Conversations in Management: Ben Franklin

Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

Ben Franklin


SColonial_Beereems the fellow who wrote endlessly about diligence, industry and sobriety also liked his beer. That’s not surprising given colonial America’s fondness for brew and spirits. In fact, that thirst played a large part in the founding of this great land. When the Mayflower set sail, its original destination was Virginia. The tiny ship was well provisioned for the voyage and carried roughly three times more beer than water as well as a stock of wine and spirits. Blown off course by stormy weather, they landed instead on Cape Cod and planned to winter-over. Unfortunately, by Christmas, the beer was running low so the captain put the Pilgrims off the ship and cut their ration. With just enough beer for the return trip, all thoughts of heading to Virginia were banished and New England was born. Ever an industrious bunch, the Pilgrims quickly set priorities and began making themselves at home. By that first Thanksgiving, they still didn’t have cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes or pumpkin pie, but they had prodigious quantities of beer, cider, brandy and gin. The Pilgrims and other settlers turned to alcoholic beverages because of their suspicions about the potability of the water. This suspicion was well-founded as they tended to drink water from fetid swamps and mud choked rivers. How they managed to miss the abundant fresh water supplies on this new continent yet had no difficulty brewing and distilling intoxicants from corn, wheat, oats, persimmons, green cornstalks, grapes, plums, apples, blackberries, pears, cherries and peaches is a mystery for the ages. By Franklin’s time, brandy-fortified Madeira was the drink of choice for the boulevardier set while rum was a popular drink with just about everyone. American distilleries were producing 5 million gallons a year on top of the 4 million gallons of the imported stuff.  With rum came mixed drinks and long forgotten concoctions such as Rattle-Skull, Blackstrap, Whistle Belly, Syllabub, and Flip. Our fourth president’s quaff of choice was A Yard of Flannel—a drink with ale, eggs, sugar, nutmeg, ginger, and, of course, rum. By 1790 Americans over fifteen were drinking thirty-four gallons of beer, five gallons of spirits, and one gallon of wine a year. Predictably some folks (probably the fifteen year olds) found this, well, intoxicating. Both a consumer and observer, Franklin cataloged over 200 names for inebriation that included biggy, boozy, busky, buzzey, cherubimical, and “halfway to Concord.” (That last one may have been in deference to Paul Revere who it seems interrupted his historic ride from time to time for a pint or two.) With the conclusion of his presidency, none other than the Father of our Country got into the corn and rye whisky business. His distillery was immediately profitable. Sadly, Washington died before the full potential of the business could be realized and long before discovery of the mint julep.

Long neglected, though promoted by none other than Thomas Jefferson, wine was never a fan favorite of the colonials. And that’s probably why someone thought they could improve on Franklin’s quote. What he actually wrote while living in Paris was, “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” So it’s wine—not beer—that’s God’s proof of love. It seems almost un-American though many of us would agree with him. But now, with summer fast upon us, enjoy whatever libation you believe God has sent along for your happiness. Do it with Franklin-like moderation and think about how Paris can change a man.  —Ebert 

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