Thanks to the Broadway smash hit, Hamilton, the founding fathers have leapt out of history books and into pop culture. The musical has dusted off the image of the men who helped shape the country, and while everything about these men’s lives did not make it into the show, the lyrics did allude to some of their more dubious habits – like drug use and an affinity for alcohol.
While an opioid epidemic intensified after the Civil War, when ten million prescription pills were given to Union Army soldiers, substance abuse has been around since the days of the American Revolution. The founding fathers would have been exposed to opioids and alcohol, and some of these famous historical figures depended on them for pain relief and emotional comfort.
Today, many of the founding fathers would have been able to seek help for their substance abuse problems, and if they’d been able to receive treatment, they would have likely been able to achieve even more.
Some reports about their excessive use of various drugs and alcohol are just rumors, but there are some that are indeed true. Below, we separate rumor from fact.
George Washington (1789-1797)
The nation’s first president had bad teeth. Some say that Washington used the opiate derivative laudanum to help alleviate his discomfort. Still around today, laudanum is a combination of alcohol and opium with the presence of morphine in its mixture. Now, it is commonly prescribed for diarrhea or to alleviate withdrawal symptoms in newborns born to opiate-dependent mothers.
Red wine was also a favorite of Washington who preferred Madeira so much that he would drink up to four glasses every afternoon. If he lived in the modern era, the venerated general would be able to seek treatment for binge drinking and perhaps alcoholism – something veterans still struggle with.
John Adams (1797-1801)
As the first vice president and second president of the United States, Adams liked to drink alcohol—mostly beer, wine, rum, and cider. The successor to Washington was such an excessive drinker that he was known to have downed large amounts of hard cider every morning for breakfast. Perhaps treatment for alcoholism may have helped Adams win a second term in office.
Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
Jefferson is reported to have grown opium poppy at his mansion in Monticello. In fact, the flowers were still grown in the garden on the Jefferson estate until the early 1990s, when they were uprooted at the demand of the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Jefferson is believed to have used opium for medical reasons: to soothe aches or a cough, not recreational use. He was also known to have used quinine to help relieve his frequent headaches and laudanum for treating severe diarrhea – a problem that later played a significant role in his cause of death. In a letter to a friend, Jefferson credits laudanum with helping him maintain his “habitual state.” A modern-day Jefferson would be able to get help for a painkiller addiction.
James Madison (1809-1817)
Like Adams, the fourth president of the United States and drafter of the Bill of Rights was known to guzzle a pint of whiskey each day. Even though drinking was common in the late 18th century, as alcohol was considered safer to consume than the drinking water at the time, a pint a day was still considered quite excessive. The southern Democratic-Republican would today be considered a candidate for intensive alcoholism treatment.
Although this founding father’s image is often linked to beer and breweries, Franklin did not like drunkenness and believed it to be “a very unfortunate vice.” He also never said this quote commonly attributed to him: “Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants to see us happy.”
It seems that of all the founding fathers, Franklin would have been the one to intervene and help a friend or family member in need of addiction treatment.