral objections, in the United States criticism of alcohol was based upon social and medical observations. Benjamin Rush, perhaps the most distinguished American physician of his time, launched an attack on alcohol that was based on his experiences as a physician in the War of Independence. Rush countered the popular notion that distilled spirits were a healthy means of invigorating soldiers and field workers, and a stimulant to intellectual activity. However, like Wesley, he focused on spirits, not on all forms of alcohol. His pamphlet An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits upon the Human Body and Mind, written in the 1780s (reprinted in Musto, 2002a, p. 27), was distributed by the thousands throughout the nation and was still being reprinted and distributed four decades later.

TEMPERANCE MOVEMENTS. Later reformers, most notably Lyman Beecher in his monumental Six Sermons on Intemperance (reprinted in Musto, 2002a, p. 44), which first appeared in 1826 (reprinted 1828), adopted a more extreme attitude, condemning not only distilled spirits but all alcoholic beverages. Moderation was no longer recommended as an ideal; instead, it was presented as a dangerous delusion that would draw many people into alcohol abuse. Alcohol itself, Beecher argued, not the amount or type consumed, was an evil.

Thus, the United States experienced a positive attitude toward alcohol consumption in the eighteenth century, followed by a reversal dominated by the image of alcohol as a fundamentally evil substance that led to widespread prohibition in the 1850s. That first peak of prohibition faded under the resentment of the public, the difficulty of enforcement, and the monumental distraction of the Civil War. Later in the nineteenth century, opposition to alcohol revived, centering on the burgeoning urban saloon, a center of political and moral corruption, and a symbol of the rising fear of recent immigrants crowding into the cities. This antialcohol campaign was even more successful than the previous crusade, achieving by 1920 a total legal prohibition of alcohol except for sacramental, industrial, and medicinal uses.

AFTER PROHIBITION. After 1933, the year of the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, the backlash against Prohibition made advocacy of alcohol control an object of ridicule until about 1980; then another change in attitude toward alcohol—perhaps the beginning of a third temperance movement— once again put the issue of the damaging social consequences of alcohol in the forefront of public concern. In 1984 the federal government established a national drinking age of twenty-one, and since 1989, all containers for beverage alcohol manufactured for sale in the United States have been required by federal law to bear a government label warning against the dangers of alcohol. Since the 1980s state drunk-driving laws have been made much more punitive. Per capita consumption of alcohol, which hit a third historical peak in 1980, has been in a gradual decline since that time.

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