A drunkard is challenged to walk in a straight line. Detail from Walking the Chalk (1838) by Charles Deas. Courtesy the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston


Drunks and democrats

Violent, lively and brash, taverns were everywhere in early colonial America, embodying both its tumult and its promise

by Vaughn Scribner + BIO

A drunkard is challenged to walk in a straight line. Detail from Walking the Chalk (1838) by Charles Deas. Courtesy the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Upon arriving at a Maryland tavern in 1744, Dr Alexander Hamilton (not to be confused with the more famous secretary of the treasury) found himself seated amid a ‘drunken club’ of lower-class men. He was revolted by the ‘Bacchanalians’ who were so intoxicated that ‘the only thing intelligible in [their conversation] was oaths and God damns’, and left the tavern only when they found ‘no more rum in play’. As an elite physician travelling North America’s eastern seaboard, Hamilton was not keen to mix with men of inferior social standing, especially when they were drunk. On the contrary, he hoped to control the masses from a safe distance: to ‘keep the great Leviathan of Civil Society under proper discipline and order … as that the frantic animal may not destroy itself.’ But when Hamilton complained to the tavernkeeper about the ‘disorderly fellows’, the publican could only reply: ‘Alas Sir! We that entertain travellers must strive to oblige everybody, for it is our daily bread.’

Dr Hamilton’s discomfort in mixing with the lower sorts exposes 18th-century colonists’ clashing conceptions of civil society. For self-styled elites such as Hamilton, ‘true’ civil society relied upon their ability to command their social inferiors. In 1760, an anonymous contributor to The Boston Evening-Post drove home Hamilton’s convictions, noting that

It is a truth acknowledged by all who have examined into the constitution of civil society, that the strength and vigour of the whole, depends on the union and harmony of the particular constituent parts.

But, as Hamilton’s experiences demonstrated, lower-class colonists were hashing out their own democratic vision of civil society, which their supposed superiors considered rough at best, damning at worst. Believing that ‘Societies, like individuals, have their periods of sickness,’ elitist men such as Hamilton did everything in their power to stave off the rising tide of ‘levelling’ and democracy.

Many elite colonists harboured a smouldering disdain for the populace at large, and a desire to bring them under some sort of order, which was exacerbated by feelings of inferiority compared with their brethren across the Atlantic Ocean. The American Revolutionary Period (1765-83) further compounded these anxieties as lower-class colonists violently resisted midcentury notions of hierarchy and order. Conflicts over civil society – namely, notions of Old World monarchy versus New World democracy – defined the birth of the United States of America. And one of the best ways in which to view this confrontation between different conceptions of civil society is where it often unfolded: the tavern.

‘Pleasantly situated, and very convenient for trade (in the public way)’ – as a 1743 advertisement for the Crown Inn in Charleston exclaimed – taverns acted like prisms and mirrors, refracting colonists into distinct groups while also forcing leaders to reflect upon the status of British American civil society. They were far and away the most common public spaces in early America: colonial cities supported a booming tavern sector, with one licensed tavern for every 100 to 130 people. And that’s not counting unlicensed taverns, which multiplied beyond officials’ control and offered supposedly inferior peoples a broad range of social and commercial opportunities. Beyond the urban sphere, every rural town and hamlet had at least one tavern. And they always wanted more. When a New Yorker sold his rural plot in 1759, he hoped that a tavernkeeper might purchase his land, because more taverns were ‘here much needed’.

Leaders, however, weren’t necessarily thrilled with the multiplication of mixed-class taverns. Disgusted by the fact that ‘Dram-Shops and Taverns’ existed ‘almost within a Stone’s throw of one another throughout the town’, one Bostonian complained in 1750 that when taverns ‘multiply’d beyond all Bounds, they degenerate into Nurseries of Vice and Debauchery, and directly lead to the Ruin of Society’. But, as in their efforts at controlling civil society, officials’ endeavours at regulating taverns were paltry at best.

Taverns were also early America’s most popular and accessible public spaces. As the Englishman Thomas Walduck boasted in the early 18th century:

Upon all the new settlements the Spaniards make, the first thing they do is build a church, the first thing ye Dutch do upon a new colony is to build them a fort, but the first thing ye English do, be it in the most remote part of ye world, or amongst the most barbarous Indians, is to set up a tavern or drinking house.

Philadelphians dug crude drinking spaces into the banks of the Delaware River before city planners could even put pen to paper, and colonists throughout North America sold liquor from the front rooms of their simple homes during the 17th century.

A stage coach pulls away from a tavern. From Isaac Weld’s Travels, through the States of North America… (1799). Courtesy the Marriott Library, University of Utah

By the mid-18th century, America hosted a diverse set of taverns for a diverse set of customers. But assortment hardly bred homogeneity. An urban gentleman might escape to an exclusive ‘City Tavern’, where he could sip fine wines, peruse the day’s news, transact a business deal or match wits in a private club. The colonies’ blossoming middle classes could buy and sell wares, view exotic creatures such as camels and leopards or listen to a travelling lecture in urban and rural taverns, while lower-class colonists enjoyed access to a variety of taverns where they could down a pint, obtain a loan or find a bed for the night. Rural taverns, finally, offered travellers and locals alike key resting – and connecting – points along North America’s growing road network. While travelling through Virginia, a Briton noted that colonists’ ‘usual mode of describing the roads, is from such a [tavern] to such a one, so many miles’.

Taverns were everywhere but, as in their larger conceptions of civil society, colonial leaders didn’t want them to be for everyone. The future Founding Father John Adams remarked that ‘the Rabble filled the House’ during a 1760 stay in a New England tavern, exclaiming: ‘Every room, kitchen, Chamber was crowded with people.’ The Anglican preacher Charles Woodmason echoed Adams’s distaste after being ‘exposed to the Rudeness of the Mobb’ in a South Carolina tavern. Another elite who called himself ‘RD’ had a poem published in The New-York Weekly Journal on 22 October 1750 expressing his dissatisfaction at being forced to mingle with ‘coarse’ company during a recent tavern stay:

Spue-scented rooms of noisy inns,
And Chamber maids that reel!—
What sorer punishment for sins
  Can drowsy mortals feel?
Footmen, and fidlers, rakes, buffoons!—
  (Such company but coarse is;)
Polite, bold blust’ring blood and o—n!—
  With plaguy modish curses
Such dancing! — scraping! — whistling! — bawling!
  Wild blades, that rant and roar!—
Drunkards, that all the night are brawling;
  And, in the morning, snore!
Confounded cur, in kennel howling;
  (Sweet comfort, past compare!)
And, in the yard, such catterwouling!—
  ’Twou’d make a parson swear.
Rather, ’twou’d make him heav’n Invoke,
  When got into a nest
Of hellish brutes, and dev’lish folk,
  That thus disturb’d his rest.
O hideous sign of hell brake lose!
  What cursing! Stinking! Smoaking!
Of precious time, O vile abuse!
  Most monstrous!—most provoking!
Slaves to the tyranny of sin!
Lew’d, filthy, desp’rate crew!
Dire medley of infernal din!
  Adieu! Adieu! Adieu!

Powerful colonists didn’t see the tavern as some ideal of civil society where all might mix happily with their colonial constituents. Rather, they sought to control the tavern space in the same way that they sought to control British American society. As the century progressed, however, colonial elites increasingly felt affronted by ‘rough’ notions of lower-class societal order. Indifference and defiance from below seemed to replace the deference that leaders so craved, and nowhere was this more obvious than in the tavern space.

Blanket measures forbade Black men and women from entering licensed taverns

In 1764, a drunken man stumbled out of a New York City tavern and ‘discharged his Odurs and Excrements into his Breeches’ in front of a disgusted crowd. Rather than apologise and run away, the soggy sot continued to damn local governance and religious order, exclaiming: ‘Christ … is a Sinner as well as Other Men … May the Thunder Strike God if he me should punish!’ With ‘chronic and inherent’ partisanship cleaving political order, and lower-class colonists thumbing their noses at authority, colonial leaders were convinced that they must issue change, and fast. As is still so often the case when white, powerful men felt threatened, they banded together to create, and separate, the ‘other’.

Anyone who was not ‘British’ (ie, Anglican, white and loyal to the British monarchy) became the ‘other’, and was thereby cast as a mistrusted individual who should be excluded from civil society. The French were some of Britons’ most notorious bogey men. During the French and Indian War (1754-63), a ‘society of Gentlemen’ convened in Philadelphia’s British Punch-House to form yet another branch of the Francophobic ‘Antigallican Society’. Such actions were hardly without precedent. Taverngoers in Albany, New York toasted the ‘total Extinction’ of France’s ‘Fortresses in America’ at midcentury, while New Yorkers expressed their ‘Gratitude and Joy’ for Britain’s success in ‘the Reduction of that long dreaded Sink of French Perfidy and Cruelty, Quebec’.

Colonial leaders also issued blanket measures that forbade Black men and women from entering licensed taverns as customers. The most infamous example of colonial American leaders’ efforts at impeding Black taverngoing occurred in New York City in 1741, when a random building fire sparked fears over slave rebellion. Colonists pointed fingers at John Hughson, a poor, illiterate cobbler who operated an unlicensed tavern out of his home in New York City. Daniel Horsmanden, the lead investigator of the ‘great conspiracy’ case, discovered that Hughson had served free and enslaved Black men and women strong liquor in his tavern. A sham trial ensued, which culminated in 13 Black men being burned at the stake, 17 Black men hanged, and another 70 Black men sold off to slavery in the Caribbean, a veritable hell-hole where enslaved men and women’s life expectancy dipped to only two years.

Indigenous Americans, poor whites and women faced similar obstacles as officials enacted a slew of policies intended to stop them from taverngoing and, in turn, full participation in civil society. Leaders believed that alcohol incited supposedly savage Indigenous Americans, and thus prohibited liquor purveyors from selling more than one gallon of wine, brandy or spirits, or five gallons of cider ‘within the space of one day’. Not only would such measures limit drunkenness among Native peoples, but leaders hoped that they would also stop dangerous commercial relations between white merchants and Native Americans. Officials also forbade Indigenous Americans from taverngoing. Leaders worried that the ‘Temptation to Idleness’ so inherent in taverns might ‘enervate Industry’ among the lower sorts, thereby crippling societal order and progress.

Women were unofficially barred from taverngoing unless they attended a party or ball with a group of men. But it wasn’t necessarily this simple, as women also regularly kept their own licensed taverns, which afforded them uncommon public power. Anne Pattison of Williamsburg, Virginia ran her own tavern where she provided a variety of services, ranging from money lending to coach letting to cooking to gardening. Women also routinely purchased alcohol from taverns for at-home consumption, and worked in taverns as servants.

Although colonial officials did everything in their power to organise society around licensed taverns, their shortcomings in realising this vision were on clear display in the thousands of unlicensed and unregulated dram shops and alehouses that peppered early America. These ‘bawdy’ taverns and ‘disorderly houses’ allowed those men and women denied from licensed taverns many prospects, ranging from getting drunk to hawking wares and services on the booming black market. These taverns were extremely popular: in a single court session in the early 1760s, the attorney general of New York, John Tabor Kempe, recorded eight separate citizens who were charged with ‘keeping a disorderly [or] bawdy house’.

Unlicensed taverns bred their fair share of crime and disorder, as fights, murder, black market trading, prostitution and blasphemy regularly issued from their doors. Not only had the widow Catherine Carroe in New York City sold alcohol without a licence, but officials also found ‘Evidences in [Carroe’s tavern] of a Murder’. In May 1753, the Bostonian Hannah Dilley admitted to permitting ‘Men, and other suspected Persons not of good Behavior or Fame, to resort to her Husband’s House [a felt maker], and carnally to lie with Whores, which they said Hannah then and there procured for them.’

Though elites damned unlicensed taverns as the bane of civil society, many of those same men emerged as some of disorderly houses’ most notable, and violent, customers. Colonial gentlemen loved to go on the ‘rake’, which entailed what we now refer to as ‘bar-hopping’, only in a much more violent, destructive guise. Donning a sword and social capital, groups of elite men barged into unlicensed taverns, where they sexually accosted and attacked customers and workers, broke furniture and drank in excess – often without any legal consequence.

Going on the rake became so popular that printers produced various broadsides and articles celebrating the trend. In 1767, The New-York Gazette published a piece that explained how a true rake committed ‘every kind of tumult and disorder … such as jumping about the rooms, putting out the candles, spilling the liquors, breaking the glasses, kicking the waiters, &c &c.’ The hypocritical behaviour of elitist rakes in unlicensed taverns revealed yet another contradiction of civil society.

Colonists commandeered taverns to resist one tax after another and assert a republican-minded civil society

The clashes over civil society – especially regarding monarchical versus democratic impulses – exploded in and around taverns during the American Revolutionary Period. When British Parliament announced the infamous Stamp Act in 1765, rich and poor colonists alike rushed to taverns, where they downed bowls of rum punch and pints of ale before rioting through the streets of Boston, New York City, Charleston and Philadelphia. Watching in horror as their houses burned, families fled in terror, and monarchical visions of civil society seemed to wilt under the heat of resistance, loyal tax collectors such as the Philadelphian John Hughes could only warn Parliament that if British America’s ‘mobbing gentry’ continued such actions, ‘her empire in North America is at an end; for I dare say … they will begin to think their united power irresistible.’

Irresistible indeed. Over the next 10 years, rebellious colonists from Charleston to New York City commandeered taverns to resist one tax after another and, in turn, assert a republican-minded civil society. Colonists throughout the eastern seaboard joined local branches of the ‘Sons of Liberty’ with taverns as their key nodes, while Liberty Trees and Liberty Poles placed prominently outside of taverns became crucial markers of anti-Parliamentarian sentiment. Contending that they were acting in the ‘Defence of our Rights and Liberties’, riotous lower-class taverngoers steadily grew in power and numbers during the early 1770s. By 1775, however, sporadic rioting and violence in and around taverns transitioned into outright war when a group of ‘minute men’ gathered at the Buckman Tavern in Lexington, Massachusetts on 19 April 1775, just before murdering more than 70 British troops. The ‘rough’ democracy that Dr Hamilton had spurned in 1744 had erupted to the surface in brutal fashion, and there was no going back.

The Buckman Tavern in Lexington, Massachusetts. Photograph c1895-1905. Courtesy Boston Public Library

After the battles at Lexington and Concord, self-styled ‘patriotic’ members of extra-legal, militant ‘committees of safety’ used taverns as bases of coercion and imprisonment against those colonists deemed too loyal to midcentury notions of civil society. Committee men – many of whom never could have previously garnered such power because of their low social standing – spent the first few months of the war chasing royal governors out of the colonies. Next, they turned on locals, especially elite locals. Philadelphia’s committee of safety called the lawyer Isaac Hunt to the Merchant Coffee House for speaking against Congress. Unhappy with Hunt’s self-defence, they threw him in a cart, pushed him throughout town, and circled back around to the coffeehouse for a few more drinks.

Gentlemen watched in disgust as ‘the scum rose to the top’ in committees of safety. Yet, unlike in the mid-18th century, elites couldn’t do anything about it – indeed, they had largely caused such turmoil in the first place by putting lower-class men in power. The British Loyalist Nicholas Cresswell learned firsthand of lower-class men’s newfound power when he found himself trapped in Alexandria, Virginia by the town’s committee of safety. Suspecting that Cresswell was ‘a Tory (that is a Friend to the Country)’, the committee ushered the Brit to Richard Arell’s tavern and threatened him ‘with Tar and Feathers, Imprisonment and the D[evil] knows what,’ lest he sign a letter of allegiance.

American forces – well, the French and Spanish forces, along with the sputtering Americans – managed to win the American Revolution in 1783. The social vitality of taverns only heightened with this success, as these central spaces helped the victors celebrate the rise of an American republic. When the British Army evacuated New York City in November 1783, citizens and soldiers rushed back into the city, which was a burned-out shell of its former self. They pushed through the streets, re-claiming the city’s taverns as fruits of victory. General George Washington, meanwhile, held a farewell party for his officers in the Long Room of the Fraunces Tavern, where he toasted the future of America: ‘I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honourable.’ Four years later, Washington held a party at Philadelphia’s City Tavern for 55 of his closest confidants. Intended to celebrate the signing of the Constitution (which Washington completed a few days later), the meeting was an orgy of excess: 55 people managed to drink 114 bottles of wine, eight bottles of whiskey, 30 bottles of ale and cider, 12 pitchers of beer, and seven bowls of rum punch.

But it was hardly all bonhomie and balls. The war ushered in torture, psychological anguish and dislocation for tens of thousands of white British loyalists who had to choose between moving to England or Nova Scotia (if they could afford it) or testing their luck by remaining in America. It also prompted another century of institutionalised chattel slavery for hundreds of thousands of African and African American peoples, while bolstering the forced displacement and genocide of tens of thousands of Indigenous Americans. Entrenched xenophobia and anti-Catholic sentiment among white, Protestant citizens echoed throughout the new states, and women experienced further decentralisation in American politics and public life. Though the founders consciously related their new form of republican American civil society with intangible notions of freedom and democracy, this new society was built upon incivilities and unfreedoms.

Even those elite white men who stood to gain so much from this new societal order weren’t necessarily happy, as they had made something of a Faustian bargain during the American Revolution: to win the war, they had to (temporarily) abandon midcentury ideals of civil society such as strict hierarchy and elitist control, and instead watch on as the lower sorts hashed out their own tenets of American republicanism, hierarchy and liberty. But they weren’t going to take this lying down.

The coffeehouse ‘was conceived in sin, brought forth in iniquity, but … is now purified by fire’

Wealthy Americans steadily opened exclusive city taverns, coffeehouses and hotels where they hoped they could dictate the future of the American Republic. Included among these new projects were grand hotels such as the Union Public Hotel (1793) in Washington, DC; the City Hotel (1794) in New York City; and the Exchange Coffee House (1806) in Boston. While the Union Public Hotel was funded by the federal government, local elites (who were also members of the local government) formed subscription lotteries to fund the City Hotel and the Exchange Coffee House.

Hotel construction demonstrated the American elites’ larger efforts at distinction and power in the face of cries for liberty and equality. After all, the initial draft of the Constitution limited rather than encouraged democracy, with men such as William Plumer of New Hampshire (a future senator and governor) supporting a strong central government out of a deep, abiding fear that ‘our rights and property are now the sport of ignorant unprincipled State legislators [ie, lower-class white men]’. But elites’ struggles to revive midcentury ideals of civil society were hardly without pushback. Even Thomas Paine – author of Common Sense (1776), perhaps the most popular diatribe against the British monarchy and midcentury notions of civil society – criticised the elite leaders of the early American Republic for following ‘the corrupt principles of the English government’.

Joining Paine in their disgust, lower-class Americans’ resentment towards such efforts at elite control and governance spilled into the tavern space. The masses damned the developers of New York’s City Hotel as lords who favoured ‘the ancient … system of servility and adulation’. And, when Boston’s Exchange Coffee House burned to the ground in 1818, onlookers jeered over the wreckage of a hotel that they argued ‘arose on the ruins of many industrious citizens’ and bore ‘evidences of the fallacious promises, which were too successfully practised on the credulous tradesmen’. One especially bitter Bostonian exclaimed that the Exchange Coffee House, like elites’ vision of an American civil society, ‘was conceived in sin, brought forth in iniquity, but … is now purified by fire.’

Violent, contradictory, capricious, exclusionary – such descriptors could apply to early American taverns and civil society with equal efficiency. Elites liked to think that they led the charge in civilising America through instituting clear measures of order, control and difference. But their efforts were paltry at best, and destructive at worse, as such endeavours not only contributed to the outbreak of the American Revolution, but also in enduring ruptures over class and power in the early Republic. Lower-class Americans, meanwhile, steadily realised a conflicting vision of civil society, which they defined through murky notions of ‘republicanism’, ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’. Though Dr Hamilton had damned democratic impetuses as the drunken frenzies of ‘disorderly men’, these societal alterations seemed to grow in strength by the day. Americans are still, in the words of Hamilton, trying to ‘keep the great Leviathan of Civil Society under proper discipline and order … as that the frantic animal may not destroy itself.’ From broadsides to bacchanalia, class conflict to comradery, tavern interactions laid the foundation for America’s incongruous, ever-contradictory, future.