Friday, December 07, 2007

I've been doing a lot of reading on 19th century American history through the e-books avaliable at Making of America, Google Books, and Project Gutenberg. Tremendous stuff is available there for free in tremendous quantities, an entire 1920s public library.

One thing I've been sort of working on mentally is a list of prominent 19th-century Americans who died of drinking too much. They used to drink incredible quantities, and many of them went around liquored up all the time. Every man, woman, and child drank an average of four gallons (16 liters) of pure alcohol a year before the Temperance movement took hold at the beginning of the Victorian era in the 1840s. America was nicknamed "the Alcoholic Republic." The first serious threat to the infant United States was the "Whiskey Rebellion," when farmers on the Pennsylvania frontier briefly rose up against a federal excise tax on whiskey. They grew mostly corn, and the cheapest way to transport their crop was by distilling it into whiskey first.

The ones I'm sure died directly from alcoholism are: Franklin Pierce, Stephen Douglas, Daniel Webster, Stephen Foster, Edgar Allen Poe, Sam Houston, De Witt Clinton, Andrew Johnson, probably Henry Clay, and probably James Buchanan. William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia, Zachary Taylor died of gastroenteritis, and James Polk died of overwork. John C. Calhoun died of tuberculosis, and U.S. Grant, though he drank too much, died of throat cancer. It was the smoking that did him in, not the drinking. Meriwether Lewis committed suicide, and he drank too much, and there was probably a connection. Andy Jackson probably died of pure stubbornness and meanness. I would not have made that man angry. He was a tough old bastard.

It's surprising how long five of the six major founding fathers, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, and Madison, lived. The sixth, Hamilton, might well have lived to old age as well, but he was killed in the duel with Aaron Burr. Lincoln was so strong (he was a six-foot-four frontiersman with muscles like iron, and was known for his feats of strength as a young man) and had such healthy habits (he didn't drink, exercised regularly, and ate sparingly) that he probably would have lived a very long time if he hadn't been assassinated.

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