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A new exhibit at the National Archives probes the delight and debauchery due to alcohol

This temple of our history will appropriately be one of the most beautiful buildings in America, an expression of the American soul,” proclaimed President Herbert Hoover on Feb. 12, 1933, in laying the cornerstone for the John Russell Pope-designed National Archives Museum. It was Pope’s intention that the grand building invoke the significance of the records held there, documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights.

The significance of these are without question manifestos that have profoundly impacted the American soul. And throughout the history of the American soul, there is but one commodity that has both plagued and delighted the spirit of that soul – alcohol.

In “Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History,” running through Jan., 10 in the archives’ Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery, is told the story of delight and debauchery.

It’s an entertaining yet intriguing exhibit that opens asking “How much did we drink?” In the late 18th century individual consumption averaged 5.8 gallons annually, peaking at 7.1 gallons in 1830. Today’s per person figure is a more moderate 2.3 gallons a year.

It seems from the earliest of American times drink has proved to be a conundrum. It was often the first medicine prescribed. “A healthful dram” with breakfast was promoted for men, women and children. Farmers took it to the fields, and a midmorning swig for invigoration was often administered to employees. And “A Good Creature of God, drink is in itself,” alcohol was considered to be, as far back as 1673 the exhibit declares in Increase Mather’s Woe to Drunkards.

But when it came to drink, harmony was rarely standard. American ire was raised by paying the British taxes on alcohol licenses, and much Colonial unrest arose out of taverns. And when war eventually broke out, revolutionary recruits expected liquor in their rations.

On hand is a booklet titled “A Moral and Physical Thermometer,” and an accompanying chart called “An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Mind and Body.” These were the work of Dr. Benjamin Rush, the nation’s foremost physician and a Declaration of Independence signatory. They compared the health and wealth benefits of temperance to intemperance’s vices and disease effects, though Rush did not specifically advocate abstinence.

It was but the beginning of discordant views concerning the role alcohol ought to play in America. As a general, George Washington argued that “the benefits arising from moderate use of strong liquor have been experienced by all armies, and are not to be disputed.” Washington’s fondness for strong liquor, or perhaps more accurately the profits it could yield, can also not be disputed, for in 1799, the year of his death, from a still on his plantation, a replica of which is displayed here, was yielded 11,000 gallons of spirits. But as president he stood firmly for the rule of law, primarily the payment of federal taxes on alcohol sales, ordering troops to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, and in a letter here to Attorney General Edmund Randolph urged that the western Pennsylvania farmers be vigorously prosecuted.

While booze may have been beneficial to the nation’s army, it apparently was less so to the navy. Though it instituted a daily “spirit ration” in 1794, flogging for too much quaffing of grog was a practice that eventually ended, though the expo shows an 1848 list of sailors from the frigate United States “due to be flogged, for attempting to obtain a second daily grog.”

Social occasions were often opportunities to indulge, with weddings, barn raisings, christenings, funerals and elections being prime examples, and shown here is a reproduction of a painting, “The County Election,” with only men being depicted celebrating the vote. A photograph at “The Bijou” in Round Pond, Okla., shows only men gathering around kegs at Kelley’s Saloon.

Production in the 19th century was by mainly local enterprises. But by 1900 brewers and distillers were going national and international. And in 1902 Anheuser Busch pioneered pasteurization, which extended shelf life, allowing beer, refrigerated and otherwise to be shipped around the land, and a utility patent for the process issued to A.A. Busch, R. Gull, and T.J. Barry is shown.

But not all America was enamored with alcohol’s proliferation, and in “Demonizing Drink” the story shifts to the country’s struggles with it as temperance organizations sprang up in the 1800s. One of the most powerful was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union formed in Hillsboro, Ohio, in 1874. Displayed here is “A Crusade Scene,” an illustration from Annie Wittenmeyer’s “Illustrated History of the Women’s Temperance Crusade,” depicting women praying in or near saloons, hotels and other establishments selling legal beverages. Their aim was to shame owners into halting such sales.

The movement was fueled by Prohibition songs like “The Saloon Must Go,” with posters on display bearing slogans like “Close the Saloons,” and asking “If You Believe That The Traffic in Alcohol Does More Harm Than Good – Help Stop It” and eventually led to the ratification of the 18th Amendment.

The 21st Amendment repealed the 18th, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt pronouncing Prohibition’s end in a December 1933 message, and the nation embarked upon what museum archivists call “Concerned Acceptance.”

The demonstration then moves into the post-World War II years, with archival videos prominently featuring alcohol in ceremonies involving presidents, queens and foreign leaders.

With Prohibition’s end, when it came to alcohol it seemed as though America had reverted entirely to those halcyon days. However, in “Spirited Republic” there’s plenty to show the continuing contradictory role drink plays in today’s society. Foremost is “The Big Book,” in which William Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith, alcoholics who founded Alcoholics Anonymous, wrote of “the 12 steps” for recovery. There’s a “Drunkometer,” forerunner to the modern Breathalyzer, and several posters and mementos marking former first lady Betty Ford’s fight against alcohol abuse. While a pioneer in raising awareness about alcohol’s downside, Ford was not alone, for organizations like M.A.D.D. (Mother’s Against Drunk Driving) are credited with being instrumental in reminding us that regarding spirit in this republic, being responsible is a good thing.

If you go:

Spirited Republic runs through Jan. 10, 2016

National Archives Museum

Constitution Avenue between 7th and 9th streets, NW

Washington, D.C.

Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Admission is free

For up-to-date hours and program information, visit