Drunk in the Chair: The Antebellum Congressional Culture of Drinking and Abstaining in the Capital

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 11:10 AM
Concourse H (New York Hilton)
Thomas J. Balcerski, Eastern Connecticut State University
Alcohol suffused the culture of Congress in the first half of the nineteenth century. Before their arrival in the capital, many owed their election to the distribution of alcohol to voters on election day. From there, most congressmen did not bring their wives or families with them to Washington, such that a homosocial culture of youthful “spreeing” ensued. Congressmen commonly appeared drunk to sessions and drank while in the Capitol. From the bar-rooms on the grounds of the Capitol to the members of “spreeing gentry” of Virginia, the use of alcohol defined an important aspect of the quasi-bachelor existence many congressmen lived while in Washington. Indeed, as John Quincy Adams acidly observed, more than one congressman could be found “drunk in the chair.”

Nevertheless, congressmen were not immune to the growing temperance movement around them. The Congressional Temperance Society was formed in 1833, only to collapse a year later. By 1842, however, it had returned with a vengeance. Prominent early members included Senators Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey and Felix Grundy of Tennessee and with Lewis Cass, the Secretary of War, while John Quincy Adams and Franklin Pierce were also members. Politicians followed the tactics of the budding abolitionist movement and promoted a “kind moral influence” to end the abuse of alcohol. Moreover, the congressional temperance reformers included northerners and southerners, as well as Democrats and Whigs. As a cross-sectional, bi-partisan movement, the Congressional Temperance Society joined a long list of other institutions that composed what has been described as a “Washington brotherhood.”

<< Previous Presentation | Next Presentation