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We’ve Been Hopping Back on the Wagon for Three Centuries

A Q&A with Christopher M. Finan


America has been trying to get sober for over three hundred years. And it hasn’t been an easy road to sobriety. Today, recovery organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous and others provide support for alcoholics who face the danger of relapse for the rest of their lives. But centuries ago, alcoholism wasn’t understood to be a treatable illness, because our nation condemned drunks for moral weakness.

In his latest book, Drunks: An American History, Christopher M. Finan uncovers the social history of our struggle with alcoholism and the emergence of the quest for sobriety that began among the Native Americans in the colonial period. We caught up with Finan to ask him about the effects alcoholism has had on our country, trends of treatment in the past, and how this history can help us understand current issues around addiction.

Caitlin Meyer: You start the book by writing about the impact of alcohol on Native American populations, and the ways that colonists used liquor gain an advantage over those communities. What surprised you when you were digging into this history? 

Christopher M. Finan: I was deeply moved by the suffering of Native Americans who had no experience with whiskey and did not recognize its dangers until it was killing them in large numbers. But I was thrilled by the story of Handsome Lake, a Seneca who was on the point of death from alcoholism when he experienced a religious vision that inspired him to quit drinking and lead a movement in the early nineteenth century that helped many Seneca and other members of the Iroquois confederacy get sober.

CM: What was the relationship between early Americans and alcohol, overall? How big a problem was alcoholism, and what effects was it having on the country? 

CMF: Colonial attitudes toward liquor were overwhelmingly positive. At a time when water was often polluted, it was the safest thing they could drink. They thought it made hard physical labor easier and used it to warm themselves in freezing temperatures. They drank throughout the day. But by the end of the eighteenth century, whiskey was flooding the market, and consumption rose to as high as seven gallons per person. It was then that Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, began to warn of the dangers of alcohol, including the danger of alcohol addiction. He helped launch a temperance movement that swept the nation during the early years of the nineteenth century.

DrunksCM: Looking at more than 300 years of history, what trends did you see emerging in terms how alcoholics have been treated in society? How was that reflected, or combated, by the recovery movement? 

CMF: For centuries, alcoholics were blamed for their inability to control their drinking, and it was widely assumed that alcoholism was incurable. This began to change after the founding of the Washington Temperance Society in 1840. The Washingtonians were the first national group to help alcoholics get sober, and they inspired the creation of the first institutions to provide treatment for addiction. But most of those institutions closed during Prohibition, and there was a resurgence of the stigma against alcoholics. It was only after Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935 that it once again became clear that alcoholism is an illness that can be treated and that alcoholics can stay sober for a lifetime. Today there are more than twenty million people who are in recovery from their problem with alcohol, and many have joined a growing movement to make treatment available to the millions more who suffer. 

CM: There were a lot of well-known people mentioned in the book, from Abraham Lincoln to Betty Ford. Who were some of the most interesting unknown figures that you came across in your research? 

CMF: There are so many: John H.W. Hawkins, the great Washingtonian orator who traveled over 200,000 miles on horseback, in carriages and boats to help fellow alcoholics; Leslie Keeley, the purveyor of a phony gold “cure” for alcoholism who nevertheless helped thousands of drunks at more than 100 institutes where they drew strength from the experiences of other patients; Jerry McAuley, a drunk and a thief who emerged from Sing Sing Prison, got sober, and founded the renowned Water Street Mission on the New York waterfront to help many of the city’s most degraded citizens, including many alcoholics; and Marty Mann, the hard-drinking daughter of one of Chicago’s finest families who became the first woman to stay sober in AA and then led a national campaign to eliminate the stigma against alcoholism.

CM: How can readers use this history as a jumping off point to understand the current issues around addiction, recovery, and treatment in America? 

CMF: The history of addiction in America teaches us not to be discouraged by our latest drug crisis, the opioid epidemic that killed more than 52,000 in 2015 and is growing worse. We have made so much progress: we know addiction is illness; that it can be treated effectively, and that society has a responsibility to help people fight their addictions. But we have to pay the cost. It is estimated that we need to spend $183 billion over the next ten years to fight the opioid epidemic. So far Congress has authorized only $1 billion.  


About Christopher M. Finan 

Christopher M. FinanChristopher M. Finan is the author of From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America and Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior. He is the executive director of National Coalition Against Censorship and former director of American Booksellers for Free Expression, a program of the American Booksellers Association. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisfinan and visit his website.