Public Virtue, Public Vices:

On Republicanism and the Tavern

Kevin C. Murphy, Columbia University
(Copyright 2001-2013, All Rights Reserved)

Part I.
Part II.
Part III.
Part IV.
Part V.
Part VI.


[Taverns are] "nurseries of vice and debauchery."

-- from a 1744 report by Benjamin Franklin.1

"'Twas Honest old Noah first planted the Vine
And mended his morals by drinking its Wine;
And thenceforth justly the drinking of Water decry'd
For he knew that all Mankind by drinking it dy'd.
From this piece of history plainly we find,
That water's good neither for body or mind;
That virtue and safety in wine-bibbing's found
While all that drink water deserve to be drowned."

--from a 1745 drinking song by Benjamin Franklin.2

"Reply not to me with a fool-born jest,
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn'd away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and feeder of my riots.
Till then I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person for ten mile."

-- King Henry V to Falstaff
(Henry IV, Pt. 2, V.v.55-65)3

"The tavern has ever played an important part in social, political, and military life, has helped to make history," wrote Alice Morse Earle in 1900, and never more so than during the tumultuous days of America's founding. Indeed, despite the dubious scholarship of Mrs. Earle's romanticized and anecdotal paean to the tavern life of yore, most contemporary historians of the colonial era would agree with her assertion that the "story of our War for Independence could not be dissociated from the old taverns."4 In fact, her words are paralleled by University of Washington professor W.J. Rorabaugh seventy-nine years later in The Alcoholic Republic, when he notes that "Patriots viewed public houses as the nurseries of freedom," and that taverns were "certainly seed beds of the Revolution, the places where British tyranny was condemned, militiamen organized, and independence plotted."5

Yet, following the groundbreaking work of J.G.A. Pocock, Bernard Bailyn, and Gordon Wood in delineating the public philosophy of republicanism as "the distinctive political consciousness of the entire Revolutionary generation," the role of colonial taverns in shaping the revolutionary experience has been somewhat marginalized, and the connections between the consumption of spirits and the cultivation of the Spirit of '76 have attenuated.6 For, given both the relatively sudden ubiquity of the republican paradigm, a sweeping "conceptual transformation" eloquently dissected by historian Dan Rodgers in a 1992 essay, and the republican emphasis -- so central to the writings of Pocock and Wood in particular -- on the necessity of inculcating public virtue and eliminating corruption in the American citizenry, the tavern, when mentioned at all, has come to be portrayed as at best a stumbling block and at worst a mortal enemy to the incipient revolutionary rhetoric of republicanism.7

Recently, however, colonial historians such as David Shields, David Conroy, and Peter Thompson, drawing heavily upon the theoretical work of Clifford Geertz and Jurgen Habermas, have returned to the tavern as a subject of inquiry and reexamined its role in the onset of revolution and the development of republican ideology. Be it by exploring the tavern as a dramaturgical space in which unequal participants escaped their socially defined roles, a public space in which marginalized groups could influence the governance of the colony, or a cultural space in which the rituals of drinking could and did reify revolutionary and republican sentiment, these recent works offer us a much more nuanced understanding of the complex and often uncomfortable relationship between the public vices of the tavern and the public virtues so central to republican thought.

Continue to Part II.

1. Franklin, Benjamin, "Some Indictments by the Grand Jury," quoted in Thompson, Peter, Rum Punch and Revolution: Taverngoing & Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia: 1999), 42.
2. Franklin, Benjamin, "The Antideluvians Were All Very Sober," quoted in Kobler, John, Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, G.P. Putnam's Sons (New York: 1973), 34.
3. Shakespeare, William, "Henry IV, Pt. 2" (V.v.55-63), in The Riverside Shakespeare, G. Blakemore Evans, ed., Houghton Mifflin (Boston: 1974), 922.
4. Earle, Alice Morse, Stage-Coach and Tavern Days, The Macmillan Company (Detroit: 1900), 170, 172. In evocative prose that historians could learn a thing or two from, she writes, "The tavern was the rendezvous for patriotic bands who listened to the stirring words of American rebels, and mixed dark treason to King George with every bowl of punch they drank."
5. Rorabaugh, W.J., The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition, Oxford University Press (New York: 1979), 35.
6. Kelley, Robert, "Ideology and Political Culture from Jefferson to Nixon," American Historical Review, 82 (June 1977), 536. Quoted in Rodgers, Dan, "Republicanism: the Career of a Concept," Journal of American History, June 1992, 15.
7. Rodgers, 11.

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