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In another city, in another time: rhetoric and the creation of a drug scare in eighteenth-century London.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This paper was presented at the International Congress on the Social History of Alcohol, London, Ontario, May 13-15, 1993. Its preparation was supported in part by a National Alcohol Research Training Center Grant (T32 AA07240-14) from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to the Alcohol Research Group and the Prevention Research Center in Berkeley, California. Special thanks go to Laura Schmidt of the Alcohol Research Group, whose advice was as patient as it was insightful.

Anyone who has ever conducted a bibliographic survey of what has been written about the social history of alcohol knows that work in the field consists almost entirely of monographs and articles on two topics in two centuries. The determined researcher will thus find a vast number of monographs and articles on the various temperance movements of the 19th century, matched by an equally impressive literature on the events leading up to the imposition of Prohibition in the United States in 1920 and to its ultimate repeal in 1933. What the researcher will not find is a comparably rich literature on the social history of alcohol in the early modem period, a gap that has all too often led to the mistaken impression that the discourse of temperance was more singular than it really was, that addiction is necessarily a modem concept,(1) and that the many drug scares of our own century are somehow modem by their very nature.

One of the most neglected episodes in the social history of alcohol in the early modem period is in fact a drug scare set in the slums of a nation's capital. And that drug scare has some surprisingly modem parallels. For 31 years, from 1720 to 1751, the residents of London's slums are supposed to have drunk unprecedented quantities of alcohol, mostly in the form of cheap gin. And then they stopped. But just how much of a historical backwater was the so-called "gin epidemic" Was it, as most historians would have us believe, merely an isolated frenzy, or does it in fact have a great deal to say, not only about the society in which it occurred but also about contemporary American society as it comes to terms with the so-called "crack epidemic"

It is the purpose of this paper to suggest that there are striking parallels between the rhetoric of these two drug scares, one historical, the other contemporary. A secondary purpose is to suggest what might happen when historians shift their gaze away from the last two centuries and turn instead to the social history of alcohol in the early modem period. There they will find a rich primary literature whose importance has been overlooked and whose message has all too often been misunderstood.

The first task is to review what historians have and have not written about the gin mania of Hanoverian England, and to see how they have used the primary sources at their disposal. The next task is to outline some of the ways in which rhetoric from a past drug scare sheds light on how we see our own crack epidemic, concluding in a discussion of how women and children have been cast as the effective protagonists of both crises.

The sources

One notable aspect of the early-18th-century alcohol discourse is that contemporaries fortunate enough to have had the time and resources to publish tracts and pamphlets were apt to overreact to any sign of disrespect or disinhibition on the part of "the common sort of people." Given the extreme inequalities in income and opportunity so characteristic of preindustrial England, it was altogether too easy for reformers to blame gin for a whole host of social ills whose causes were considerably more complex than most contemporaries were prepared to acknowledge. Take Henry Fielding's (1707-1754) claim that gin emboldened London's populace to commit every possible "wicked and desperate Enterprize."(2) While a more critical inventory of indictments would suggest that crimes in London and its immediate suburbs were indeed on the rise in the first two decades of the gin epidemic, it is by no means clear that gin contributed significantly to that rise. After all, the metropolis appears to have attracted more than its fair share of thieves and vagrants simply because it was wealthier than towns and villages in the hinterland. Then, too, as J.M. Beattie has shown, indictments dropped when men were away at war and rose again just as soon as they were demobilized.(3) Nor is it clear that the gin epidemic accounted for the seeming preponderance of deaths over births in London during the first half of the 18th century as claimed by reformers such as Henry Fielding, Thomas Wilson (1703-1782), and Josiah Tucker (1712-1799). The fact is that a large number of the nation's major cities had similarly reported more deaths than births in the period between 1540 and 1700,(4) as had London in the 17th century,(5) all of which suggests that the demographic crisis of 18th-century London was neither unique nor unprecedented.

The essential problem with most scholarship about the gin epidemic is that it continues to reflect the agenda and biases of a past generation of reformers. The observation is especially true of M. Dorothy George, whose monumental and highly readable London Life in the 18th Century was first published in 1925 and reissued in 1960. Following in the tradition of reformers such as Wilson, Jekyll, and Fielding, George singled out gin when accounting for London's appallingly high infant mortality rates.(6) It iS regrettable that she largely failed to consider other factors that might also have accounted for why London's infant mortality rates were seemingly so high in the first half of the 18th century and why they seem to have dropped just as the city started to improve its waterworks and as parents supplemented their infants' diets with cow's milk.(7) Another point has to do with George's use of the parish registers. If, as Razzell argues, parish clerks were more apt to record deaths than births, then George's vital statistics were inaccurate all along.(8) Be that as it may, most historians have more or less taken George's line on the gin epidemic, which is to say that the hard work of separating reports from reality has hardly begun.

A second problem with the secondary literature is that it is extremely sparse. A bibliographic search uncovered only four published articles specifically about the gin epidemic, starting with Rude's "`Mother Gin' and the London Riots of 1736," which appeared in 1959 in The Guildhall Miscellany.9 A few years later, in 1966, T. G. Coffey's "Beer Street: Gin Lane" appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol.(10) Unfortunately, Coffey relied almost entirely on M. Dorothy George's account of the epidemic; his article did not represent a new contribution to the field. A strictly popular article appearing a few years ago in History Today(11) should also be mentioned.

Only one historian, Peter Clark, at the University of Leicester, has taken a critical look at how contemporary reformers portrayed the epidemic. He alone has raised questions that underscore the need for an extended and more discerning analysis of the primary sources, and underscore, too, just how little is really known about the origins, diffusion, and severity of the gin epidemic. It is Clark's contention that the epidemic was by no means a strictly lower-class and metropolitan phenomenon; nor does he believe that the mania for gin was as severe as its many outspoken opponents alleged.(12-13)

Similarities between the two drug scares

It was to be expected that there would be an enormous gap between rhetoric and fact in the primary sources available to us. The disappointment is that most historians have tended to be less than critical in their use of those sources, and that the profession has evinced remarkably little interest in what is in fact a very rich rhetorical literature consisting of newspapers, magazines, tracts and pamphlets, and unauthorized transcriptions of parliamentary debates. A critical reading of the documents offers the possibility of recreating the distorting prism through which England's men of property saw gin and the people who drank it. Our task is to identify exactly what the members of one elite found so troubling about the habits of the people they governed, and in the process to suggest a model for predicting when concerns over substance abuse might coalesce to form a drug scare.

Perhaps the most striking similarity between the two epidemics lies in their locus, the one being concentrated in American inner cities, the other in the slums of London and Westminster and quite possibly also in provincial centers such as Bristol and Manchester. Interestingly, relatively few documents from the 18th century mention comparably severe problems with gin elsewhere in the nation, whether in the countryside or in the provincial centers, while the mere suggestion that the contagion might spread beyond the confines of the capital caused considerable alarm when the House of Lords was asked to give its assent to the Gin Act of 1743.(14,15)

But complaints about the epidemic's essentially urban locus do not dominate the literature. Rather, we find seven recurrent complaints: 1. The downward mobility of a psychotropic substance once used almost exclusively by members of the middle and upper classes. 2. Changes in distribution, in favor of small-scale and lower-class dealers, many of them marginal to criminal in status. 3. New loci of distribution, inclusive of comers and alleys. 4. New loci for consumption, inclusive of cellars, garrets, and other marginal sites. 5. Disinhibition and heightened criminality among lower-class users. 6. Sumptuary excesses. 7. Substance abuse among women of childbearing age. Let us now consider these seven complaints individually.

1. The downward mobility of a psychotropic substance

A few years ago, Reinarman and Levine noted that the downward mobility of a psychotropic substance can play a crucial role in rousing public opinion against a drug's lower-class users.(16) Cocaine, for example, is a fairly expensive drug associated primarily with members of the middle and upper classes. Crack cocaine, by contrast, is a fairly inexpensive cocaine derivative and is widely regarded as being the more dangerous of the two, in large part because its users overwhelmingly belong to the urban underclass. In the case of the gin epidemic, we are also confronted by the downward mobility of a psychotropic substance once consumed almost exclusively by members of the middle and upper classes. In the words of Daniel Defoe (c. 1659-1731), "like . . . Champaign and Burgundy," gin was at first "a Drink for Generals, and for Officers," and was only later "proportioned to the Purse, as well as the Palate of the common Soldiers."(17) Those same soldiers probably then introduced it to the general population.(18)

By 1720 or so, gin had become an essentially lower-class beverage, thanks in large part to a succession of parliamentary acts favoring native distillers at the expense of brewers and the keepers of alehouses. Of considerable importance, too, was the fact that grain prices were relatively low during most of the period in question, in addition to which distillers appear to have made substantial use of "damaged" grain otherwise unfit for human consumption. "`Tis very plain," wrote Adam Holden in 1736, "that the richer and better Part of the Society never taste these Liquors, but from mere Curiosity."(19) Sir William Pultney (1684-1764) is quoted as saying that "very few of the better Sort of People had ever been found to commit frequent Debauches in such Liquors,"(20) "such Liquors" being gin and the cheap variants thereof. A year later, in 1737, "Samuel, the Wandering Jew" complained that "The excessive Use of Home-made Spirits among Persons of inferior Rank was the only Evil complained of, the only Evil that stood in need of a Remedy."(21) A few documents, it is true, mention gin-drinking among people of the "better sort," but these are comparatively rare.

2. Changes in distribution

Concurrent with the downward mobility in the consumption of gin was a downward mobility in its distribution in favor of retailers who were very often small-scale and lower class and not infrequently marginal to criminal in status. This particular factor would appear to be crucial, which is to say that public alarm over a drug epidemic increases markedly when both the users and the distributors of a given psychotropic substance are lower class. It would also appear to increase significantly when large numbers of women not only consume a given drug, but retail it as well. When compared with the percentage of women employed in London's victualling trade, the percentage of women who retailed gin is considerably higher, in part because women appear to have been progressively excluded from the former trade(13) and in part, too, because a high percentage of the city's working women were employed in occupations that were intermittent or seasonal,(22) among them vending small quantities of gin on the streets or from boats on the Thames. And in all probability many people chose to hawk spirits on a small-scale basis because they could do so without incurring the many expenses associated with licensing and maintaining a fixed establishment.

3. New loci of distribution

According to The Report of his Majesty's Justices of the Peace, at Hick's Hall, the epidemic was so severe in some parishes that every sixth house was a front for retailing gin and other spirits; this figure did not include the "many who sell privately in Garrets, Cellars, back Rooms, and other Places not publickly exposed to View . . . "(23) Later that same year, in 1736, Pultney stated that "such Liquors were to be met with at every Comer."(20) In 1743, the Bishop of Oxford is quoted as saying that spirituous liquors were still being "sold in small obscure Shops, and at the Comers of the Streets."(24) And Lord Bathurst is supposed to have said that "One of the Circumstances which has contributed to the enormous Abuse of these Liquors has been the Practice of retailing them in obscure Places by Persons without Character and without Money; who therefore feared neither Penalties nor Infamy, and offended against Law and Decency with equal Security."(24)

4. New loci for consumption

A related downward shift occurred in the sites where many customers drank gin. Many sites were unlicensed and thus of necessity hidden from public scrutiny, typically in garrets or cellars. Perhaps the best-known description of these establishments comes from the novelist Tobias Smollett (1721-1771), according to whom

... the retailers of this poisonous compound provided cellars and places strewed with straw, to which they conveyed those wretches who were overwhelmed with intoxication. In these dismal caverns they lay until they recovered some use of their faculties, and then they had recourse to the same mischievous potion; thus consuming their health, and ruining their families, in hideous receptacles of the most filthy vice, resounding with riot, execration, and blasphemy."

5. Disinhibition and heightened criminality

At no time did reformers seek to rid their society of alcohol. And with only a few exceptions, they condoned fairly heavy drinking among the middle and upper classes, whether in the form of brandy, rum, or "punch." The "Constant and Excessive use of such Spirits amongst the People of Inferior Rank was the only Nusance [sic] complained of,"(26) wrote the anonymous author of a pamphlet distributed in 1736, "such Spirits" being gin and its many cheap variants. And here we might also quote Pultney at some length:

The only Complaint now before us . . . is against the constant and excessive Use of Spirituous Liquors among Persons of inferior Rank: There is no Complaint against the Liquors themselves, nor was it ever said that a moderate Use of any sort of such Liquors was harmful; nay, it will be granted, I believe, that the moderate Use of them is upon many Occasion [sic] convenient, if not necessary . . .(20)

What reformers did not condone was the downward mobility of spirits in the form of gin, in large part because the nation's elite associated the beverage with new and dangerous forms of disinhibition among the capital's poorer population. "We know," the Bishop of Oxford is supposed to have told the House of Lords in 1743, that strong liquors "produce in almost every one a high Opinion of his own Merit; that they blow the latent Sparks of Pride into Flame, and, therefore, destroy all voluntary Submission, they put an End to Subordination, and raise every Man to an Equality with his Master, or his Governour."(27) According to Josiah Tucker, "the Person intoxicated with Gin, is mad and furious, without Sense or Duty, Fear, or Shame."(28)

But what was particularly troubling to contemporaries was the putative link between gin and crime, consistent with the general perception that crime was on the rise not only in London but in the nation at large.(3) As early as 1729 the grand jury for Middlesex complained that the men and women who frequented the gin-shops became "hardened enough to attempt the greatest Villainies, such as were formerly scarce known to our Nation . . ."(29) For his part, Thomas Wilson, author of Distilled Spirituous Liquors the Bane of the Nation, was convinced that "Gin and Gaming" were in large part responsible for the rising number of robberies on the streets of London.(30) Sir Joseph Jekyll, already very old by the time he sponsored the Gin Act of 1736, wrote that when "these People" had spent all their money on gin, they would then plot "how to come at more Cash," toward which end they robbed some victims and murdered others, "the Fear of a House of Correction, Imprisonment, or Danger of the Gallows" making "little Impression upon them, if any at all."(31) According to Sir John Gonson, the "Houses and Shops" where gin was sold and drunk were in fact "the Receptacles of Thieves and Robbers, and often the Original of them too: For when a Wretch has spent and wasted that, which should support himself, and his Family, it is here, that they Associate and turn House-Breakers, and Street-Robbers, and so, by quick Progressions, at last make an Exit at the Gallows."(32) Then there is Fielding's own Enquiry into the Causes of the

Late Increase of Robbers. "The intoxicating Draught," he wrote in reference to "the poorer Sort," "disqualifies them from using any honest Means to acquire it, at the same time that it removes all Sense of Fear and Shame, and emboldens them to commit every wicked and desperate Enterprize."(2)

Crime may or may not have been on the increase--there are no reliable figures one way or the other. If it was, then it almost certainly continued its upward spiral even after the 1760s,(33) well past the official end of the epidemic in 1751. Be that as it may, by linking gin to crime, reformers were doubtless able to increase their following among the propertied classes. And the implication that a virtual prohibition on gin would somehow lower crime in the capital had obvious appeal in a society whose constabulary was as minuscule as it was woefully deficient. It was and remains enormously comforting to believe that complex and seemingly intractable social problems are in fact so simple in their causes as to be rooted in a single substance.

6. Sumptuary excesses

The reformers evinced remarkably little interest in the welfare and salvation of individual drunkards. Nor can their program be described as epidemiological in even the most generous sense of the word. On the contrary, it was extraordinarily narrow, motivated not by concerns over public health but by a desire to maintain social control. There was a marked indifference to controlling heavy drinking among the "better sort." To quote from Distilled Spirituous Liquors the Bane of the Nation, "At least put these cursed Spirits out of the Reach of the Lower Kind of People: The Rich and Great we must leave to their own Reason, and to the Advice of an Honest and Skilful Physician . . ."(30) A Familiar Epistle in Behalf of the British Distillery contains much the same message, this time from the perspective of the dram-drinkers themselves:

Your well fed squires and wealthy grandees, Pamper'd and proud with plenty and ease; Who night waste in debauch and riot, And sleep till dinner time at quiet; But little dream, of what the poor In need of stand, and what they endure. No wonder, if such swear and damn, At mention of a low-pric'd dram.(34)

Indeed, one of the more curious facts about the gin epidemic was the extent to which most reformers were willing to exclude rum from their attacks on spirits, if only because the former was still a gentleman's beverage. "I am sure there was never any Complaint against the constant and excessive Use of that Liquor among Persons of inferior Rank," Pultney is supposed to have claimed in 1736, "therefore I can see no reason for putting a Stop to the Retail of that Liquor . . ."(20) Jekyll, too, exempted rum from his withering attacks on spirits," as did Holden(19) and a very large number of the MPs and Lords who supported the draconian Gin Act of 1736.

It is also interesting that the reformers made no attempts to curtail lower-class access to beer, cider, and ale. On the contrary, they actively encouraged working men and women to abandon cheap spirits in favor of beverages lower in alcohol. Wilson envisioned a dreadful future in which laborers would "forget to brew, and good Old English Beer and Ale be out of Fashion in a Country Farmer's House."(30) Tucker wrote that "laboring People" who drank beer and ale in moderation were "enabled and supported to Work the better."(28) And while critical of the effects of spirits on the body, the physician Thomas Short recommended cider as "a very good Drink for hard Labourers, or such as use much Exercise," adding that malt liquors, too, were "of great Advantage to the hard Labourer" when taken in moderation.(35) It is perhaps not surprising that brewers, already badly hurt by the rising popularity of nonalcoholic beverages such as tea and coffee, supported the reformers in hopes of reclaiming at least some of their lost market, nor is it surprising that it was the brewers who would be the direct beneficiaries of the Gin Act of 1751.(36)

For their part, the distillers and their allies in the Opposition delighted in denouncing the double standard inherent in what amounted to a selective prohibition, as if, to quote from one of their pamphlets, "a Man may be virtuously drunk with" some liquors and not with others.(37) Complaints of this nature were invariably cast along class lines, although it is improbable that the men who paid to have them published and distributed were genuinely sympathetic to members of the lower classes. Certainly they valued the latter as consumers of gin, and they were perfectly capable of organizing mobs when it suited their purposes,(9) but it would be wholly incautious to assume that they really spoke for the groups most subject to the various prohibitions on retailing spirituous liquors. There are, for example, the letters allegedly penned by "a man of Kent." He claimed to be a simple farmer; if so, he was remarkably well informed about recent events in London. He was also passably literate, which must have astonished the neighbouring Farmers" to whom he refers in one of his letters. In any event, his literary efforts were ostensibly on their behalf and included various denunciations of class bias on the part of the reformers.(38)

On the subject of social control, it is interesting to note how many of the advocates of a virtual prohibition on gin opposed any form of consumerism on the part of the masses. The reason was simple enough, for as Joyce Appleby writes, "Dangerous leveling tendencies lurked behind the idea of personal improvement through imitative buying,"(39) be it new clothes, tea, or spirits in the form of cheap gin. Robert Drew preached a sermon in which he lamented that the "habit of drinking spirituous liquors is almost universal," while also noting that "Each man is desirous of appearing to be what he is not, by making a figure in life above himself, and mimicking his superiors in unnecessary expenses."(40) "Is it not notorious," asked Thomas Wilson, "that Luxury and Extravagance were never at a greater height than at present, amongst the laborious and even the meanest part of Mankind? Instead of being contented with Beer and Ale brewed at home of their own Malt, they must now have Tea and Spirits at six times the Expence . . ."(30) For his part, Jekyll took the poor to task for refusing to buy and eat "coarser Joynts of Meat," instead of which butchers now had "either to buy 'em, or give 'em to the Dogs."(31)

The paradox is that for all of the seeming modernity of the evidence presented by the reformers, they were in fact subscribing to economic theories that had first come under attack in the last decade of the 17th century-years before the outbreak of the epidemic in or around 1720. Far from looking forward, the reformers in fact looked back in time. There they saw what the mercantilists had once seen, an essentially static economy in which the rich purchased luxuries while the poor earned just enough to subsist, generating very little demand, whether social or economic.(41)

7. Substance abuse among women of childbearing age

Many of the sources are highly critical of heavy drinking on the part of women of childbearing age. They cite the potentially harmful effects of alcohol on fetal development, but for the most part they limit their generalizations to gin, consistent with the goal of selective prohibition. The physician Thomas Short criticized "Drammers," but he did not hesitate to recommend "Drink made of Wheat or pale Malt" to nursing women.(35)

Criticisms of maternal drinking date from the earliest years of the epidemic. As early as 1725, James Sedgwick, apothecary and author, was warning that the intemperance of the mother "may certainly be translated, and blended in the Fruits of the Womb . . . and make Impression and Signature on the Babe, which we daily are Eye-witnesses of . . ."(42) The following year, the College of Physicians petitioned Parliament to limit sales of cheap spirits, citing, among other reasons, the example of children born "weak, feeble, and distempered."(6,43) Six years later, in 1732, the author of a pamphlet critical of gin wrote that "it murders Infants in the Womb."(44) Wilson wrote that he knew of many examples of "Children coming into the World half burnt up, upon the Livers of some of which are found large schirrous Knots" in addition to "other terrible Symptoms."(30) That same year, in 1736, the anonymous author of an elegy on the death of "Madam Gineva" also warned pregnant women against drinking gin:

In pregnant Dames Gin cou'd Abortion cause, And supersede prolific Nature's Laws: Mothers cou'd make the genial Womb a Grave, And anxious Charge of Education save; Prevent with Prudence their convulsive Throes, While the scorch'd Embrio shun'd a World of Woes.(45)

In 1751, the editor of the London Magazine published "A Letter from a Gentleman in the Country to his Friend in Town" in which it was claimed that since the introduction of spirituous liquors the nation's population had in fact decreased, "the fruit of the womb blasted before it has seen the light."(46) That same year, Fielding envisioned a dreadful future for the infant "conceived in Gin, " poisoned first in the womb and then at the breast.(2)

A fairly large number of writings from the time of the epidemic are also critical of wetnurses and mothers who drank gin while nursing, consistent with the declining popularity of wetnursing and a heightened emphasis on maternal breastfeeding.(47) "How many," exclaimed Wilson, "have unhappily drunk this deadly Poison with their Nurse's Milk!" Fielding, as we have just seen, employed similar rhetoric in his own Enquiry. And for her part, Eliza Haywood (c. 1693-1756) asked employers to refrain from the custom of offering "a Nurse a Glass of somewhat good."(48)

Here we come up against a closely related image, the unfit mother who places her own interests over those of her child. Wilson recounts a story still "fresh in every body's Memory, of a Woman who murdered her own Child, threw it into a Ditch, and strip'd it of the Clothes given it that Day by a Charitable Person, to pawn for nine Penny-worth of Gin."(30) He also refers to other "barbarous Mothers" who silenced their charges with "detestable Spirits," an image versified in An Elegy on the Much Lamented Death of . . . Madam Gineva.

Gin's fiery Juice the milky Stream supprest, And kindly dry'd the Nurse's cumbrous Breast. The suckling Brat declines her shrivel'd Pap, The cordial Bev'rage sips, and takes a Nap. Hush'd with few Drops he holds his Infant Cries, And spares the maudlin Nurse her Lullabies.(45)

Equally unfit is the mother portrayed in a poem entitled "Strip-me Naked, or Royal Gin for ever." She is, in fact, the failed woman portrayed in Hogarth's "Gin Lane," who, it will be recalled, wears a tom skirt, exposing her leg to the attentions of a stray dog.

I must, I will have Gin!--that skillet take:--Pawn it:--no more I'll roast, or boil, or bake. This juice immortal will each want supply, Starve on, ye brats! so I but bung my eye. Starve? No!--this Gin ev'n mother's milk excels; Paints the pale cheeks, and hunger's darts repels. The skillet's pawn'd already.--Take this cap; Round my bare head I'll yon brown paper wrap. Ha! half my petticoat was torn away By dogs (I fancy) as I maudlin lay.(15,49)

What are we to make of this outpouring of concern over mothers who abused their children, whether by drinking while pregnant or by continuing to drink after their babies had been born? At first glance, the literature would seem to be based solely on sound medical principles. After all, no sensible person would advise a pregnant or nursing woman to consume massive quantities of gin. Nor would that same person suggest that parents or caregivers include gin in a young child's diet, or abandon a child altogether in favor of a drunken binge. And so there is very little reason to question the strictly medical premises of the literature.

There is, however, good reason to question the literature's underlying motives, starting with the fact that earlier generations had known about what is now labeled "fetal alcohol syndrome." William Turner (c. 1515-1568) attributed the recent rise in "the falling sicknesse" to the increased consumption of "Rhennishe Must" and "other sweete wines" on the part of "mens wiues [sic], nurses, and children."(50) Robert Burton (1577-1640) cited a succession of classical authors to the effect that "foolish, drunken, or hare-brained women, most part bring forth children like unto themselves . . ."(51) At about the same time, in 1619, Robert Harris complained that children were being "killed before they are borne, with distempered drinkes . . . "(52) Even so, while moralists such as Burton and Harris had sought to discourage drinking among women and children alike, and had even known about fetal alcohol syndrome, they made no serious attempt to adduce the health of the fetus as the primary reason why women of childbearing age should limit their consumption of alcohol.

With the gin epidemic, the underlying rationale shifted. Pundits and moralists still told women they should drink little or no alcohol, but now said they must do so not in their capacity as wives, but in their capacity as mothers and caregivers. The reasons for this shift in emphasis were twofold. First, advocates of a virtual prohibition on gin wanted to promote population growth, consistent with mercantilist theories first formulated in the 16th and 17th centuries. Second, the reformers belonged to a generation and class newly inclined to sentimentalize children, in the process of which they placed new burdens on mothers.

First, then, there is the reformers' fascination with population growth, on the basic assumption that "the Strength and Riches of a National Community consist in the Health and Numerousness of its Labourers," to quote Jekyll once more." For Defoe, "this accursed Liquor" was evil in large part because it "overstrains the Parts of Generation, and makes our common People incapable of getting such lusty Children as they us'd to do."(53) For Tucker, spirituous liquors were harmful because they supposedly prevented the people from adding to their Numbers," thereby subtracting from the wealth of the nation and the revenue of the government.(28) The Bishop of Worcester, far from attacking gin on religious or even on moral grounds, instead accused it of defrauding the nation "of the manifold advantages, all the riches and strength, that would arise from the multitudes of its lost subjects . . . "(46)

Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the reformers were motivated not so much by humanitarian principles as by the demographic imperatives of empire and industry. Their concerns very closely mirrored those of London's great mercantile philanthropists. Jonas Hanway (1712-1786), for example, had at first been a merchant in the Russia Company, after which he devoted his energies to campaigning and writing on behalf of the capital's infant poor. But Hanway was not a sentimental man. Like so many of his contemporaries, he was convinced that the nation was woefully underpopulated and thus lacking in the manpower with which to sustain its new empire.(54) A cynic might say that Hanway wanted to save the poor for only a few years, until they were old enough to die as sailors and soldiers in the nation's service or to ruin their health by working 12 or more hours a day. And a cynic, or perhaps just a skeptic, might level much the same charge against reformers who sought to preserve the health of the poor by placing gin beyond their reach. Where," asked Jekyll, "will you find Soldiers? How will the Culture of your Lands, the useful Manufacture and Merchandize of the Nation be carried on?"(31) The nation, warned Wilson, "will want strong and lusty Soldiers, the Merchant Sailors, and the Husbandman Labourers." What," asked Henry Fielding in 1751, "must become of the Infant who is conceived in Gin? Would they ever "become our future Sailors, and our future Grenadiers? . . . Doth not this polluted Source, instead of producing Servants for the Husbandman, or Artificer; instead of providing Recruits for the Sea or the Field, promise only to fill Alms-houses and Hospitals, and to infect the Streets with Stench and Diseases?"(2) And one lord opposed to the Gin Act of 1743 is supposed to have told his peers that "A very little Consideration will be sufficient to show, that the lowest Orders of Mankind supply Commerce with Manufacturers, Navigation with Mariners, and War with Soldiers," even if the poor wretches "generally move only by superior Direction . . ."(24)

There is one final coincidence involving children. From the perspective of the early industrialists, children offered two advantages: they were tractable and they were cheap. From that same perspective, any campaign designed to increase the survival rate of young children must have had considerableappeal, as would any campaign designed to improve their health and good behavior by enforcing sobriety on mothers and children alike. And certainly the reformers' emphasis on suppressing drinking in the presence of children must have resonated mightily with a class and generation newly interested in viewing children as inhabiting a world of their own,(55) uncorrupted by the sexuality and intemperance of their elders.(56) Taking one more imaginative step, we can hear the readers of Wilson's enormously popular pamphlet clucking in agreement as he condemned the indiscretion of parents who taught their children "in their younger Years to drink these pernicious Liquors. . ."(30)

Some comparisons and conclusions

Scholars who have studied other crusades against drugs and their lower-class users will find much that is familiar in the rhetoric of the men who sought to remove gin and other cheap spirits from the slums of London and Westminster. It will come as no surprise to them that issues of social control effectively dominated the discussion, just as they would when old American elites were confronted by immigrants who were neither rural nor Protestant,(57) or when American whites came to associate cocaine with disinhibition among blacks,(58) or when the middle and upper classes of Victorian England came to associate opiates with irresponsibility among the nation's working poor.(59)

There are, however, a few surprises, starting with the explicit class bias of our sources. They are, quite simply, wonderfully free of the moral pretense that clouds our own discussion of crack cocaine and the people who use it, and free, too, of the religious impulse that characterizes so much of the temperance literature of the 19th century. "Immoral" and unabashedly elitist, the 18th-century sources suggest to us what we might think but never say about substance abuse among our own urban underclass.

There are two other surprises, both potential flashpoints in transforming concerns over substance abuse into a full-blown drug scare. First, the example of the gin epidemic suggests that concerns over substance abuse heighten when both the users and the retailers of a new drug belong to the lower classes--that is, when the social control once exercised by an established retailer is removed from the equation. Second, the perception that women in general and mothers in particular both use and market a drug appears to be a crucial element in rousing the public against a new drug and its users, as it was in the time of the gin epidemic and is again in our own crack epidemic. And while a great deal has been written about the so-called "crack mothers" and their "crack babies," observers of the ways in which the media portray crack cocaine would seem to have wholly overlooked how images of failed mothers have contributed to the creation of a drug scare and have instead concentrated on the traditional categories of crime, social control, racism, and the like.(60-63)

Yet images of failed mothers crowd the pages of our newspapers, adding an element of personal interest, of sentimental pathos, to what would otherwise be a dreary and largely masculine story. Consider Michael deCourcy Hinds of The New York Times, who quotes "specialists in drug addiction" as saying that "crack can overwhelm one of the strongest forces in nature, the parental instinct."(64) Susan Sward of tbe San Francisco Chronicle quotes a specialist in pediatrics as saying, "The addiction to cocaine is so strong that it often overrules the maternal instinct a mother has."(65) And Douglas Besharov of the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute gladly quotes yet another expert as saying that mothers who abuse crack cocaine "don't care about their babies and they don't care about themselves."(66) What are the similarities here? For one thing, there is our overwhelming preoccupation with substance abuse on the part of lower-class women, especially if they happen to belong to the urban underclass.(67) And while substance abuse is by no means limited to the latter, our attention almost invariably is, just as it once was in Hanoverian England. Perhaps it is easier for middle-class women to hide their addiction, if only because they need not resort to illegal or conspicuous behavior in order to support a habit.(68)

But perhaps, too, we focus on the habits of lower-class mothers precisely because we as a society fail to provide for their children, whose health and welfare then become the sole responsibility of their mothers. To quote Katha Pollit on the subject, "The focus on maternal behavior allows the governmment to appear to be concerned about babies without having to spend any money, change any priorities or challenge any vested interests. As with crime, as with poverty, a complicated, multifaceted problem is construed as a matter of freely chosen individual behavior.(69) Perhaps.

Certainly in our society the whole issue of substance abuse on the part of pregnant women is cast against the backdrop of the ongoing debate over abortion,(70) in which the rights of mothers are pitted against those of their fetuses. And with the possible exception of certain pundits at the American Enterprise Institute, very few of us really believe that we need to add still more people to the work force, or that wages for unskilled or semi-skilled labor are too high. But the example of the women of the gin epidemic does teach us one thing about our own so-called "crack mothers," and that is that to question the motives and progressive credentials of those who tell pregnant women to abstain from drugs and alcohol, especially when those women happen to belong to an urban underclass that is as despised as it is feared.


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Jessica Warner (5641 Highland, Richmond, CA 94804) holds a doctorate in Medieval Studies from Yale University. She was recently a postdoctoral fellow at the Alcohol Research Group, Berkeley, and has written on patterns of drinking in early modem Europe, emphasizing the emergence of a drinking culture from which women and children were progressively excluded.
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Author:Warner, Jessica
Publication:Contemporary Drug Problems
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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