The Magazine

On the House

Why Americans are at home in a bar.

Dec 5, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 12 • By MARTIN MORSE WOOSTER
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There are many reasons why people go to bars: to find a date, cheer on a team, or simply to get stewed. But the best reason to be in bars is that you’re with friends. The best bars—free of televisions and background music, with an agreeable burger, good local draft beers, and well-informed bartenders—are places to be cherished. By providing places for clubs to meet and for acquaintances to become friends, bars reduce atomic individualism and enhance civil society.

Illustration of a New York saloon in 1853

New York saloon, 1853

Getty Images

Of course, all sorts of activities have gone on in taverns. Christine Sismondo, who teaches English at Canada’s Ryerson University, shows that for over 300 years Americans have talked about politics in bars. This interesting and occasionally dogmatic book shows how taverns have acted as meeting places for people to argue about politics—and, more than occasionally, take action.

Most of us know that 18th-century Americans spent a lot of time in taverns. But Sismondo explains the reasons why. First, there weren’t that many places for people to meet. There were coffeehouses, which often served as much alcohol as coffee, but these places were more comparable to the private club of today in that they prided themselves on their ability to exclude. Taverns would admit anybody. To differentiate themselves in the midst of robust competition, the taverns offered all sorts of embellishments. Some had regular Sunday sermons, while others bragged about their oddities, such as an eight-legged cat or a “learned pig” who knew how to multiply and divide.

The smarter taverns offered themselves as home to clubs where gentlemen could discuss philosophical and moral issues. One of the first of these was the Junto, established in 1727 by Benjamin Franklin at the Indian King Tavern in Philadelphia. The Junto proved so popular a venue for intellectuals that it eventually became the American Philosophical Society.

It wasn’t much of a stretch for taverns to expand from cultural to political action. Sismondo shows how Samuel Adams spent most of his time traveling from bar to bar engaging in political agitation. His most congenial drinking place was the Green Dragon in Boston where, in 1773, protesters met, organized, and fortified themselves before tossing tea into Boston Harbor.

Sismondo notes two Philadelphia taverns that played important roles in the American Revolution. The City Tavern, which prided itself on its elegance and sophistication, held many sessions of the Continental Congress and was the place where, in 1774, George Washington met John Adams for the first time. On November 10, 1775, Continental Army officers met in the Tun Tavern to create America’s first regiment of Marines. Every November, Marines around the world celebrate the Corps’s birthday, commemorating events that took place in a bar over 200 years ago.

In the 19th century the great debate emerged between drinkers who wanted to preserve taverns and prohibitionists who wanted to ban booze. Prohibitionists seamlessly combined their hatred of drinkers with anti-Catholic prejudice. When Democrats, in the 1884 presidential contest, were denounced as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion,” this was political shorthand for telling voters that it was acceptable to despise drinkers, Roman Catholics, and Southerners.

Sismondo believes that the strongest example of this bias may have taken place in Rhode Island in the 1840s. Rhode Island was one of the last states to impose a property requirement for voters, which disenfranchised half the white males in the state. Many of these disenfranchised voters were Irish Catholics who enjoyed spending time in taverns. A lawyer named Thomas Wilson Dorr tried to rally the drinkers to end the property requirement but after the Rhode Island legislature rejected Dorr’s claim, he held an unofficial election for governor in 1842, which he won. Samuel Ward King, who won the official election, refused to relinquish power and seized Dorr’s headquarters, Sprague’s Tavern in Chepachet. Over several months the Rhode Island militia guzzled 37 gallons of brandy, 29 gallons of rum, and copious quantities of hard cider. Madeira, champagne, and cigars—all of which Jedediah Sprague, the tavern owner, was forced to pay for. Dorr was tried for treason and sentenced to hard labor and solitary confinement, but in 1843 the legislature changed the law so that any male voter who paid a dollar poll tax could vote—a reform that made Rhode Island the first state to give African Americans the vote.

Taverns did both good and harm in the Civil War. For example, there were at least four and as many as a dozen taverns that were stops on the Underground Railroad that allowed slaves to head toward freedom. But because many of the conspirators who plotted the assassination of Abraham Lincoln met in Mary Surratt’s tavern in Clinton, Maryland, prohibitionists repeatedly noted that the assassination plotters “always met in a saloon.”