Brewing in Colonial America: Part III
By Gregg Smith
In early America a tavern was one of the most important buildings a community
could have. It disseminated the news, served as the center for commerce, and
filled the social needs of an often harsh existence. The colonial government
found taverns so important to development of this new land they enacted laws
to encourage their construction. Thanks to the nature of good New Englanders
it wasn't long until nearly every village had one. Indeed these were the
motels, restaurants, and shopping malls of their day.
Developed with private funds the taverns were used by a government short on
capital funds. In fact they were in a manner of speaking used as an extension
of government. In those days court wasn't held in a set courthouse and the
people didn't come to the law, the law went to the people. Judges presided
over cases by "riding the circuit", and one of the most famous of these early
judges was Samuel Sewall. Coming into town Sewall did exactly as his peers.
The first thing he looked for was the place all circuit riders held court,
Use of the tavern was a matter of practicality. More often than not the only
communal building in an area was the local tavern. From the 1680's on the
tavern of John Turner hosted so many sessions of the Boston court that he
actually designated one of the rooms as court chambers. In those times a
barrister needn't travel far to celebrate a successful case, the convenience
was in the next room. Our friend Judge Sewall (who didn't patronize taverns
within Boston) was none the less often in the town's ale-houses - he presided
over many cases heard in the court chamber of George Monck's tavern.
This tradition of conducting a trial in the local watering hole continued for
more than a century. Years after Sewall's career the ever proper John Adams
was himself riding the circuit and gladly visited many a tavern. He recorded
his impressions of them for posterity but his ratings should be looked upon
with skepticism judging by how many he described as "most genteel".
The first serious threat to the tavern business came as the 1700's began and
the cause of it all was a gesture of friendliness. As early as the mid 1650's
the government was alarmed by intemperance among its citizens. However,
complete abstinence was never one of their goals; they just wanted to keep
things under control. It was one of the new social drinking rituals which
gave them no end of grief, the drinking of toasts.
The custom began innocently enough, raising a glass to someone's health was a
means of promoting good spirit and a routine which gathered all together in a
tavern's main room. What better way to cement a new friendship than over a
mug of foamy ale? Unfortunately, the government was given reason to believe
things were getting out of hand. People were raising a mug to not only each
others health but to the king, the queen, the royal offspring, the colonial
governor, his spouse and offspring and on down to the royal dog catcher. It
was all just becoming too much and something had to be done. The first laws
in the 1640's were largely ignored and it wasn't until 1712 when the "Act
Against Intemperance, Immorality and Prophaneness, and for Reformation of
Manners" put some teeth into enforcement. In reality it wasn't the act which
raised a fuss, it was the conscientious acts of a dedicated law man, a lone
protector who would attempt to extract order from the chaos.
The night of February 6, 1714 was typical of mid winter Boston. Shops had
long since closed and shuttered their windows. Even at an early hour the
streets were relatively empty, but it didn't mean everyone was asleep. A
group had gathered in John Wallis's tavern to commemorate the Queen's
birthday and as they began their festivities they anticipated the arrival of
a distinguished guest, none other than a member of the Governor's Council and
esteemed Justice of the Superior Court. As he entered the tavern he was
warmly greeted. The assembly raised their glasses to the queen's health and
then to his. Instead of pleasing this guest of honor they only succeeded in
raising his ire. It seems they were violating one of the colony's newest laws
and the guest was not amused. Judge Samuel Sewall was angry.
It was this "tavern disorder" which prompted the constable to call Sewall
away from the warmth of his fire, and he quickly ordered the band of
party'ers to disperse. Instead of following his directive the group stood
their ground in protest. After more than an hour of heated debate they left
the tavern, however any hope Sewall had of this being the end of the
confrontation immediately evaporated. The merry-makers only moved the fun to
one of their nearby home's and after settling in called for the colonial
equivalent of a beer to go.
This defiance was more than Sewall was willing to overlook; it wasn't long
before he had the aid of his associate justice Edward Bromfield who
threatened them with calling out the militia. Further they infuriated Sewall
by jokingly spelling their names for his future use in court and compounding
this by insisting the colonial government was incapable of passing Even "one
good law". Sewall would see they had their day in court.
The conclusion should not be drawn that Sewall was against tipping a glass of
beer. In fact, he was known to freelypartake of not only beer but also wine
and cider. His journal recounts many evenings of hoisting a beer. He even
owned a malt house, but the law was the law.
This incident was one which serves to illustrate the paradox created by
colonial law. There was no question the establishment of taverns was
beneficial to commerce, but the authorities also saw the problem of people
gathering and drinking. This was evident in Sewall's conflict when the party
insisted the government did not have even one good law. As sure as people may
have gathered initially for social purpose the conversation inevitably turned
to politics. It was the political discussions which made the Royal Governors'
nervous; it was questioning both the crown's wisdom and authority. The answer
was to outlaw the drinking of toasts but the intent was to inhibit what were
becoming political gatherings. So although the government was encouraging the
growth of taverns they concurrently enacted laws to discourage their use. Yes
even then laws sometimes seemed to irrationally contradict each other.
© Gregg Smith