When historians describe America’s leaders, they often write of ethereal motivations: liberty, independence, justice, equality. They tend to skip the drinking. From George Washington’s early political victories in Virginia–he finally began winning when he poured voters free rum–to General Ulysses S. Grant’s brandy-fueled grace under pressure, alcohol has played a surprisingly large role in shaping the course of U.S. history.
This was especially true in the White House, where tensions often flared over drinking–or the lack thereof. Andrew Johnson, for example, was so inebriated at Abraham Lincoln’s second Inauguration that he burst into incoherent attacks on the Senate and had to be half-carried off the stage. (Lincoln was sober.) Rutherford Hayes, meanwhile, banned alcohol from the White House entirely, earning his wife the nickname Lemonade Lucy.
But perhaps the most poignant tale from America’s drunken history is that of Warren G. Harding. His parties during Prohibition–given with confiscated whiskey–were famously raucous until the Anti-Saloon League’s Wayne Wheeler dropped by the Oval Office to end the fun. Harding fought back. He drank for medical reasons, he explained. Whiskey was holding him together. But Wheeler prevailed, and Harding was forced to stop. Six weeks later, he died of mysterious illnesses.
Cheever is the author of Drinking in America: Our Secret History
This appears in the October 12, 2015 issue of TIME.