Cover image for The spirits of America : a social history of alcohol
The spirits of America : a social history of alcohol
Burns, Eric.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Philadelphia : Temple University Press, [2004]

Physical Description:
336 pages ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
HV5292 .B87 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



"Thousands of years ago, before Christ or Buddha or Muhammad...before the Roman Empire rose or the Colossus of Rhodes fell," Eric Burns writes, "people in Asia Minor were drinking beer." So begins an account as entertaining as it is extensive, of alcohol's journey through world--and, more important, American--history. In The Spirits of America, Burns relates that drinking was "the first national pastime," and shows how it shaped American politics and culture from the earliest colonial days. He details the transformation of alcohol from virtue to vice and back again, how it was thought of as both scourge and medicine. He tells us how "the great American thirst" developed over the centuries, and how reform movements and laws (some of which, Burn s says, were "comic masterpieces of the legislator's art") sprang up to combat it. Burns brings back to life such vivid characters as Carrie Nation and other crusaders against drink. He informs us that, in the final analysis, Prohibition, the culmination of the reformers' quest, had as much to do with politics and economics and geography as it did with spirituous beverage. Filled with the famous, the infamous, and the undeservedly anonymous, The Spirits of America is a masterpiece of the historian's art. It will stand as a classic chronicle--witty, perceptive, and comprehensive--of how this country was created by and continues to be shaped by its everchanging relationship to the cocktail shaker and the keg.

Author Notes

Eric Burns is the host of "Fox News Watch" on the Fox News Channel. He was named by the Washington Journalism Review as one of the best writers in the history of broadcast journalism. His other books include Broadcast Blues and The Joy of Books.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Humans have lapped up alcohol since the Babylonians began brewing beer. Americans, says Burns, have done so with special abandon, from colonial days, when harsh living conditions perhaps contributed to a regimen that included beer-soaked toast for breakfast, to the early twentieth century, when immigrants' tenement miseries made booze an appealing escape. The book's subtitle is somewhat misleading as, aside from a 15-page epilogue, Burns (host of Fox News Watch) ends his story with the repeal of Prohibition. And, while his strong focus on the many attempts to legislate sobriety reveals much about the American character, it's not a full social history. There are intriguing lifestyle facts from the early days, but in other eras, social data take a backseat to politics and players. Burns sometimes uses speculative detail to set scenes, and his prose can be hyperbolic. He doesn't shy from sharing apocryphal material, either, or quoting works he identifies only in the endnotes. Still, as a primer to U.S. temperance movements, the book (apparently researched from secondary sources) is informative and engaging. --Keir Graff Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Burns, a self-described "non-academic historian" and host of Fox News Watch, takes readers on a romp with boozers and teetotalers in this high-spirited history of alcohol in America. Prohibition comes and goes throughout his narrative but tippling, "the first national pastime," is constant. Jefferson had his "three glasses a day," Hancock his beer, and the Supreme Court Justices their madeira. For the colonists, Burns writes, alcohol served as "aspirin and penicillin, cortisone, and antibiotic, all rolled in one-the first wonder drug." And so, though Doctor Benjamin Rush tried the threat of "spontaneous combustion" as early as 1772, real strides toward prohibition had to wait until 1851, when Neal Dow's efforts led to Maine state law. Burns takes his readers through the transformations and reversals of the Civil War, Prohibition and its repeal, pausing whenever a good story comes his way and punctuating his observations with bursts of comedy club humor. Best of all are his lively portraits of mostly-forgotten historical figures, such as Diocletian Lewis, who, with his mother Delecta, formed the Visitation Bands, which gathered outside barrooms "communicating their displeasure to the heavens." In spite of the Temple University Press imprimatur, Burns offers up no pretensions to heavy scholarship. Academic historians and scholars will likely flee at his declaration that "there are fictions that make up for the inaccuracy of their details by the truth of their general impressions." But readers who like informative fun need not be so straight-laced-there are plenty of solid facts here and the Emmy-winning author clearly knows how to spin a good yarn. (Oct.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Library Journal Review

The host of Fox News Channel's Fox News Watch, Burns (The Joy of Books; Broadcast Blues) presents an enjoyable and informative examination of the role of alcoholic beverages in American society. "Thousands of years ago, before Christ or Buddha or Muhammad, before the Roman Empire rose or the Colossus of Rhodes fell, people in Asia Minor were drinking beer." After a brief tour of alcohol in history, Burns sets out to detail the role that intoxicating beverages have played in the development of American history. From Colonial America's huge consumption of alcohol (George Washington and James Madison both lost elections early in their careers by failing to provide enough free liquor to voters) to a detailed look at the temperance movement (figures like the "Queen of Hachetation," Carry A. Nation, and other colorful teetotalers), the botched experiment of Prohibition, and alcohol in modern America, Burns provides plenty of information in a straightforward, easy-to-read manner. Unlike Griffith Edwards's Alcohol: The World's Favorite Drug, this book just examines alcohol in history; no mention is made of the medical or psychological effects of America's love-hate affair with alcohol. While not scholarly in tone, Burns's book will be useful for undergraduate academic libraries and may find an audience in public libraries as well.-Mark Bay, Cumberland Coll. Lib., Williamsburg, KY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Americans are perhaps the most uptight people about alcohol. Where other nationalities seem able to take the subject in stride, Americans are constantly investigating the propriety of a glass of wine, a bottle of beer, or a martini. Americans are also very interested in the history of drinking; this book is the latest in a long series devoted to Americans' involvement with intoxicating beverages. After a brief but informative summary of alcohol's history prior to American colonization, journalist Burns reviews US drinking habits in the Colonial and early national period, when Americans imbibed more and resisted less. Beginning in the antebellum era, however, serious resistance to booze began to develop, ultimately resulting in the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act. The "noble experiment" ended ignobly in 1933, with the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment, again making spirits legal. Burns takes the remaining few pages to review the founding and impact of Alcoholics Anonymous and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. While there is little of interest to scholars, students and the general public might enjoy this lighthearted approach. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. Public and undergraduate collections. D. R. Jamieson Ashland University

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Spirits of the World
1 The First National Pastime
2 The General and the Doctor
3 The Father of Prohibition and Other Kinfolk
4 The Crusaders and Their Crusades
5 The Importance of Being Frank
6 Hatchetation
7 The Wheeler-Dealer and His Men
8 The Blues and How They Played
9 Executive Softness
10 The Hummingbird Beats the Odds
Epilogue: Strange Bedfellows
Select Bibliography