Benjamin Franklin: ON DRUNKENESS


[Introduction to DOGOOD PAPERS, NO XII…. The best of the young apprentice's anonymous contributions are the Dogood Papers. Stimulated by the cynical comment he heard in his brother's print shop, Franklin painted a picture of contemporary Boston as seen through the eyes of a strong-willed and forthright widow. His brother's companions called themselves 'the Honest Wags' (to Increase Mather they were Boston's 'Hell-Fire Club'), and they were in the habit of publishing their opinions under various noms-de-plume—Tabitha Talkative, Ichabod Henroost, Fanny Mournful—to protect themselves from Harvard and the Puritan Establishment. Both were apt to suppress any sustained or savage criticism, which, as they saw it, would be destructive of good order and regular church-going. In fact, James Franklin was jailed for three weeks in 1722; and in January 1723 he was banned from publishing, and replaced at the Courant by Benjamin. In 1726 the Courant folded altogether.

You may also wish to read Benjamin Franklin, His Life as he Wrote it, Edited by Esmond Wright, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-06653-3]


From Monday 3 September to Monday 10 September, 1722

Quod est in corde sobrii, est in ore ebrii.

To the Author of the New-England Courant.


It is no unprofitable though unpleasant pursuit, diligently to inspect and consider the manners and conversation of men, who, insensible of the greatest enjoyments of human life, abandon themselves to vice from a false notion of pleasure and good fellowship. A true and natural representation of any enormity, is often the best argument against it and means of removing it, when the most severe reprehensions alone, are found ineffectual.

I would in this letter improve the little observation I have made on the vice of drunkeness, the better to reclaim the good fellows who usually pay the devotions of the evening to Bacchus.

I doubt not but moderate drinking has been improved for the diffusion of knowledge among the ingenious part of mankind, who want the talent of a ready utterance, in order to discover the conceptions of their minds in an entertaining and intelligible manner. 'Tis true, drinking does not improve our faculties, but it enables us to use them; and therefore I conclude, that much study and experience, and a little liquor, are of absolute necessity for some tempers, in order to make them accomplished orators. Dic. Ponder discovers an excellent judgment when he is inspired with a glass or two of Claret, but he passes for a fool among those of small observation, who never saw him the better for drink. And here it will not be improper to observe, that the moderate use of liquor, and a well placed and well regulated anger, often produce this same effect; and some who cannot ordinarily talk but in broken sentences and false grammar, do in the heat of passion express themselves with as much eloquence as warmth. Hence it is that my own sex are generally the most eloquent, because the most passionate. 'It has been said in the praise of some men' (says an ingenious author), 'that they could talk whole hours together upon anything; but it must be owned to the honour of the other sex, that there are many among them who can talk whole hours together upon nothing. I have known a woman branch out into a long extempore dissertation on the edging of a petticoat, and chide her servant for breaking a china cup, in all the figures of rhetorick.'

But after all it must be considered, that no pleasure can give satisfaction or prove advantageous to a reasonable mind, which is not attended with the restraints of reason. Enjoyment is not to be found by excess in any sensual gratification; but on the contrary, the immoderate cravings of the voluptuary are always succeeded with loathing and a palled apetite. What pleasure can the drunkard have in the reflection, that, while in his cups, he retained only the shape of a man, and acted the part of a beast; or that from reasonable discourse a few minutes before, he descended to impertinence and nonsense?

I cannot pretend to account for the different effects of liquor on persons of different dispositions, who are guilty of excess in the use of it. 'Tis strange to see men of a regular conversation become rakish and profane when intoxicated with drink, and yet more surprising to observe, that some who appear to be the most profligate wretches when sober, become mighty religious in their cups, and will then, and at no other time address their Maker, but when they are destitute of reason, and actually affronting him. Some shrink in the wetting, and others swell to such an unusual bulk in their imaginations, that they can in an instant understand all arts and sciences, by the liberal education of a little vivyfying punch, or a sufficient quantity of other exhilerating liquor.

And as the effects of liquor are various, so are the characters given to its devourers. It argues some shame in the drunkards themselves, in that they have invented numberless words and phrases to cover their folly, whose proper significations are harmless, or have no signification at all. They are seldom known to be drunk, though they are very often boozey, cogey, tipsey, foxed, merry, mellow, fuddled, groatable, confoundedly cut, see two moons, are among the Philistines, in a very good humour, see the sun, or, the sun has shone upon them; they clip the King's English, are almost froze, feavourish, in their altitudes, pretty well entered, etc. In short, every day produces some new word or phrase which might be added to the vocabulary of the tiplers: But I have chose to mention these few, because if at any time a man of sobriety and temperance happens to cut himself confoundedly, or is almost froze, or feavourish, or accidentally sees the sun, etc. he may escape the imputation of being drunk, when his misfortune comes to be related.

I am SIR, Your Humble Servant,

[And Ben’s related experience in England]

At my first admission into this printing house, I took to working at press, imagining I felt a want of the bodily exercise I had been used to in America, where presswork is mixed with composing, I drank only water; the other workmen, near fifty in number, were great guzzlers of beer. On occasion I carried up and downstairs a large form of types in each hand, when others carried but one in both hands. They wondered to see from this and several instances that the water-American as they called me was stronger than themselves who drank strong beer. We had an alehouse boy who attended always in the house to supply the workmen. My companion at the press, drank every day a pint before breakfast, a pint at breakfast with his bread and cheese; a pint between breakfast and dinner; a pint at dinner; a pint in the afternoon about six o'clock, and another when he had done his day's work. I thought it a detestable custom. But it was necessary, he supposed, to drink strong beer that he might be strong to labour. I endeavoured to convince him that the bodily strength afforded by beer could only be in proportion to the grain or flour of the barley dissolved in the water of which it was made; that there was more flour in a pennyworth of bread, and therefore if he would eat that with a pint of water, it would give him more strength than a quart of beer. He drank on however, and had 4 or 5 shillings to pay out of his wages every Saturday night for that muddling liquor; an expence I was free from. And thus these poor devils keep themselves always under.

Watts after some weeks desiring to have me in the composing room, I left the pressmen. A new Bienvenu or sum for drink; being 5 shillings, was demanded of me by the compositors. I thought it an imposition, as I had paid below. The master thought so too, and forbade my paying it. I stood out two or three weeks, was accordingly considered as an excommunicate, and had so many little pieces of private mischief done me, by mixing my sorts, transposing my pages, breaking my matter, etc. etc. and if I were ever so little out of the room, and all ascribed to the Chapel ghost, which they said ever haunted those not regularly admitted, that notwithstanding the master's protection, I found myself obliged to comply and pay the money; convinced of the folly of being on ill terms with those one is to live with continually. I was now on a fair footing with them, and soon acquired considerable influence. I proposed some reasonable alterations in their Chapel Laws, and carried them against all opposition. From my example a great part of them, left their muddling breakfast of beer and bread and cheese, finding they could with me be supplied from a neighbouring house with a large porringer of hot water-gruel, sprinkled with pepper, crumbed with bread, and a bit of butter in it, for the price of a pint of beer, viz., 3 halfpence. This was a more comfortable as well as cheaper breakfast, and kept their heads clearer. Those who continued vetting with beer all day, were often, by not paying, out of credit at the alehouse, and used to make interest with me to get beer, their light, as they phrased it, being out. I watched the pay table on Saturday night, and collected what I stood engaged for them, having to pay sometimes near 30 shillings a week on their accounts.


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