Taverns in Early Massachusetts

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

    I found this interesting because it surprises me that a tavern is where America started. When I think of the revolution and the early politics of the Colonies I think of places such as in Philipelphia. I enjoyed how the article goes into detail about the atmosphere and importance of the taverns during that time. Also that they were at risk of losing their place of freedom where they got to express themselves. Many see bars as dirty and bad places but they are a place that literally anything can and will be talked about and in that period of time it was a great importance.

  2. Avatar
    Anna Guaderrama

    This was such a great article! I loved that you decided to write about this, primarily because I did not know any of this before reading the article. It’s interesting to see how even illiterate people could go and be informed. Aside form just wanting to get drunk, the different aspects to taverns is interesting to think about seeing as though it’s not exactly the first thought when thinking about such places.

  3. Avatar
    Natalie Childs

    I really like this article. I really liked how it showed the evolution to something that grew to more than just a tavern. From a place of gathering and blowing off steam, to a place that one could go, even if illiterate, and still learn about what was going on in their communities. The most interesting part was that these taverns were so integral to society, that politicians even visited to give speeches and mingle with everyone else.

  4. Maria Callejas
    Maria Callejas

    Great intro! You clearly depict the duality of taverns, those who despised them and those who loved them in Puritan times. I had no that taverns were a place for political gathering, rather than just a place to get drunk. That might be the reason taverns were loved by many, since there they could freely discuss the issues of the time. You emphasize this throughout the text, highlighting how taverns were crucial for social exchange during the American Revolution. Very good job!

  5. Avatar
    Tyler Sleeter

    Great article. I remember learning that the men of Boston often meant at taverns, but never really realized that they met there because there were so few places to meet in public. I just always thought of it as a group of people gathering at a local hangout. For men of that time to have a place to gather where they could discuss politics, business, and other important matters of the time is logical. Once the British army put regulations on the people of Boston, it became very difficult for them to gather together and it became dangerous for them to discuss politics in public areas. The taverns made a good location for the plans to change history to be made.

  6. Avatar
    Alexis Soto

    This was a great reading and I can honestly say I feel as though I learned a lot from this. I myself am not much of a drinker but I am fascinated with the history of alcohol. I am not surprised that even before the American Revolution beer had become a part of the colonial culture. The reasons provided by the article helped paint a picture to why. The correlation between democracy and the right of the common man to drink may sound foolish but it did make sense. To this day beer culture remains a staple of American life.

  7. Avatar
    Mario Sosa

    I had no idea taverns played an important part in the independence of the colonies. Also, I never would have thought that taverns would be a suitable place for a public court. It seemed kind of funny to me that almost all of the politicians would talk and give speeches to the public inside of taverns. Overall, great job on being descriptive and informative.

  8. Avatar
    Nahim Rancharan

    Great Article! It was interesting to see the development of businesses such as taverns and how they adapt to meet the unprovided needs of the public during that time. At first I thought that taverns were just places where people would go to talk and consume Alcohol without criticism, but after reading this article, I found out that it had developed as a social institution where people from many different backgrounds (rich or poor, literate and illiterate) could come together and discuss social and political issues that plagued their society. Additionally, it gives a new view of bartenders as being more of trusted companions/informants to spread political ideas and promote a sense of unity among patrons. This was a very informative article on the history of taverns. Good Job!

  9. Avatar
    Sam Vandenbrink

    The article was an appropriate length for the topic, it was not a dull article and kept me interested the entire time. It was funny how back so long ago the taverns would supply alcohol and the people were very fond of it just like in todays society. I also didn’t think of how the taverns would be an area for news to spread due to the lack of electronics in this era. Great article!

  10. Avatar
    Alyssa Valdez

    I thought this article was very interesting and humorous. Whenever I think of taverns I imagine just a bunch of drunk people just continuing to drink and mess around until they pass out. I don’t imagine it as a place to have important discussions. Reading this article has made me look at places like Taverns with a different perspective. If only bars were like this now haha! Great Read, thanks for the Article!

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