Public Virtue, Public Vices:

On Republicanism and the Tavern

[Page 6]

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

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

While Conroy and Thompson's works have reestablished the tavern as an important arena for scholarship in understanding the development of both the ideology of republicanism and the political culture of the early republic, their success begs the question of where colonial historians should focus their efforts next.46 To that end, several recent works by American and European historians suggest an important arena of inquiry that could shed further light on the tavern-republican relationship -- the toast.

In his Public Drinking and Popular Culture in Eighteenth-Century Paris, a book Peter Thompson cites as an influence, Thomas Brennan notes that "[p]ublic drinking in taverns reenacted a fundamental communion among men, a symbolic consumption and sharing with which they created their solidarities and reaffirmed their values."47 And nowhere was this communion and affirming of values more explicit than in the social ritual of the toast. Indeed, examining toasting practices in America could be particularly beneficial in understanding the nuances of republican culture in taverns, for as James Epstein notes in his 1994 work Radical Expression: Political Language, Ritual, and Symbol in England, 1790-1850, toasting "helped to define the terms of a distinct political culture and public sphere of discourse" and "formed part of an arena of contested meanings." Moreover, the "toasts to which one was prepared to stand were crucial indicators of political allegiance."48

This is not to say that toasting has gone completely unexamined in eighteenth-century American history. Thompson himself states in Rum Punch & Revolution that toasting "promoted a style of drinking that identified and built upon what a company had in common, and create stylized conversational exchanges between men drawn from various ethnic, cultural, and social backgrounds."49 Simon Newman, in his 1997 work Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic, notes that, "[g]iven the fact that late eighteenth-century Americans were disinclined to raise their glasses to sentiments with which they did not agree, we can find in their toasts evidence about their beliefs, values, and objectives."50 And, while noting that "strong sentiments gained at least some of their bluster from strong drink," David Waldstreicher uses toasts -- which were often prepared well in advance of drinking and published well after -- to great effect to explore the development of the party system in his 1997 book, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism 1776-1820.51 And yet, although these texts are extremely insightful in their own right, none of them tackle directly the formulation and expression of pre-Revolutionary republican thought through toasts in the taverns of colonial America.

In fact, the historian who has come closest to explicitly addressing this question, Richard J. Hooker, was writing well before the introduction of the republican paradigm. Arguing that "toasts could form, as well as reflect, the public mind" in his 1954 essay "The American Revolution Seen Through a Wine Glass," Hooker scrutinizes the toasts published in colonial newspapers in the decade before 1776 and discovers that toasts "provide an invaluable, sensitive index to shifting currents of thought and feeling during the revolutionary period. In them appear images of the hopes, fears, ambitions, political goals, and ideals of the revolutionary generation."52

Much of his article is concerned with showing how the health of the King was replaced as the foremost object of the toast with the respective healths of William Pitt, Thomas Paine, and eventually George Washington, among other revolutionary luminaries. In addition, Hooker delineates the growth of "intercolonial" toasts and toasts that in tones increasingly both martial and pacific augur the coming war with England.

But, when Hooker's wine glass is viewed through the prism of the republican paradigm, some of his minor arguments further tantalize. For example, Hooker notes in passing how some toasts seemed designed "to credit the new nation with superior virtues," such as "May a grand Constellation be formed by a union of American virtues" and "May human Knowledge, Virtue, and Happiness, receive their last Perfection in America."53 Similarly, Hooker argues that, "before Paine's Common Sense issued a strident, republican call," the King had long been removed from his customary position as the "ancient, traditional first toast," buttressing Conroy and Thompson's point that the tavern was a more important laboratory of republicanism than is commonly noted.54

Using Hooker's essay as a guide and starting point, perhaps the next step colonial tavern historiography should take in explicating the tangled relationship between public house sociability and republican virtue would be to go back and re-read these many published toasts in light of both the republican paradigm and the works of Conroy and Thompson. A renewed reading of these important and overlooked sources might further elucidate the role colonial taverns, public houses, and alehouses played in the formation and development of republican thought. And it might further explain why a sizable number of republicans after the war, much like Prince Hal upon his ascension to the throne in William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Pt. 2, almost ungratefully turned their backs on tavern life, most notably the accessibility -- the "tutor and feeder of [their] riots" -- and sociability -- "those that kept [them] company" -- that had nourished their civic philosophy during the throes of revolution.55

Return to Part I.

Return to Part V.

46. That is, other than employing Conroy and Thompson's methods to explore tavern culture outside of Massachusetts and Philadelphia.
47. Brennan, Thomas, Public Drinking and Popular Culture in Eighteenth Century Paris, Princeton University Press (Princeton: 1988), 7. Unfortunately, Brennan's book "reflects a deliberate decision to focus on a society undergoing no radical political changes, to look for public comportment in a less political era, and to leave to someone else the problem of the tavern's role in the [French] Revolution," and thus its helpfulness in ascertaining the connections between French drinking and French republicanism is much less than it could have been. Brennan, 17.
48. Epstein, James A., Radical Expression: Political Language, Ritual, and Symbol in England, 1790-1850, Oxford University Press (New York: 1994), 151, 164.
49. Thompson, 99.
50. Newman, Simon, Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia: 1997), 31.
51. Waldstreicher, David A., In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism 1776-1820, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill: 1997), 26.
52. Hooker, Richard J., "The American Revolution Seen Through A Wine Glass," William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 11, Issue 1 (Jan. 1954), 54, 77.
53. Hooker, 71.
54. Hooker, 56.
55. Shakespeare, 922.

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