(Painting: Victory Ball by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris via Fraunces Tavern)
In The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition, historian W. J. Rorabaugh asserted that early Americans routinely consumed alcohol at rates that would put college freshmen to shame. One of my college history professors once epxlained to me that this happened in part because although it was easy to grow grain in America, it was very difficult to transport it. The nation's road network was terrible--at least compared to western Europe. Consequently, the cheapest way to transport grain was to reduce its weight by distilling it into liquor.
Drinking a lot was an early American tradition. At Reason, Stanton Peele describes one party at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia:
Indeed, we still have available the bar tab from a 1787 farewell party in Philadelphia for George Washington just days before the framers signed off on the Constitution. According to the bill preserved from the evening, the 55 attendees drank 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, eight of whiskey, 22 of porter, eight of hard cider, 12 of beer, and seven bowls of alcoholic punch.
That's more than two bottles of fruit of the vine, plus a number of shots and a lot of punch and beer, for every delegate. That seems humanly impossible to modern Americans. But, you see, across the country during the Colonial era, the average American consumed many times as much beverage alcohol as contemporary Americans do. Getting drunk—but not losing control—was simply socially accepted.
-via Jim Treacher