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


On his morning walks to the meetings, Adams would have seen and smelled men and women drinking before or instead of working. When he walked by the shops where craftsmen built furniture, shoes, wagons, tools, and other staples of the early American economy, he would have witnessed workers seated in front of tables on which sat their wares alongside their mugs. It was not only accepted but also expected to mix drinking with work. Laborers of all sorts drank beer throughout the workday and took frequent breaks for liquor and lounging. Construction workers and shipbuilders expected employers to provide them with beer at breaks. According to the historian Peter Thompson, even highly skilled artisans, the managers of early American manufacturing, “jealously defended heavy drinking as a right and a privilege.”

In the early American economy, workers, not bosses, decided when they would show up and when they would go home. Long afternoon periods of eating, drinking, and sleeping were taken for granted. On the eighteenth-century worker’s schedule, Sunday was followed by another day of rest known as “Saint Monday,” which, Benjamin Franklin was irritated to see, “is as duly kept by our working people as Sunday; the only difference is that instead of employing their time cheaply in church, they are wasting it expensively in the alehouse.” The New Haven Gazette reported that no matter how much an employer wished for sober workers, “a laboring man must have his half pint or pint every day, and at night half his wages in rum.” Even in New England, where the Puritan influence remained strong through the eighteenth century, taverns were o$en located next door to churches so that congregants could have a drink before and after worshipping.

Tavern culture repelled authority and discipline. Typical was the scene at a Boston “public house” in 1714, when a judge was summoned from his home to expel a group of tipplers who refused to leave at closing time. The magistrate “Found much Company. They refus’d to go away. Said were there to drink the Queen’s Health, and they had many other Health’s to drink. Call’d for more Drink: drank to me, I took notice of the Affront to them . . . I threaten’d to send some of them to prison; that did not move them . . . I told them if they had not a care, they would be guilty of a Riot.”

Only then did the revelers exit the premises. Alexander Graydon, an officer in the Continental army and a frequent visitor to Philadelphia’s taverns, found in them a “high-minded contempt for the industrious and the plodding.” This kind of irreverence was typical in all the colonies. In Virginia, a clergyman complained in 1751 that taverns had become “the common Receptacle and Rendezvous of the very Dreggs of the People; even of the most lazy and dissolute that are to be found in their respective Neighbourhoods, where not only Time and Money are, vainly and unprofitably, squandered away, but (what is worse) where prohibited and unlawful Games, Sports, and Pastimes are used, followed, and practiced, almost without any Intermission; namely cards, dice, Horse-Racing, and cock-fighting, together with Vices and Enormities of every other kind.”

This was a shameless and public culture. The prominent Virginia planter and political leader William Byrd II noted in his diary that on a single day in the spring of 1710 in Williamsburg, “some people came to court and got drunk in defiance of the sickness and bad weather,” and he “saw several drunk people in the churchyard.” Later that year, on a warm summer night, Byrd walked to the courthouse to get his mail, “where the people were most of them drunk.” He also explained his sleeplessness as due to “a great noise of people drunk in the street a good part of the night.” Far from condemning the practice, Byrd did his part to contribute to it. While participating in a militia muster, he supplied an entire hogshead— sixty-three gallons—of rum punch, which “entertained all the people and made them drunk and fighting all the evening, but without mischief.” Such mixing of formal activity with heavy drinking was the norm. “Most occasions in Virginia,” writes the historian Salinger, “could not be celebrated without enormous amounts of alcohol.”

See more stories tagged with: