Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Pilgrims' Progress

From Lapham's Quarterly:
Plymouth Colony was established in 1620 with the landing of the Mayflower on the long arm of Cape Cod, and it was dissolved into the Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1691. This seventy year period saw the establishment of a strong colonial government, war and peace with the natives, and it also established the Puritan faith in at the heart of early America, in which the Church was an established social order where members obeyed God—and looked out for each other to do the same. Our collective mythmaking about the Pilgrims and their pious conservatism does not make room for this image of the colony. Pilgrims are hard-working, religious, pious people to us, and Americans are intoxicated with this puritanical vision of past. We don’t see Plymouth as a party town, but as the birthplace of our best selves.

And yet alcohol was everywhere. The Mayflower had been stocked with more beer than water, as well as cider, wine, and aqua vitae, a form of distilled brandy. The first Thanksgiving included thanks for a successful barley crop, which allowed for the brewing of beer, and aqua vitae, or “strong water,” was used to smooth over discussions with the Wampanogs. Alcohol was essential to the survival of the colony, both as a drink and a currency, and a great deal of energy and time was dedicated to lawmaking and law enforcing surrounding the making, selling, and drinking of alcohol.
The Plymouth Colony Court Records begin in 1623, but don’t discuss regulation of alcohol until ten years later, when John Holmes, a regular drinker, finally pushed the court to act. Holmes was “censured for drunkenness, to sitt in the stocks, & amerced in twenty shillings fine.” This steep punishment suggests that Holmes must have experienced quite the bender.
The law he had broken? There was none in the Court records at the time. But two months later in July the court ruled, “That the person in whose howse any were found or suffered to drinke drunck be left to the arbitrary fine & punishment of the Govr & Cowncell, according to the nature & circumstance of the same.” Now it was illegal to be drunk, and illegal to allow a person to get drunk in your home.
The article finishes with a great line:
 The pilgrims are our ancestral drinking buddies.
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