Books  
comments_image Comments

America's "Founding Fathers" Detested the Paradise of Delightful Debauchery and Freedom That Was 18th Century America

There was a lot of fun to be had in early America, before the prudish patrician types did everything they could to stamp it out.

Continued from previous page

 
 
Share
 
 
 

But the Founding Fathers invented a way to make Americans think fun was bad. We call it democracy.

Nurseries of Vice and Debauchery

On nearly every block in every eighteenth-century American city, there was a public place where one could drink, sing, dance, have sex, argue politics, gamble, play games, or generally carouse with men, women, children, whites, blacks, Indians, the rich, the poor, and the middling. The Founding Fathers were keenly, painfully aware of this.

Each morning during the meetings of the Continental Congress in 1777, John Adams squeezed his round body into breeches, waistcoat, wood-sole shoes, and powdered wig, and walked stiffly from his residence on Walnut and Third streets to the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) four blocks away on Chestnut between Fifth and Sixth streets. Along the way, he passed by at least a dozen of the more than 160 licensed taverns in Philadelphia that serviced the city’s population of 24,000. "ere were also scores of unlicensed taverns, which means that there was at least 1 tavern for every 100 residents. (By contrast, in 2007 there was 1 alcohol-serving business for every 1,071 residents in Philadelphia.) Other early American cities contained even greater tavern densities during the time of the Revolution. In New York in the 1770s, there were enough taverns to allow every resident of the city to drink in a bar at the same time. In Boston in the middle of the century, it was estimated that liquor was sold at one of every eight residential houses. "The cities,” writes Sharon V. Salinger, the author of Taverns and Drinking in Early America, “were packed with taverns.”

And what would Adams have found if one morning he had clopped into one of the taverns along his way to creating the American republic? If it was one of the lower-class establishments on Walnut Street, the kind of place where most Philadelphians went, before he reached the front door, Adams would have heard white men fiddling Irish reels and black men pounding out driving African rhythms on hand drums, rattles, and wooden blocks. He would have heard a hybrid, flagrantly sexual sound that was the first American urban party music. As he opened the front door, Adams would have felt the vibrations of dancing feet on loose wooden floors. Once inside, the statesman’s ears would have been assaulted by chants, responding chants, glasses clinking and breaking, laughing, and hollering of “fuck,” “shit,” “bastard,” and “cunt.” He would have inhaled the stink of old beer and the sweet aroma of warm, rum-laden grog.

Though Adams was short of stature, he would have felt uncomfortably large inside the narrow, smoky, sweaty room that amplified the noise and made everyone very, very close. But the intimacy of the room would not have been the first thing to strike the Founding Father. If he was in a typical lower-class eighteenth-century American urban tavern, he would have seen white men and black men sitting together and drumming their fingers to the music on long wooden tables. He would have seen white women dancing with black men and black women dancing with white men. He would have seen prostitutes openly and shamelessly selling their services. And, quite possibly, he would have seen a woman behind the bar who not only served the drinks but also owned the place. John Adams would have seen renegade America in all its early glory. And he would have known the enemy.

During the War of Independence, Americans drank an estimated 6.6 gallons of absolute alcohol per year—equivalent to 5.8 shot glasses of 80-proof liquor a day—for each adult fifteen or over. "is is a staggering statistic, to be sure, though it likely understates beer consumption. "e historian W. J. Rorabaugh has called the period of the Revolution the beginning of America’s “great alcoholic binge.” "ere was virtually no moral or legal proscription against drinking until after the War of Independence. Historians have found only a handful of prosecutions for drunkenness or unlawful behavior in taverns in colonial county records. In New York, not a single defendant was brought before the court on such charges in all of the eighteenth century. Salinger concludes that this was likely because “magistrates did not place drunkenness high on their list of offenses warranting prosecution.” Indeed, drunkenness was often encouraged.

 
See more stories tagged with: