I'll Drink to That!

October 29, 2003


I'll Drink to That!

As part of my discussion about alcohol in the Early American Republic I explained toasting and dram drinking. My students had encountered dram taking before; Ben Franklin condemns the practice in his Autobiography. They had encountered toasting as we discussed the American Revolution; I mentioned it briefly in class and the textbook commented on it as well. What was different in the EAR was that the toasts and drams were whiskey and not beer or cider.

I call toasting the drinking game of the nineteenth century. It started in the eighteenth century and continued to be popular into the early twentieth century, but it was mostly an antebellum practice. It started as a political ritual, but it quickly became a celebration of masculinity. If you ever watch the movie Sergeant York, you will see Alvin York and his buddies toasting during their three-day bender.

Basically, toasting involves going around the table, having each person propose a toast, and everyone drinking agreement to the sentiment. You fill the glasses. The first person proclaims a toast: "The Union, may it ever be preserved!" All drink. The glasses are refilled. The second person proclaims a toast: "The ladies, may they ever be beautiful!" All drink. The glasses are refilled. And so it goes, around the table or around the room. That first example is a Jackson quote, the second is something you might hear in a tavern.

If you wanted to get drunk, you tossed off a full drink for each toast. If you were pacing yourself, as for example when Patriot assemblies gathered to drink 92 toasts in memory the Massachusetts Legislature's 92-14 vote not to take back its circular letter condemning the trade acts, you probably wanted to barely sip at each one. For important events, say the Philadelphia reception for Citizen Genet, the toasts were written out ahead of time. If people were just sitting around, the toasts were more impromptu.

Toasting made a good nineteenth-century drinking game because every person had a moment in which they could speak in public, display their manliness, and express themselves in words. The toasts had to be original, or at least original to the evening. Casual drinkers made them up as they went along. Proposing a toast was a risky moment - you try standing up and phrasing a strong sentiment while drunk - but that made it a rewarding moment as well. More, a "man" controlled his alcohol, and it could be hard to give a good toast after a few rounds had gone by. Similarly, "To Anacreon in Heaven" - the drinking song whose tune was stolen for the "Star Spangled Banner" - was a good drinking song because it was so hard to sing.

Toasting also produced a high level of peer pressure. If you refused to toast with someone you were repudiating the sentiments of their toast. Toasting first grew popular as a political ritual, and many toasts were patriotic in nature. If the bar starts toasting to "America, home of the free," you will feel some pressure to drink with them. Having once joined in the toasting, it was hard to stop. For this reason toasting was a particular target of temperance advocates. As they saw it, toasting bastardized patriotism and turned it into drunken debauchery.

Of course, the same folks who liked to toast were the same folks who liked to have noisy parades and shoot off cannon on the 4th of July while the Temperance folks were all sitting in church listening to sermons. Popular culture was contested in the Early American Republic, and toasting was an important ritual of social manliness.

edit - grammar and clarity.

Posted by Red Ted at October 29, 2003 02:22 AM | TrackBack