Presidential Alcohol Awareness - Part 2

by: Mike Miller

How much do our nation’s presidents drink?  That is a question often asked by the students in my alcohol awareness classes.  This is the second in a 4-part series of articles looking at the role played by alcohol in the lives of America’s Commanders in Chief.  In the first part, “Hail to the Chief!” we looked at how much alcohol our Founding Fathers drank.  In this article we will look at the rest of the presidents, who stand out, as either major drinkers or teetotalers.

Alcohol is the Ruin of Van Buren

There is little doubt that alcohol played a major role in the demise of martin van Buren’s political career.  Our nation’s 8th president took office in 1837 and served for four anti-climactic years in the Oval office.  Of course, Van Buren sought re-election.

While in office Van Buren developed a serious reputation for having a very high-tolerance for booze.  One of the famous monikers coined for him was “Blue Whiskey Van,” an obvious poke at his favorite beverage!

During the 1941 Presidential Election, Van Buren’s opponent, William Henry Harrison, painted him as an alcoholic.  Harrison was a life-long teetotaler and there seems to be some question as to the veracity of Harrison’s claim to Van Buren being an alcoholic.  True or not, Harrison was president for fewer days than any other person in the history of the United States.   He was inaugurated during a heavy snow storm, developed pneumonia and died 30 days after taking office.

Pierced by Booze

Perhaps the president with the worst alcohol problem was our 14th, Franklin Pierce.  When doing research for this article I had almost forgotten he had been a president, and for a second I thought Wikipedia had made an error.  Was he really a president?

Sandwiched in between Millard Fillmore (13th President) and James Buchanan (15th), Pierce seems to only have been known for getting very drunk very often.  Fillmore was a staunch teetotaler. 

Unlike Van Buren whose opponent used alcohol against him, Pierce’s party knew he had no chance because of his drinking.  The Democratic Party wisely chose to run James Buchanan who succeeded Pierce.  Was it or wasn’t it wise?

Buchanan: Teetotaler or Alcoholic?

That the Democratic Party chose not to re-nominate Pierce in favor of Buchannan certainly could not have been influenced by Pierce’s notable drinking problem.  When told he would not be nominated Pierce is quoted as saying, “There’s nothing left but to get drunk!”

Back to our original question – “T” or “A” – most definitely “A”.  Our 15th president may have had the highest tolerance to alcohol of all.  He was well-known for the quantities he drank, and there are many quoted who were surprised at how well he maintained his composure.

A chronic alcoholic, Buchannan drank two bottles of hard liquor every night!  The alcohol ravaged his body.  Buchannan suffered both gout and dysentery, twice!  He was also known to go to a distillery once a week for a gallon jug of whiskey.

All of the presidents not mentioned so far were known to have been moderate drinkers.  As we wrap up the drinking history of the first 20 US Presidents, we would be remiss without mentioning Ulysses S. Grant.  Not only the most flowerful name of any president (Grover Cleveland is not as good); the famous Union General was also one of its most regular drinkers.  During the Civil War he was known to spend non-travel days developing plans of attack – and drinking all day