Madeira and the 4th of July revisited: More about America’s “First and Most Patriotic Wine”

written by Michael Oudyn

“I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira.”
Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography



The 4th of July is here and so I once again suggest that we patriotic Americans celebrate our birthday with a glass of Madeira, “America’s first” and ” greatest patriotic” wine. Last 4th of July I wrote about Madeira‘s relation to Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock,  the Constitutional Convention, the Louisiana Purchase, etc.

Since then more curious Founding Fathers/Madeira lore has come my way. Here is some of it.

This post’s lead quote comes notorious Madeira lover Benjamin Franklin who was said to have had more than a thousand bottles of Madeira in his private stash. In his Autobiography Franklin relates how “three common flies…that had been drowned in the Madeira bottle…fell into the first glass (of Madeira)” that was being poured at a friend’s house. Having heard that “drowned flies were capable of being revived by the sun” world-renowned scientist Franklin set up an impromptu experiment. When two of the flies did resuscitate Franklin quipped that he too would prefer to be “immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira” upon his death because of his “ardent desire to see and observe the state of America” in a hundred years.  In a related story, Franklin once published a list of 200 euphemisms for “to be drunk.”

And Madeira is linked to George Washington’s famous wooden false teeth in an article in the Smithsonian Magazine. First the whole legend is debunked. Washington did wear false teeth, but his dentures were made up of cow teeth, hippopotamus ivory, and human teeth that Washington bought from his slaves. So what does Madeira have to do with the legend? Well, the article speculates that the whole confusion was fruit of Washington’s “fondness for Madeira, a very dark wine which  (darken his) false teeth…(causing) the thin fractures in the bone… to look like the grains in a piece of wood.” One piece of circumstantial evidence is a surviving letter from Washington’s dentist which warns Washington that his love of (wine) was “staining and softening his ivory teeth.”


Washington's Madeira-Stained False Teeth?, Smithsonian Institute

Washington’s False Teeth. Madeira stained? Smithsonian Institute


When John Marshall, the first Supreme Court justice, had the other justices over for dinner “they were always lubricated with a well-chosen Madeira.” So well-known was Marshall’s love of Madeira that DC wine companies marketed upper-end bottles  under the name of “The Supreme Court”.  This quote, and other leads, comes from the recommended “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of …Drunkennes” which ranks the top ten boozers among our Founding Fathers.  Teaser: Franklin, Jefferson, and Marshall, Madeira lovers all, are #1, #2, and #4.

John Quincy Adams, not on the top ten list, once allegedly identified the makers of 11 of the 14 Madeiras he tried at a blind tasting.  Maybe not a great president, but a world-class palette!

After my investigations I wasn’t the least bit shocked to hear that the celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence was far from a sober affair and featured, you guessed it, Madeira wine. The bar-tab for the 55 delegates included 54 bottles of Madeira with a whole lot of other stuff thrown in, too.

So in the memory of George Washington’s Madeira-stained teeth, Benjamin Franklin’s Madeira-filled coffin, John Quincy Adams’s magic palette, the Supreme Court, and the U.S. Constitution, let’s all raise a glass of Madeira, “America’s first and most patriotic wine” this 4th of July.

2 Responses to “Madeira and the 4th of July revisited: More about America’s “First and Most Patriotic Wine””

  1. Jack Says:

    Hello Michael, Thanks for this article. I plan on a visit to Madeira early next Spring and will raise a glass of Madeira to your health.

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