Public Virtue, Public Vices:

On Republicanism and the Tavern

[Page 4]

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

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

The first of these two works is In Public Houses: Drink & the Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts, a 1995 work by University of Massachusetts and Northeastern University Professor David W. Conroy. Noting both that the tavern was "the most numerous public institution in colonial New England," and the "paucity and [poor] quality of those few studies that included any discussion of taverns or drink," Conroy aims to "bring this shadowy institution into focus" and "reveal its place in the evolving public life" of colonial Massachusetts. Inspired by the "seminal essays on the interpretation of ritual ceremonies and behavior" by anthropologist Clifford Geertz, much as was Rhys Isaacs in his Pulitzer Prize-winning work The Transformation of Virginia: 1740-1790 nearly a decade previously, Conroy aims "to conceive of gatherings to drink in colonial America as occasions at which an entire range of values of social, economic, and political significance was acted out or acknowledged and reaffirmed." Conroy declares he will present "the tavern as a public stage upon which men, and sometimes women, spoke and acted in ways that sometimes tested -- and ultimately challenged -- the authority of their rulers and social superiors in the hierarchy of Massachusetts society."31

According to Conroy, taverns played the decisive role in the transition from Puritan to republican Massachusetts -- as he puts it, "from the vantage point of taverns and the popular culture of drink, it was the subversion of Puritan ethics that laid the foundation in Massachusetts for the rise of a new political conflagration eventually taking the form of a Republic."32 In Conroy's casting, at the very moment the Puritan church lost its grip on the Yankee mind, Massachusetts taverns rose to "become centers for the flowering and propagation of a new, secular, protorepublican political culture."[33] Thus, taverns were not only facilitators of the revolution but also the training grounds for republican activism and the centers of diffusion for republican ideas. "Theoretically, [republicans argued] the 'Republic' must be purged of habitual collective drinking, especially of [imported] rum, in public houses," Conroy argues:
But, actually, taverns were where republican concepts gripped men's imaginations and unleashed new levels of participation. Here the novel but appealing republican ideal of an alert, active citizenry might be acted out in a setting that was traditional and familiar. Here men interacted with each other on a common level, citizens all. Collective drinking could not be purged from the new political order that colonists were groping to establish, for such gatherings were important seedbeds of the new order.34
In other words, when the Rush republicans who, increasingly concerned about the "aroused citizenry they had helped to create," later decried the vices of the tavern, they were fighting an uphill battle against the very public institution that had made both the Revolution and the ascent of republican ideas possible in the first place. "It was difficult to impose restraints on collective drinking and related speech and amusement in taverns," points out Conroy, "when they had simultaneously become points for the distributions of appeals for resistance and context for ordinary men to assert themselves more aggressively in speech and posture on issues of imperial scope."35

Although these republicans who decried public houses as havens of public vice in the post-Revolutionary era never really succeeded in mitigating either the popularity or political power of taverns (indeed, by the 1790's, taverns "became known by the political affiliation of their keepers"), Conroy contends that they did unwittingly unleash forces that eventually culminated in the considerably more successful temperance movements of the early-to-mid nineteenth century.36 For one, the "tavernkeeper's traditional role as a purveyor of news and information began to be eclipsed by the broader consumption of print," which "[r]epublican ideology justified and recommended." Thus, the "localism that helped to sustain the popular culture of drink began to recede." For another, the utopianism of republican thought fashioned a citizenry that was "less devoted to tradition and to the way things had already been done and ready to invent new, voluntary organizations intent on molding society anew." More often than not, these organizations no longer needed the tavern as a meeting place.37

Third, and perhaps one of most interesting facets of the interplay between public houses and republicanism as examined by Conroy, is the role played by women in bringing an end to tavern life. Drawing on Linda Kerber's concept of "republican motherhood," which argues that republican ideology dictated that women "become the nurturers and instructors of virtuous republican citizens in the home, architects of a new domesticity," and Richard Bushman's study of the rise of gentility in The Refinement of America, Conroy argues that:
The construction and refinement of a private family life by women, in part through the purchase of material luxuries, placed new pressure on men to reduce expenditures on that preeminent luxury, strong drink. This new sphere of dominance gradually invested some women with the authority to criticize and challenge the tavern haunting and drinking habits of men…Not in taverns, but in agitation to get men out of them, women gradually enlarged their political influence and drew closer to men in public life, especially in meetings, parades, and ceremonies of the temperance movement.38
Thus, although females -- aside from the occasional widow innkeeper -- were generally excluded from both tavern society and republican politics throughout the eighteenth century, it was women who, by taking advantage of the republican ideology that excluded them from public life, ended up having the last laugh.

Continue to Part V.

Return to Part III.

31. Conroy, David W., In Public Houses: Drink and the Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill: 1995), 2, 6. Isaacs, Rhys, The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill: 1982), 94-98.
32. Conroy, 299.
33.Conroy, 254. In fact, given this power shift from congregation to tavern company in Massachusetts society, Conroy declares that historians "must be careful to evaluate clerical criticism of taverns in light of the rivalry they might have felt toward the institution." In his argument, "Puritan rulers sought to regulate taverns closely not just to reform behavior but also to preserve [their role in the social] hierarchy." Conroy, 8.
34. Conroy, 254. Interestingly, he also notes that republican arguments against imported rum never fared as well as those against tea, since -- while rum was a "staple in the popular culture of [male] drink" -- tea was a "feminizing luxury" that "was associated with elite equipage, special etiquette, and rituals orchestrated by women." Hence, the Boston Tea (and not the Boston Rum) Party. Conroy, 262-263.
35. Conroy, 255, 310.
36. Conroy, 312, 321.
37. Conroy, 315, 321.
38. Conroy, 320.

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