When Dutch prince William of Orange ascended the English throne in 1689 in the wake of the Glorious Revolution, one of his first official acts was to join the League of Augsburg’s war on France. As a wartime measure, William banned the import of French products, including cheese, bad manners, and brandy. Brandy was extremely popular in England, its demise sure to be much lamented. So in order to head off the complaints of the nation’s drinkers, William signed a measure encouraging the domestic distillation of spirits from corn.
Backroom distilleries soon sprang up everywhere, dripping out various noxious liquors at a feverish pace. Paramount among these homegrown spirits was gin, or, as she was commonly known, “Madam Geneva.” Flavored with juniper berries and packing a wallop, Madam Geneva seamlessly supplanted brandy in the public memory, and gin drinking soon became the favorite pastime of the damned and downtrodden.
Lower-class English life in the early 18th century was nasty, brutish, and short. Dubious sanitation, stifling debt laws, and a general sense of squalor combined to make the prospect of getting “drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence” remarkably attractive. In a world where the conspicuous disparity between rich and poor was inescapable, people welcomed every chance they had to forget their problems. Dillon ably describes the speed with which inexpensive and widely available gin became “the avenging angel of the slums, and the comforter of the poor; she was the curse of London and the friend of market-women.”
This dichotomy between aristocratic and lower-class London is central to Dillon’s thesis: that London’s gin craze, viewed through the woozy lens of alcohol abuse, was really about class struggle. “The thing conservatives hated most about drink,” he argues, “was the transformation it offered; the way it broke down traditional barriers. That was what they hated most about the entire age.” So it’s not altogether surprising that, soon after its arrival, conservatives began working to outlaw gin, arguing that its evils were “so many, so great, so destructive to the lower, poorer sort of people.” Dillon presents his case well, seamlessly integrating his extensive research into the broader narrative. But the volume of evidence he marshals occasionally works a-gainst him. As the accounts of gin-induced crimes and deaths pile up, it’s hard not to suspect that Madam Geneva’s well-heeled op-ponents may have been motivated as much by the reasonable wish not to have to step over dead bodies in London’s gutters as by any desire to oppress the lower classes.
Even so, when public drunkenness reached epidemic proportions, the laws passed treated the common man much more harshly than the country-estate tippler. Certainly gin advocates recognized this disparity, claiming that the laws specifically targeted the poor and dirty, while Sir Drink-A-Lot and Lord Sousebury went unpunished. When personal rights are abridged in the name of the public good, conflict usually ensues, and gin-soaked London was no exception. Every time the government attempted to regulate the gin trade, plebeians rioted in the streets, preachers thundered in pulpits and pamphlets, and, in back-alley dram shops, things continued much as they had before.
Eventually, though, all crazes end. By the late 1750s, Londoners had apparently had enough, and gin drinking ceased to be a public menace. Dillon attributes this to wiser governmental policies (read: supply-side taxation), and the rise of the middle class. A spate of public reforms had unexpectedly rendered London livable, giving rise to a new class of people who saved their money rather than spent it and preferred sober entertainments, such as prayer. With the decline of the vice-addled populace, writes Dillon, Madam Geneva became the benign lady we know and enjoy today.
So was the gin craze a function of urban decay? Dillon suggests that it was, and that it has implications for modern times. He draws a largely convincing parallel with the war on drugs. After all, both crazes featured rampant substance abuse and impotent governmental attempts at curtailing it. But Dillon’s analysis is hobbled by a few unresolved issues. Gin drinking was much more un-abashedly mainstream than drug use is, as were its proponents, which rendered gin advocacy more socially acceptable than, say, marijuana advocacy. Madam Geneva boasted Daniel Defoe and several powerful lobbying groups among her supporters, respected voices that Parliament could not ignore and that could speak freely without fear of being marginalized. The best that drug war opponents can muster up, however, is Snoop Dogg–one reason why their cause has not been embraced by the mainstream.
But that debate may be academic. Dillon makes the point that, once the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, it can’t be legislated back in–though that hasn’t stopped people from trying throughout the centuries. As long as pedants and public moralists feel compelled to impose behavioral standards on the poor and disenfranchised, there will be gin laws, well-intentioned but ineffective; and as long as people require an escape from the toil of everyday life, there will be gin. Drawn from the past, applied to the present, this is the lesson of Dillon’s fine book. It is history as it should be: entertaining without being glib, informative without being didactic. Gin might not be as harmful as its spirituous namesake, but it is certainly just as addictive.