Undergraduate Honors Thesis Projects

Date of Award

Spring 3-2021

Document Type

Honors Paper

Degree Name



History & Political Science


Dr. Louis Rose

First Committee Member

Dr. James Owen

Second Committee Member

Dr. Hal Lescinsky


Alcoholism, Early America, John Adams, Habitual Drunkenness, Virtue

Subject Categories

Social History | United States History


This thesis examines how the American perception of drunkenness changed in accordance with transformations in the tenants of virtue in the 18th and 19th centuries. As the definition and influence of virtue became more interpretive and circumstantial, so did attitudes towards habitual drunkenness. Before the American Revolution, the overconsumption of alcohol was condemned, as it was a clear deviation from classic conceptions of civic and religious virtue. After the Revolution, an individualized interpretation of virtue became popular and alcohol consumption rose dramatically. In the early 19th century, increasing self-interest meant less condemnation directed at the habitual drunkard. At the same time, as Americans began to see habitual drunkenness less as a failure of virtue, they began to interpret it more as the result of other underlying causes. Though temperance sentiment had been present throughout this timeframe, it would not come to significant popularity until the end of the Civil War. Still, upon the eve of Prohibition, Americans had developed a greater sympathy towards the drunkard.

Building on the work of Harry Levine, my thesis charts the emergence of a sympathetic and lenient attitude towards drunkenness from the American Revolution through the Civil War. By focusing on the experiences of the Adams-Smith family across four generations, it provides insight into how changing conceptions of virtue helped bring about this societal shift.