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.
The following is an excerpt from Thaddeus Russell's book, "A Renegade History of the United States" (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2010). One of AlterNet's favorite books in recent years, we thought we'd resurface the book at year's end for a thought-provoking holiday read.
In the spring of 1777, the great men of America came to Philadelphia for the fourth meeting of the Continental Congress, the de facto government of the rebel republic. When they stepped from their carriages onto the cobblestone streets, they could see that they were in for a very long war. New York had already been lost to the British, armies of redcoats and Hessian mercenaries were poised to cut o! New England, and British plans were afoot to conquer Philadelphia and crush the rebellion. "Thousands of troops in the Continental army had been lost to typhus, dysentery, smallpox, starvation, and desertion. They were outnumbered and outgunned. But it was not just the military power of the kingdom that worried the leaders of the American War of Independence. There was a far more sinister and enduring enemy on the streets they walked. “Indeed, there is one enemy, who is more formidable than famine, pestilence, and the sword,” John Adams wrote to a friend from Philadelphia in April. “I mean the corruption which is prevalent in so many American hearts, a depravity that is more inconsistent with our republican governments than light is with darkness.”
Adams was right. Many, and probably most, inhabitants of early American cities were corrupt and depraved, and the Founding Fathers knew it. Alexander Hamilton called the behaviors of Americans “vicious” and “vile.” Samuel Adams saw a “torrent of vice” running through the new country. John Jay wrote of his fear that “our conduct should confirm the Tory maxim ‘that men are incapable of governing themselves.’” James Warren, the president of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts and a Paymaster General of the Continental army, declared during the Revolution that Americans lived “degenerate days.” As the war with the British thundered on, John Adams grew so disgusted at what he saw on the streets that at times he believed Americans deserved death more than freedom. "Their dissolute character “is enough to induce every Man of Sense and Virtue to abandon such an execrable Race, to their own Perdition, and if they could be ruined alone it would be just.” Adams feared that after winning independence, Americans “will become a Spectacle of Contempt and Derision to the foolish and wicked, and of Grief and shame to the wise among Mankind, and all this in the Space of a few Years.” In September of 1777, with the British army under the command of General William Howe on the verge of conquering Philadelphia, Adams told his wife of his secret wish for America to be conquered. “[I]f it should be the Will of Heaven that our Army should be defeated, our Artillery lost, our best Generals kill’d, and Philadelphia fall into Mr. Howes Hands, ... It may be for what I know be the Design of Providence that this should be the Case. Because it would only lay the Foundations of American Independence deeper, and cement them stronger. It would cure Americans of their vicious and luxurious and e!eminate Appetites, Passions and Habits, a more dangerous Army to American Liberty than Mr. Howes.”
But what the Founding Fathers called corruption, depravity, viciousness, and vice, many of us would call freedom. During the War of Independence, deference to authority was shattered, a new urban culture offered previously forbidden pleasures, and sexuality was loosened from its Puritan restraints. Nonmarital sex, including adultery and relations between whites and blacks, was rampant and unpunished. Divorces were frequent and easily obtained. Prostitutes plied their trade free of legal or moral proscriptions. Black slaves, Irish indentured servants, Native Americans, and free whites of all classes danced together in the streets. Pirates who frequented the port cities brought with them a way of life that embraced wild dances, nightlong parties, racial integration, and homosexuality. European visitors frequently commented on the “astonishing libertinism” of early American cities. Renegades held the upper hand in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Charleston, and made them into the first centers of the American pleasure culture. Rarely have Americans had more fun. And never have America’s leaders been less pleased by it.
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.
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.”
This culture enlarged the freedom of everyone, but of blacks especially. In 1732 Philadelphia’s common council noted with alarm “the frequent and tumultuous Meetings of the Negro Slaves, especially on Sundays.” The lawmakers called for an ordinance to restrain them but never passed one. In the 1740s, the city’s governors heard several complaints about “great numbers of Negroes” drinking and carousing in public, but, according to the historian Jessica Kross, “In the end the common council seems to have taken no action about slave drinking.” A 1744 grand jury chaired by Benjamin Franklin estimated that one out of ten houses in Philadelphia “sell strong drink,” that most were “nurseries of vice and debauchery,” and because of the intense competition for customers, were in general “under greater temptation to entertain apprentices, servants, and even Negroes.”
Lower-class taverns were the first racially integrated public spaces in America. Black, white, and brown Americans came together through mutual desire centuries before the federal government brought them together by force. Although the law in all the colonies barred blacks from public houses, the law was often ignored by tavern keepers, white patrons, and by free blacks and even slaves. Early court records tell of drinking establishments across the colonies that disregarded the color line. Typical was a Burlington, New Jersey, grand jury’s charge in 1707 that a laborer named William Cale kept a “common house of drinking . . . and there received harbored and supported diverse vagabond and other idle and suspected persons of evil conversation as well as diverse servants and Negroes of the inhabitants of the town.” Occasional attacks by law enforcers did little to stem the inflow of various colors into American taverns. Again, the less “respectable” a public house was, the more likely it was to facilitate the mixing of races. "is was most notable inside the dark drinking houses of New York City. Here, as throughout American history, the lowest “scum” were interracial pioneers. “All colonies prosecuted those who kept disorderly houses, but the infraction included a range of activities from selling liquor without a license to operating a brothel,” writes Salinger. “New York’s version of the practice was unique; it was synonymous with multiracialness.” The freedom in such places at times spilled into the streets and terrified the guardians of social order.