Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Booze and Politics

Yesterday I went to a conference at Montpelier, which was once the home of James Madison, the driving force behind the Constitution of the USA. Part of the setup at Montpelier is the Center for the Constitution, and they organised the conference around the theme of election campaign finance reform. It was a very interesting day of talks, panels and Q&A sessions, and I will be writing some posts about things that popped into my head during the day on one of my other blogs. What the hell though does this have to do with booze?

One of the speakers yesterday mentioned a story about James Madison's early steps into Virginian political life. In 1777 Madison was running for election to the House of Delegates, the lower house of Virginia's bicameral General Assembly and successor to the Colonial Era House of Burgesses. His opponent during the race was a tavern owner called Charles Porter. As was customary at the time, Porter plied the voters with rum and punch, while Madison refused to do so. Unsurprisingly, the electorate voted for Charles Porter, though Madison's supporters claimed that this custom was effectively corruption, a complaint which got nowhere with the political powers that be, after all, George Washington was elected to the House of Burgesses in 1758 having used exactly the same methods.

That story brought to mind a book I read a couple of summers ago whilst lounging by the pool on our annual trip to Florida. The book is called 'Plain, Honest Men', by Richard Beeman, and is an account of the drafting of the Constitution of the USA, in 1787, and it recounts a drinking session held just before the final draft of the Constitution was signed, where many of the delegates of the Convention joined with the First Troop of the City Light Horse to honour George Washington. The bar bill for the festivities was impressive:
"fifty-four bottles of Madeira, sixty bottle of claret, fifty bottles of "old stock," copious amounts of porter, beer and cider, and some large bowls of rum punch".
Given there were, apparently, about 60 people at the event, that's quite a night's drinking per person there! I am assuming that the 'old stock' mentioned there is an old or stock ale which would have been pretty strong and then aged for well over a year.

Anyway, all this got me thinking that there may just be some correlation between booze and political life, the former lubricating the latter. Apparently, many of the compromises that eventually found their way into the American Constitution were hammered out not during the formal sessions of the Convention but after hours, in the taverns of Philadelphia over bottles of wine, beer and cider. Perhaps it would be helpful for modern political leaders to get down the pub and actually talk to each other over a few pints of 'old stock' and maybe a bottle of Madeira or two?


  1. Interesting thought. Being drunk encourages empathy ("You're my best friend, you are!") and would probably therefore help negotiating parties see each others side and find a compromise.

  2. Unless they're that aggy labour MP!

  3. The connection between beer and politics in Albany goes back to the 1600s. To be a brewer in New Netherlands you needed to be fairly wealthy just to by the equipment, and with wealth came power. Many of those early Dutch brewers became magistrates and appointed village officials. Thus began a tradition of politics and beer in the city. The Gansevoorts and Van Schiacks—both families made their fortunes in beer-making—were both politically connected as well as the Ryckmans. Albert Janse Ryckman was elected mayor in 1702. Peter Ganesvoort, the Revolutionary War hero, was sheriff and ran for the US Senate in 1800.

    In the 19th century, John Taylor of Taylor & Sons was both mayor and one of the first water commissioners in the city, while later, Irish-born Michael Nolan, owner of both Quinn & Nolan and Beverwyck breweries was the first Irish mayor of the city, elected in 1878. The most famous or infamous politico cum brewery owner was Dan O'Connell, who bought Hedrick Brewery, just after prohibition. O'Connell—while only ever being elected once, as city assessor in 1919—would become the head of the Democratic Machine in Albany, within a few and ended up running the city, with his influence extending to both NYC and Washington D.C., until his death in 1977.