How deplorables won the American revolution, Part 1
Colonial elites needed their rowdy ale drinking brethren to fight the British and found them in taverns
“I fear’d being guilty of Injustice to the Brute Creation, if I represented Drunkenness as a beastly Vice, since, ’tis well-known, that the Brutes are in general a very sober sort of People.” Benjamin Franklin, The Drinker’s Dictionary, 1736
The American revolution was won by a Continental Army in which 231,000 men out of a 1776 population of 2.5 million served over the seven year course of the war, with an additional 131,000 troops joining haphazardly but often decisively from colonial militias until the latter were integrated into the new Continental Army. Overall, nearly 15% of colonists served.
After the lethal conflict between American patriots and British troops at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts in April 1775, up to the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, a steady stream of troops were required to keep the new Continental Army viable and ultimately victorious. Estimates for American troop losses range as high as 70,000 men lost in battle, to disease or to enemy capture, a percentage equivalent to as many as 9 million people from the US population in 2023, not including a 20-25% desertion rate.
Where did the stream of fresh Continental Army recruits come from? In a word, taverns. Licensed taverns numbered roughly 19,000 to 25,000, or one for every 100 to 130 colonists. There were also thousands of unlicensed taverns. No neighborhood in the colonies was without a tavern or two, and the clientele in this wide variety of taverns reflected the social order of colonial America.
Pre-revolutionary America was a caste system of hierarchy and privilege heavily modeled on British society of the time. The Gentry were at the apex with nouveau riche gate crashers nipping at their heels, while the vast majority of colonists, in spite of many regional variations, were low income or poor laborers, farmers, small merchants and servants. More than a place to drink, which colonists did prodigiously, quaffing an average 40 gallons of alcohol per year, taverns were, in part because of their ubiquity, centers of social, civic and political life.
Socially, tavern owners experienced a greater status than did the clergy during the Colonial era. Taverns were the core of the community. Religious services and court sessions often convened in taverns. Many political conversations were carried out in taverns and the Founding Fathers entirely enjoyed knocking back a swig or two.
TAVERN LIFE & THE REVOLUTIONARY SPIRIT
The revolutionary fire was largely fanned by wealthy colonial elites burning with indignation against the British crown. Dubbed by historians as “Gentlemen Revolutionaries,” they considered themselves equal to their British peers, felt fully capable of managing colonial affairs themselves and resented the seemingly endless series of imperious orders, royal acts and taxes from London that directly affected their economic interests.
By contrast, many lower class colonists saw little connection between the revolution and their own lives. It is estimated that no more than 45% of colonists supported the war, while another 45% were either British loyalists or remained neutral. A significant number of colonists switched sides during the prolonged conflict depending upon who appeared to be winning.
This does not mean that commoners and the budding middle class of colonial cities were indifferent. In the early days of the colonies, Britain ruled from afar with a light hand. British officials were few and often fearful of pushing royal mandates. This hands off approach produced a kind of de facto self governance for most colonists, who rarely encountered a royal official.
But starting in 1760, Parliament, seeking tighter control and greater revenues, dramatically increased the number of royal administrators and ramped up enforcement actions. Colonists who had become accustomed to resolving legal disputes in their own local courts, watched with alarm as the Crown mandated that a steadily increasing number of offenses be tried by military tribunals. The heavy royal hand was an affront to the majority of colonists, commoner and gentry alike.
Although commoners and elites often had radically different views of what American political life should look like, there was sufficient common ground between them to propel the revolution forward. Nonetheless, recruitment for the Continental Army remained a daunting task throughout the War of Independence, not least because troops were paid in Continentals, a nearly worthless paper currency created by the Continental Congress in 1775.
In pre-revolutionary America, due to their ubiquity and the fact that they were open all day serving food and drink along with a variety of amusements from card games to cricket to cock fights to nine pins to gambling, taverns became centers of social and political life. Both locals and travelers could eat, drink, find entertainment and even loans in a warm and welcoming, if often rowdy, environment.
Taverns were also used as de facto assemblies and courts, as public spaces where the news of the day was read aloud, mail distributed, ideas debated in spirited exchanges and revolutionary fervor stoked as ideas from Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and other leaders in the movement for independence reached a wide audience and spread quickly from colony to colony. Taverns were where things went viral!
Daniel Webster famously characterized the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston, where the Boston Tea Party was planned, as “the headquarters of the revolution.” Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, where Benjamin Franklin organized the Pennsylvania Militia, is considered the birthplace of the US Marine Corp.
On November 10, 1775, Robert Mullan, the proprietor of the Tavern, was commissioned by an act of Congress to raise the first two battalions of Marines, under the leadership of Capt. Samuel Nicholas, the first appointed Commandant of the Continental Marines.
Yet all taverns were not equal. Reflecting the class system of colonial America, there were gentlemen’s taverns, usually private, for colonial elites, mid-level taverns for merchants and an enormous variety of taverns for the common man, some licensed, but thousands operating illicitly.
In spite of the fact that 6,600 people of color (including African American, indigenous, and multiracial men) served with the colonial forces, and made up one fifth of the Northern Continental Army, blacks and native Americans were almost universally banned from entering taverns. Women worked as servers, cooks or prostitutes but were not allowed to enter as patrons. In unlicensed taverns, prostitution, gambling and fist fights were commonplace.
Further muddling class distinctions…
Colonial gentlemen loved to go on the ‘rake’, which entailed what we now refer to as ‘bar-hopping’, only in a much more violent, destructive guise. Donning a sword and social capital, groups of elite men barged into unlicensed taverns, where they sexually accosted and attacked customers and workers, broke furniture and drank in excess – often without any legal consequence.
Many colonial gentry felt elitist disdain for colonists outside their own social and political circles. Lower class colonists, on the other hand, violently resisted elite conceptions of hierarchy and social order, sometimes with armed rebellion. Civil society was characterized by palpable tension between a minority of powerful upper class gentry and a fiercely independent majority of lower class colonists.
The reality of the War of Independence meant that for purposes of political legitimacy and troop recruitment, elites needed both the political and physical support of commoners. The uneasy dialectic between these classes largely worked itself out in taverns as public spaces for hashing out differences over conflicting visions for the future of America. It is a conflict that has defined the nation ever since.
Church ministers also played a major role in abetting the revolutionary cause "by turning colonial resistance into a righteous cause, and by crying the message to all ranks in all parts of the colonies.”
Although many thousands of colonists were true patriots who volunteered to fight British tyranny under the influence of their churches or on pure principle, they were not a majority, and recruitment remained a huge challenge for revolutionary war leaders. Washington, Jefferson and Franklin are all reported to have visited taverns to energize recruitment efforts.
An anecdote related by Captain Alexander Grayson about his recruitment visit to a local tavern in Pennsylvania highlights the difficulty of recruitment at a time when there was little pay and great risk.
"A number of fellows at the tavern, at which my party rendezvoused, indicated a desire to enlist, but although they drank freely of our liquor, they still held off. I soon perceived that the object was to amuse themselves at our expense, and that if there might be one or two among them really disposed to engage, the others would prevent them.”
Grayson ended up in a fist fight with one of the drunker, rowdier potential recruits, which according to his own account, ended with a quick knockout of the commoner.
In the end, taverns were the most essential breeding ground for the revolution among commoners. As blood began to be shed, broadsides and pamphlets read aloud in taverns were ubiquitous, carrying news and opinion about the revolution. Depending upon the tavern goers views, these epistles were either seditious or ringing with the words of freedom, with sufficient numbers of tavern patrons ultimately landing on the side of the revolution to keep the Continental Army manned.
PART 2 – “RECONCILING THE TWO AMERICAS” – COMING SOON