Food and Disease in the 1790s

Filling and Killing, Young America Post #5

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Elegant concepts, aren’t they? But what do they mean? Well, without life, um…nothing. That’s pretty obvious. And liberty, what’s that? It’s being able to do what you want without other people constraining you. That doesn’t mean there are no constraints. It just means that human adults are not forced by other human adults to do things they wouldn’t otherwise choose to do. Adults can choose to do things they don’t really want to do because the reasons for doing them outweigh the reasons for not doing them. But then the constraints come from inside, not outside. Being ‘brought up’ is the process whereby one generation imparts what they believe are appropriate internal constraints to the next generation so that human society can continue to function.

And the pursuit of happiness? That’s a little more ambiguous. Some people have condensed this phrase to one word: property. The pursuit of happiness, they say, is the ability to maintain a bit of land that someone else cannot take from you. That’s part of it. But owning land is only one way of accomplishing the larger goal and doesn’t guarantee it. ‘Happiness’ requires that one have all the necessities of life and the prospect of a continuous supply of those things, and that one also has uninterrupted access to pleasure; pleasure, of course, being that which pleases us––since what pleases us makes us happy.

The word pleasure might conjure up images of decadence and ribaldry, but it’s far more basic than that. There’s pleasure in waking up refreshed from a night’s sleep. There’s pleasure in drinking a glass of cool water when one is thirsty. There’s pleasure in wearing clothes that are comfortable and pleasing to the eye. Even the lives of the poor may contain such little pleasures as these.

But it’s not easy to retain these little pleasures. I heard a speaker say that being wealthy meant having three things: choices, opportunities, and privacy. That might be as good a definition as any for ‘the pursuit of happiness.’ In the morning, I can go to my closet and select what I will wear from several options: choice. If I’m bored with what I find there, I can go out and get something else: opportunity. Once I’ve made my choice of what to wear, I can put it on with no one watching: privacy.

But all this comes to a screeching halt if I have no food. Or it can suddenly end if I come down with a serious disease. Certainly the pursuit of happiness must be only the pursuit of food if I’m starving. And if I contract a debilitating or fatal disease, I have no more choices or opportunities at all unless I defeat the disease. And as to privacy, if you’ve ever been in the hospital, you understand the phrase, ‘Abandon modesty all ye who enter here.’

Now they had food in the colonial and post-revolutionary era. But due to factors I’ve mentioned in previous posts, it wasn’t always that edible. It was the only food they had though, so they had to eat it. How do you swallow rancid meat? Only one way: spice it up so much that you can’t taste the rancidity. Or, of course, you could salt it up ahead of time so it wouldn’t spoil (you’ve heard of salt pork, right?). But then you have to do something about the taste of the salt. Spice again.

And what do you drink? Can’t really drink the water because of whatever might be in it. There’s milk for those who have cows, but it can’t be taken very far before it sours. So you have to boil the water. And to make it palatable, you want to put something in it. You could put some form of alcohol in it (beverage of choice: rum), or you could flavor it with something. Hence: tea, coffee, chocolate, and sugar. Let’s not forget sugar, the queen of them all, and the source of most of the alcohol.

So there you have it. Spice, alcohol, tea, coffee, chocolate, sugar; these aren’t the foods that sustain you. But they make it possible for you to eat the foods that sustain you. And, also, they give you a little bit of pleasure. They’re part of the happiness you have an inalienable right to pursue.

In the posts that follow, I’ll be looking at these items in detail so you can see the role they played in prompting our predecessors to seek freedom from the yoke of England. Revolutions aren’t really based on grand concepts. They’re based on the realities of life. In this case, the need for food and the desire for what little pleasure it could afford played a significant role in colonial and post-revolutionary life. And disease posed the most significant threat to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Bigger than crime, bigger than war. So these were the most influential aspects of life in the 1790s: food and disease. We’ll start off talking about food next time.

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