Public Virtue, Public Vices:

On Republicanism and the Tavern

[Page 5]

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

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

The more recent of the two solely tavern-based studies, Rum Punch & Revolution: Taverngoing & Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia by University of Oxford professor Peter Thompson, does not address republicanism as explicitly or in detail as the works of either Conroy or Shields. Nevertheless, Thompson's work does its own part in further illuminating the complex contradictions in the relationship between public vice and public virtue.

While Thompson takes issue with the way that Conroy sets up the tenets of tavern life and Puritanism in opposition - since "men and women who kept taverns in business did not see themselves as living and thinking outside a cultural mainstream" - he too is concerned with exploring how colonial Americans desired "to make the privately owned 'public house' a site where they could express and, if necessary, defend their complicated and contested notions of community and society in a new world environment."39 And, although the introduction to Rum Punch suggests that Thompson is more influenced by Jürgen Habermas's theories of civil society and the public sphere than, as is Conroy, the close anthropological readings of Clifford Geertz - particularly when Thompson contends that "Philadelphians fashioned from tavern talk and action a realm of discourse that existed outside the effective cultural control of both government and private or domestic authority" - Rum Punch & Revolution nevertheless paints a picture of a colonial world in which every man was obsessed with a Geertzian-like dramaturgy.40 According to Thompson, colonial Americans "read political significance into dancing, singing, or silence as observed in the behavior of strangers and locals in intimate and spontaneous encounters in taverns." Moreover, "[r]eflecting minds in colonial Philadelphia were obsessed with decoding the meaning and significance of speech and action in public places."41

Indeed, Thompson argues that the main impetus behind tavern-haunting in Philadelphia was not so much a longing for community (or a stiff drink) as it was this pervasive concept of accessibility through in vino veritas. "Philadelphians believed they could garner from speech and behavior observed in mixed, competitive, and often drunken tavern encounters insights and information about themselves and the world around them in a quality unattainable in any other site," he argues. As a result, "colonial Philadelphians kept returning to the tavern, despite the conflicts and contests taverngoing produced, because they believed that speech and behavior in public houses proved vitally important, even if potentially deceptive, indicators of a man's character and opinions."42

Thompson contends that this accessibility borne of the tavern also "had a marked influence on the conduct of politics in the province," in that Pennsylvanians of all classes and backgrounds, "emboldened by the robustly undeferential climate that prevailed within the taverns," often "seized the opportunity to confront or support their erstwhile leaders and betters in direct, face-to-face encounters in taverns and other public spaces." In this way, white males who normally would have been excluded from political power could have a voice in the governance of the colony. Yet, unlike Conroy, who sees the height of tavern political power happening during the Revolution, Thompson asserts that the fragmentation of the tavern population by class (for example, the creation of Philadelphia's exclusive City Tavern, visited by the likes of George Washington and John Adams) in the decade before 1776 created distinctions that destroyed this constructive climate of political accessibility. When Philadelphians began distinguishing between "the passionate and therefore pernicious chatter of a workingman's alehouse and the rational and therefore wholesome discussion conducted by sober merchants in a coffeehouse," as they did more and more often during the Revolution and thereafter, "something important was lost in the transition."43

In this political shift away from the accessibility of tavern sociability and towards the exclusivity of republican rationalism, one can see the hand of Benjamin Rush-style republicanism at work again - indeed, Thompson closes his book by once again invoking Dr. Rush, who in both his description of the French fete (referenced in Shields) and his discourse on alcoholism (referenced in the prohibition texts) devalues the lessons "respectable people" could learn from carefully eyeing fellow citizens in taverns. "For Rush, very nearly all forms of behavior in sites where liquor was consumed, especially behavior liable to be observed in taverns, indicated drunkenness," notes Thompson. "There was, then, nothing to be gained from close observation of speech and behavior in such sites."44

And yet, despite Dr. Rush's belittling of the discerning powers of in vino veritas, Thompson perceives this painstaking scrutiny that was the central attraction of tavern life also to be the fundamental tenet of republican virtue. For the "revolutionary generation's almost obsessive concern with identifying and promoting virtue, while discovering and eradicating corruption," was grounded in part upon "the small politics of everyday life." "In common with other Americans," he writes, "most residents of the Quaker City believed that the key concepts of republican ideology had, and ought to possess an observable basis in was incumbent on the patriotic citizen to observe and judge his neighbor's speech, deportment, and appearance."45 Once again, as in Conroy, we find republicans attacking a facet of the tavern life that had played a considerable role in the formulation of their own civic ideology.

Continue to Part VI.

Return to Part IV.

39. Thompson, 4, 11-12.
40. Thompson, 17-19, 115-116.
41. Thompson, 202.
42. Thompson, 203.
43. Conroy, 308. Thompson, 116, 149-150, 179-180.
44. Thompson, 182-185, 203-204.
45. Thompson, 143, 160-161. Thompson's reading of republican virtue gives Wood's discussion of sociability and benevolence a worrisome and somewhat Orwellian tinge. Was the primary purpose of republican sociability to ferret out the corrupting influences in one's midst?

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