Alcohol can be a tricky experience. Drink enough and it can make almost any event more fun and memorable. Drink too much and it does the opposite – you forget everything and the bits you do remember, you probably wish you didn’t.
But this doesn’t apply only to bachelor parties and New Year’s celebrations. In fact, we’re going to take a look at ten historical events where alcohol definitely played a crucial role in the outcome.
10. The Wedding of George IV
It would be fair to say that when King George III of England announced the engagement of his son and heir, George IV, to Caroline of Brunswick in 1794, the junior George wasn’t a fan of the arrangement. For starters, he was already technically married to Maria Fitzherbert, although their marriage was invalid under English law. Plus, he preferred a carefree life filled with wine, women, and gambling, but eventually, he wasn’t left with much of a choice. George IV had racked up so many debts thanks to his excessive spending and neither his father nor Parliament would bail him out unless he found a suitable Protestant wife and sired an heir.
Enter Caroline of Brunswick. She had the perfect pedigree, but not much else going for her. Allegedly, the first words George uttered when he laid eyes on his bride-to-be were: “Harris, I am not well; pray get me a glass of brandy.”
And that glass of brandy was followed by another one…and then another one…and then, well, you get the idea. George could hardly stand to be in her presence sober, and when it finally came time to tie the knot, on April 8, 1795, the prince regent was so drunk that he had to be carried up the aisle. He slurred his way through the vows and even started crying at one point. The ceremony was followed by what we assume was an incredibly awkward reception and then, finally, the wedding night, where George failed to perform his “royal duty” because he passed out in the fire grate.
9. The Eggnog Riot
West Point has a long and varied history that goes back all the way to the birth of America. Situated in a strategic position on the Hudson River, it was a valuable military post during the Revolutionary War and gained infamy when Benedict Arnold tried to turn it over to the British. Then, in 1802, it became the first military academy in the country.
In 1817, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer became the academy’s superintendent and developed the curriculum which is still partly used today. After a few years in charge, Thayer decided that discipline at West Point was on a downward slope, mainly due to drinking. Alcohol was already prohibited but, of course, everyone still got drunk and the faculty generally looked the other way unless the offense was particularly egregious. But in 1826, Thayer put his foot down and said absolutely no alcohol, not even for that year’s Christmas party. Unsurprisingly, the cadets ignored him and smuggled a few gallons of whiskey into campus a few days prior. Then, on Christmas Eve, they got wasted on eggnog.
The rowdiness started with some loud singing. Not too bad at first, but things turned serious when two of the academy captains, Ethan Hitchcock and William Thornton, tried to end the party. Hitchcock literally read the Riot Act to a group of cadets, but instead of dispersing, they armed themselves with sticks, rocks, and swords, looking for a fight. One of them even fired a shot at the captain when he tried to open their door. The captains called for their superiors when they realized that the nog hit the fan, and the drunken cadets took advantage of the opportunity by completely trashing the barracks in order to barricade the doors and windows.
The following day, everyone was hungover, wondering what they had done the night before. Ninety cadets had taken part in the riot, including one Jefferson Davis, future President of the Confederacy. Ultimately, though, only 19 were court-martialed, plus the soldier who allowed them to smuggle the booze on campus. Eleven were expelled.
8. The Field of the Cloth of Gold
In June 1520, King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France held a two-week-long summit at Balinghem, near Calais, in order to strengthen the bond between the two nations. Both kings were keen to show off their wealth and opulence in front of the other one, which is why the event became known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold.
There were huge feasts every day. The food was plentiful, the wine was unceasing, and the music was raucous. There was dancing, there was theater, and there was even a dragon kite made especially for the occasion, that featured both royal symbols entwined with one another.
And, of course, there were lots of games to keep the people entertained. Jousting was the most popular spectacle, but wrestling was also a welcomed sight, especially when the weather turned sour. Then, one day, after a few glasses of wine, Henry did the unthinkable – he broke protocol and challenged King Francis to a wrestling match, threatening to lay the smackdown on his candy ass. Not wanting to look like a jabroni, Francis accepted the challenge and met Henry inside the squared circle for a literal royal rumble.
Both kings were young lions, in their mid-to-late 20s, but on this occasion, Francis proved to be the cream of the crop, easily going over his English counterpart. Henry, however, was gracious in defeat and suggested an archery contest for a rematch, where he emerged triumphant.
7. Andrew Jackson’s Inauguration
On March 4, 1829, Andrew Jackson was inaugurated as the seventh President of the United States. After the swearing-in ceremony in front of the Capitol Building, Jackson invited the crowd of roughly 21,000 on-lookers to join him at the White House for an open house reception.
Unfortunately for him, most of the crowd took him up on the offer. It wasn’t long before the White House was filled to the brim with rich and poor, upper and working class, who wanted to congratulate the new president. The raucousness wasn’t helped by the addition of alcohol and before you knew it, the furniture was knocked over, dishes and glasses were broken on the floor, and muddy footprints were everywhere. One attendee, Margaret Smith, described the scene:
“Ladies fainted, men were seen with bloody noses and such a scene of confusion took place as is impossible to describe,—those who got in could not get out by the door again, but had to scramble out of windows.”
President Jackson himself, ultimately, made his escape through a window and sought refuge at a nearby hotel. Eventually, Jackson’s steward had the bright idea of installing large tubs filled with whiskey punch on the White House lawn, and that managed to lure out most of the crowd, like moths to the flame, but the carpets smelled of cheese and booze for months after.
6. The Signing of the Constitution
In September 1787, 55 delegates from all the American states except Rhode Island attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The gathering culminated with the signing of the United States Constitution on September 17, although only 39 delegates agreed to sign the document. Everyone knew it was a landmark moment, so the delegates celebrated it the best way they knew how – by getting absolutely hammered.
Two days before the signing, all 55 delegates gathered at a local tavern and partied like the British were getting ready to invade again. Curiously enough, the bill for that historic evening was preserved, so here is what the Framers of the Constitution drank between them: 54 bottles of Madeira wine, 60 bottles of claret, eight bottles of whiskey, 42 assorted bottles of porter, beer, and hard cider, and seven bowls of alcoholic punch.
The cost for a party that went down in the history books – £90, which is over $20,000 today. This included a two percent breakage fee from the innkeeper since it seemed that some of the delegates got a little too rowdy with his furniture.
5. Washington’s Entry into Politics
Staying with the Founding Fathers, we’re going to focus on the foundingest (not a real word) father of all – George Washington – and how alcohol helped his entry into politics. By the time he was in his mid-20s, Washington was already a distinguished military man thanks to his role in the French and Indian War, so a political position was the next natural step for him.
In 1755, the 24-year-old Washington ran for a seat in Virginia’s House of Burgesses, which was the colony’s elected representative body. But the future father of the country lost his first campaign, garnering only 40 votes while his opponent secured 271. How so? His opponent got his voters wasted on beer, wine, whiskey, and rum punch.
Even so, lessons were learned, so three years later, Washington ran again for the same office and, this time, he didn’t skimp out on the booze. His electoral office had 144 gallons of rum, beer, and hard cider ready and waiting for the thirsty voter willing to cast his vote for George Washington. The result – Washington won handily with 331 votes and launched his career in politics.
4. The October Revolution
The October Revolution was one of the most crucial episodes in the modern history of Russia, which allowed the Bolsheviks led by Lenin to seize power and, eventually, form the Soviet Union. It all started on November 7, 1917 (or October 25 going by the old calendar) in Petrograd, today known as Saint Petersburg, when the Bolshevik Red Guards captured the Winter Palace. Of course, not everyone was on their side. The Bolsheviks had a civil war ahead of them and needed to prepare. There was just one problem, though – when they took over the Winter Palace, they also seized the largest private wine collection in the world.
Lenin couldn’t just deny access to the people. His whole shtick was that the riches of the aristocracy actually belonged to the laboring masses. So what followed was the grandaddy of all keggers, as the people of Petrograd got absolutely smashed on the czar’s private stash. Predictably, this led to drunken mobs, lootings, and street violence, but Lenin hoped that they would get it out of their system after a few days.
They did not. As Bolshevik playwright Anatoly Lunacharsky put it: “The whole of Petrograd is drunk.” Nothing the Bolsheviks did could stop the thirsty masses. They erected walls around the cellar, but they were broken down. They placed guards, but they just started selling the booze. They poured the wine into the streets, and the crowds drank it from the gutter. The city’s jail cells were all filled with drunken looters. There was only one solution. Martial law was imposed and the Bolsheviks had to wait for weeks until the booze finally ran out.
3. Lincoln’s Assassination
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln is already an infamous moment in history, so we’re not going to dwell on it too much. We’re just going to look at the role that alcohol played in the proceedings.
First up is John Wilkes Booth, who initially went to the saloon near Ford’s Theater and had a couple of drinks to strengthen his resolve. His confederate, George Atzerodt, who had been tasked with killing Vice President Andrew Johnson, did the same thing, except that the alcohol had the opposite effect on him. Even though the vice president was sitting all alone in his hotel room, Atzerodt couldn’t bring himself to do it, so he just spent the night drunkenly roaming the city.
Last, but not least, we have Officer John Frederick Parker, the Washington cop who had been assigned to protect the president. If he had been present, could he have stopped Booth from killing Lincoln and changed the course of history? We will never know because during intermission Parker decided to leave the president and go to the Star Saloon next door to have a couple of drinks with Lincoln’s footman and carriage driver.
2. The Burning of Persepolis
During the mid-4th century BC, Alexander the Great invaded the Achaemenid Empire and, in 330 BC, he captured the Persian capital of Persepolis. When he entered the city, Persepolis was one of the grandest metropolises that the ancient world had ever known. When he left, it was nothing but smoldering ruins. The burning of Persepolis was one of Alexander’s most infamous acts, but the question remains – did he do it on a drunken dare?
Almost all the ancient historians agreed that Alexander and his men were drunk when they burned the place down. They had celebrated their victory by looting, feasting, and, of course, drinking the night away. But historian Diodorus Siculus points the finger at a woman named Thais, an Athenian who got close to the drunken Alexander and kept prodding him throughout the festivities, telling him what an achievement it would be for him to destroy the pride of the Persians. Which was the ancient equivalent of a “double-dog dare” so, obviously, Alexander was left with no choice.
Only one Roman historian named Arrian claimed that Alexander was sober when he burned Persepolis and that he did it simply as revenge for what the Persians did to Athens during the Greco-Persian Wars a hundred years earlier.
1. The Rise of Agriculture
Is beer responsible for civilization as we know it? According to some archaeologists, the answer is maybe. We can all agree that the agricultural revolution was a key element in the development of the earliest human societies. Instead of going out to hunt and gather, people decided to grow stuff and then make other stuff with it. The places where agriculture thrived soon evolved into the first villages and boom! Another ancient civilization is born.
Tradition tells us that early humans domesticated grain for bread, but maybe they used it for beer first. This is known as the beer-before-bread hypothesis and, as you can tell from the name, it is not a proven theory yet, it’s just an idea. It has been around for over 60 years and it is gaining more and more acceptance.
The intoxicating effect of alcohol would have given it an important ceremonial role. At the moment, the Natufian culture from the Levant holds the record for the oldest man-made alcohol thanks to some 13,000-year-old stone mortars that were used to brew beer, and they, too, were believed to drink the booze during ritual feasts to venerate the dead. This could suggest why ancient cultures like the Natufians would prize beer over