Taverns in Early Massachusetts

Carter Inn’s Sign (c. 1823) | Courtesy of Connecticut History

In colonial Massachusetts, as in many other American colonies in the 1760s and 1770s, taverns played a critical role in the development of popular resistance to British rule. However, the Puritan culture of New England created some resistance to these taverns, also known as public houses or pubs. There were strong efforts by reformers to regulate or close the taverns. They believed that it would reduce the problems caused by public drunkness and prevent anarchy. But as the commercial life of the colonies expanded, and as increasing numbers of people began living in towns and cities, taverns became a central institution in American social life, and eventually in its political life as well.1

Taverns were appealing to much of the public because they provided alcoholic drinks. The culture craved for alcohol, to the extent of complete drunkness, and it embraced these institutions. However, taverns had other attractions as well. In early colonies, there were few places where people could meet and talk openly in public. For many colonists, tavern culture began to seem like the most democratic experience available.2 Gradually, they saw the attacks on the taverns as efforts to increase the power of existing elites and suppress the freedom of ordinary people. Just as in politics, taverns were seen as institutions of mostly male concern. Through time, the fusion of male camaraderie and political discourse gave birth to the strong tavern culture.3

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“Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam” (c1752-1758) by John Greenwood | Courtesy St. Louis Art Museum

As the revolutionary crisis deepened, taverns and pubs became central meeting places for discussions of the ideas that fueled resistance to British policies. Educated and uneducated men joined in animated discussions of events together. Those who could not read could learn about the contents of revolutionary pamphlets from listening to tavern discussions. They could join the discussions of the new republican ideas that emerged in the Americas by participating in tavern celebrations.4 The tavern culture inspired elaborate toasts in public houses throughout the colonies. Such toasts were the equivalents of political speeches, and illiterate men could learn much from them about the political concepts that were circulating through the colonies.5

the-quilting-frolic-1813-jpglarge
“The Quilting Frolic” (1813) by John Lewis Krimmel | Courtesy of Wikiart

Taverns were important outlets for gathering information in an age before the wide distribution of newspapers. Tavern keepers were often trusted informants and confidants to the Sons of Liberty and other activists, and they were fountains of information about the political and social turmoil of the time.6 Taverns were also the setting for political events, and served as a public court. In 1770, for example, a report circulated through the taverns of Danvers, Massachusetts, about a local man who was continuing to sell tea despite the colonial boycott. The Sons of Liberty brought the seller to the Bell Tavern and persuaded him to sign a confession and apology before a crowd.7

Almost all politicians found it necessary to visit taverns in colonial Massachusetts if they wanted any real contact with the public. Samuel Adams spent considerable time in the public houses of Boston, where he sought to encourage resistance to British Rule. His cousin John Adams recognized taverns’ political value as well. In taverns, he once said, “bastards and legislators are frequently begotten.”8

Taverns were very important social institutions in the colonies. They started as an entertainment location where people could come together and socialize. However, through time taverns transformed into something much more powerful. They were at the core of the political life that started the strong camaraderie between  colonists, which was formed in these taverns and eventually led to the expression of public, heated political speeches.

 

  1. Mark Lender, “In Public Houses: Drink and the Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts,” Journal of Social History 31, no. 1 (1997): 202.
  2. Stephen Donlon, “The colonial tavern” (M.A. Thesis., St. Mary’s University, San Antonio, TX, 1946), 13.
  3. Baylen Linnekin, “Tavern talk and the origins of the assembly clause,”Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly 39, no. 3 (2012): 593.
  4.  Mark Lender, “In Public Houses: Drink and the Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts,” Journal of Social History 31, no. 1 (1997): 202.
  5. Alan Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past Volume 2 since 1865 (New York: McGraw-Hill Education,  2011), 186.
  6. Alan Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past Volume 2 since 1865 (New York: McGraw-Hill Education,  2011), 186.
  7.  Mark Lender, “In Public Houses: Drink and the Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts,” Journal of Social History 31, no. 1 (1997): 202.
  8.  Alan Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past Volume 2 since 1865 (New York: McGraw-Hill Education,  2011), 186.

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This Post Has 33 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I was very surprised by the origins and uses for taverns. I feel ignorant that I have always thought they were just really dark dive bars! However, your article was very informative and surprising. I like the images that accompanied your article. Great work!

  2. Avatar

    This article was very detailed and I have always known about taverns back in the day where people needed to meet up. I had no idea how much of an impact taverns made in the political world. A place that brought people from diverse backgrounds to listen and participate in the discussions that took place in these taverns. It is truly amazing how a place can bring people together for the greater good.

  3. Avatar

    This is so interesting article about taverns, the place that related deeply with old American culture. I have learned why taverns often appears in movies that their scene are laid in old America. It must have been the far important place for people then, not only where they talked each other but also where they discussed political things.

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