Public Virtue, Public Vices:

On Republicanism and the Tavern

[Page 2]

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

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

Whatever their opinion of the role of the revolutionary tavern, historians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have all generally agreed on one point: From its inception, colonial America has been a land steeped in alcohol. Before the Pilgrims ever relied upon the goodwill of the Wampanoags at the first Thanksgiving, they had already faced a deeply troubling dearth of fermented beverages. This scarcity, which threatened the many sickly new arrivals in need of "medicine," was only mitigated by the kindness of the captain of the Mayflower, who resolved to drink water during the voyage home so that there would be "beer for them that had need for it."8 From then on, the imbibing of spirits was so omnipresent in the New England colonies that even the infamous father-son team of Puritan preachers, Increase and Cotton Mather, while often crusading against excessive drinking as a considerable threat to the existing social hierarchy, nevertheless conceded that drink was a "good creature of God and to be received with thankfulness."9

Naturally, despite the Mathers' stamp of approval, liquor was not always a force for good in the American colonies -- Indeed, in the words of one historian, it "caused some of the bloodiest clashes in colonial annals," from the Pequot war of 1639 to King Phillip's war of 1676, both of which began with English colonists plying the local Native American populace with all manner of spirits.10 In fact, this intentional inebriating of the Indians fast became a cornerstone of English land grab diplomacy -- colonial Americans often "saw to it that treaty negotiations were soaking wet...especially when dealing with furs and lands."11

Nevertheless, whether used as a salve or a sop, alcohol was clearly a staple of the colonial diet and, as a result, the tavern occupied a prominent position in colonial life. In the midst of describing the remarkable extent of eighteenth-century America's love affair with the bottle, Rorabaugh's The Alcoholic Republic notes the centrality of the public house as a "focus of community life." According to Rorabaugh, taverns were often constructed next to courthouses and churches in colonial villages, and just as often aided them in their institutional functions. "Before trials, it was common for defendants, attorneys, judges, and jurymen to gather [in taverns] to drink," he notes, "and sometime matters were settled 'out of court.' At other times, when a controversial case attracted a crowd, it was necessary to hold the trial in the tavern, which was the only public building roomy enough to accommodate the spectators." Similarly, taverns afforded churchgoers a place to congregate and conduct business "before and after service." Due to this centrality of the tavern in the daily functioning of the alcoholic republic, village elders imposed a strict licensing system as means of preserving the social order, so that more often than not only ministers, men of authority, and other "men and women of good moral character" could serve as publicans.12

Indeed, in Rorabaugh's casting, the Revolution was seen by the average colonist not only as a revolt against the English, but also partially as a reaction against the prevailing social order, as exemplified by this strict licensing imposed by the upper classes. "Americans perceived liberty from the Crown as somehow related to the freedom to down a few glasses of rum," Rorabaugh writes, and "[u]pper class patriots found it difficult after the Revolution to attack the popular sentiment that elite control of taverns was analogous to English control of America."13 Thus, according to Rorabaugh, the most important impetus for the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, the first major crisis of the new American government, was a "fierce republican pride" that resented the high excise tax on whiskey not so much because it adversely affected the market on surplus grain than because it "clashed with post-Revolutionary principles...[It was] an infringement of [colonists'] freedom to drink and an effort on the part of the government to control their customs and habits."14 As another historian explains Rorabaugh's argument, "a personal binge...was in a sense an assertion of individuality, a freedom from communal restraints. Even the drunkard, in essence, was a pluralist -- free under the laws of the nation to pursue his or her own lifestyle no matter what others thought."15

But this "republican pride" evoked by Rorabaugh to promote "freedom from communal restraints" hardly aligns with the traditional notion of republican freedom articulated by Pocock, Bailyn, and Wood. In the words of Gordon Wood in 1969, "[t]he ideal which republicanism was beautifully designed to express was still a harmonious integration of all parts of the community...For the republican patriots of 1776 the commonweal was all-encompassing -- a transcendent object with a unique moral worth that made partial considerations fade into insignificance...Ideally, republicanism obliterated the individual."16

Indeed, Rorabaugh's 1979 evocation of "republican pride" to explain the Whiskey Rebellion can be understood as an exemplar of the remarkable spread of the republican concept, "'the most protean' concept in antebellum cultural history," in the 1970's and 1980's. As noted by Dan Rodgers, a decade after Rorabaugh's book republicanism "was everywhere and organizing everything, though perceptibly thinning out, like a nova entering its red giant phase."17 Indeed, only three years later, Mark Edward Lender and James Kirby Martin would argue the converse of Rorabaugh's idea in Drinking in America: A History -- that republicanism was not an ideology that promoted "the freedom to drink" but rather the main impetus behind what passed for the colonial temperance movement.

In The Alcoholic Republic, Rorabaugh ascribes the nascent anti-drinking movement to "a number of impulses, among which were the spread of rationalist philosophy, the rise of mercantile capitalism, advances in science, especially the science of medicine, and an all pervasive rejection of custom and tradition."18 In Drinking in America, these impulses can and have been brought together under the rubric of republicanism. In direct contrast to Rorabaugh, Lender and Martin write, "[t]he bitterest denunciation of distilled spirits came in the immediate aftermath, and as part of the zeitgeist, of the Revolution. The Revolutionary period witnessed heightened concern that society's traditional values were being lost -- that luxury and vice were threatening public virtue and liberty itself."

"'Virtue'", continue Lender and Martin, "was the catchword of republicanism. It dictated that citizens act, vote, and think not out of hopes for personal gain but out of a sense of public duty and concern for the general good. A nation founded on this premise had to maintain traditional concerns about order and stability," they argue. "And in this concern for social stability and virtue, few things seemed to have more disruptive potential than the intemperance that was accompanying the startling rise in the use of distilled spirits."19

In Lender and Martin's work, the poster boy for the republican assault on drinking, the man who "did more than anyone else of his generation to point out the antirepublican implications inherent in the way Americans drank," is Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Zelig-like Philadelphia physician with impeccable republican credentials.20 "As a good republican," Rush "abhorred intemperance" as a "personal and social vice" that "struck at the very heart of the Revolutionaries' vision of the good republican society," for "[d]runkards...were the antithesis of virtuous citizens.":
Allow drunkenness to flourish, Rush cautioned, with its attendant crime, degraded individuals, broken families, economic loss, and other disruptions, and the Revolution would have been fought in vain. "Our country," he warned, would soon "be governed by men chosen by intemperate and corrupted voters," rather than by citizens of virtue. Nor, of course, would the Almighty look favorably on a people who preferred to drink whiskey when they had the opportunity to build a golden edifice dedicated to liberty and a moral republican order."21
Among the republican remedies that Dr. Rush prescribed for the infant body politic was for "good men of every class" to come together and "demand fewer taverns." In this regard, Rush mirrors the rhetoric of several of his more well known republican brethren among the Founding Fathers. James Madison had already lambasted "the corrupting influence of spirituous liquors" as "inconsistent with the purity of moral and republican principles," and John Adams, whose previous attempt to limit the number of public houses in Braintree, Massachusetts before the Revolution (despite his daily tankard of hard cider for breakfast) had earned him "the reputation of a hypocrite and an ambitious demagogue," lamented the role taverns were playing as "the nurseries of our legislators."22

In sum, once historians had applied the republican paradigm to the problem of colonial drinking, it became easy to unearth examples of republican antipathy to tavern culture. In the ensuing divide between republican virtue and tavern vice, the role of the public house in the formation of republican culture was not addressed for some time to come.

Continue to Part III.

Return to Part I.

8. Lender, Mark Edward, and James Kirby Martin, Drinking in America: A History, The Free Press (New York: 1982), 3. Says Lender and Martin of this early beer crisis, "The modern brewing industry has overlooked an advertising bonanza."
9. Rorabaugh, 24, 30. In fact, not only did Cotton Mather argue that drinking improved strength and "may not be amiss for many labouring men, especially when extreme heat or extreme cold, endangers them in their labours," he also once encouraged privateers to intercept, board the ship, and steal the rum of William Penn "and his ungodly crew." Tyrrell, Ian, Sobering Up: From Temperance to Prohibition in Antebellum America, 1800-1860, Greenwood Press (Westport: 1979), 19. Kobler, 28-29.
10. Kobler, 38-39.
11. Lender and Martin, 25-26.
12. Rorabaugh, 27-28.
13. Rorabaugh, 35.
14. Rorabaugh, 56.
15. Lender and Martin, 54.
16. Wood, Gordon, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill: 1969), 60-61.
17. Rodgers, 11.
18. Rorabaugh, 36.
19. Lender and Martin, 35-36. This passage not only ably delineates the opposition between republicanism and tavern life at the heart of this paper, but also offers quite a good summation of the concept of republican virtue, as articulated by the first wave of republican historians.
20. Lender and Martin, 40. Gordon Wood wrote of Benjamin Rush that he "as much as Jefferson came to personify the American Enlightenment." In his other career as a prominent education reformer, Rush argued that the ultimate end of the American educational system should be the conversion of "men into republican machines." "Our schools of learning," Rush argued, "will render the mass of the people more homogeneous and thereby fit them more easily for more uniform and peaceable government." Wood, Gordon, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Random House (New York: 1991), 236. Rush, Benjamin, "Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic," reprinted in Kornfeld, Eve, Creating an American Culture 1775-1800, Palgrave (New York: 2001), 110-111.
21. Lender and Martin, 37-38. It should be noted that Benjamin Rush [and his Quaker mentor, Anthony Benezet] were already considered to be America's first prominent prohibitionists by historians prior to the widespread adoption of the republican framework. Columbia historian John Allen Krout devotes a full chapter of his widely regarded 1925 work, The Origins of Prohibition, to the "Philadelphia Physician" whose medical theories formed the "principles of the first temperance society, definitely organized as such, in the United States." John Kobler begins his 1967 tome Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by recounting the tale of Rush "the True Instaurator," who in his "customary admixture of purple rhetoric, sense and nonsense, with nonsense distinctly preponderant" managed to pen "the first widely influential document in temperance history." And Wake Forest professor C.C. Pearson senses the influence of Rush in the recrafting of Virginia alcohol legislation in the early nineteenth century (and begins his work with Rush's "Moral and Physical Thermometer" pictured on page 2.) Nevertheless, it was Martin and Lender who first cast Rush's crusade against intemperance in republican terms. Krout, John Allen, The Origins of Prohibition, Alfred A. Knopf (New York: 1925), 70, 71-82. Kobler, 23. 42-43. Pearson, C.C. and J. Edwin Hendricks, Liquor and Anti-Liquor in Virginia 1619-1919, Duke University Press (Durham: 1967), 47-48.
22. Lender and Martin, 35, 38-39. Rorabaugh , 6, 35. For his part, George Washington, a whiskey distiller himself, spent over 92% of his expense account -- thirty-four of thirty-seven pounds -- in his 1758 election to the House of Burgesses on "brandy, rum, cyder, strong beer, and wine," which he doled out to voters at the local tavern before the polls. Tyrrell, 18.

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