Philly’s tavern scene was the real birthplace of America

STUCK IN OLD City without a ticket for this weekend’s grand opening of the National Constitution Center?

Grab a cold one at the nearest taproom, instead. Not only will you avoid the crowds, but – bonus! – you can raise a fitting toast to our forefathers.

After all, the U.S. Constitution was as much a product of Philadelphia’s 18th-century taverns as the powdered-wig confines of Independence Hall.

In joints ranging from Ben Franklin’s old haunt, the Crooked Billet on Water Street, to the farmer’s favorite, the Old Plough at 2nd and Pine streets, politicians and citizens hashed out many of the rules that would ultimately guide our nation for the next two centuries.

As author Peter Thompson asserts in “Rum Punch & Revolution: Taverngoing & Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia,” taverns were the lifeblood of our political process.

Thanks to cheap booze and a generally egalitarian attitude that encouraged open discussion of opinion, taverns, Thompson writes, “contributed to the creation of a peculiarly ‘accessible’ political culture in colonial Pennsylvania that had a marked influence on the conduct of politics in the province.”

In other words, taverns were the talk radio and C-SPAN of colonial America.

None of the original taprooms exist today, of course. The Indian Queen, the Bull’s Head, the White Horse, the Pennypot, the Tun – all are just vague memories.

But you can get a pretty fair feel for the era at City Tavern at 2nd and Walnut streets. The tavern is actually a reconstruction. The original burned down in the 1800s. It was rebuilt in time for the bicentennial.

Nonetheless, as the tavern proclaims, it’s not so hard to close your eyes in this place and visualize Franklin or Jefferson holding court in one of its rooms.

The official story of City Tavern is that, following its original construction in 1773, it immediately became “a centerpiece of Philadelphia society – a place where influential businessmen and politicians of the colonies’ most prominent city could gather to dine, drink, do business and discuss important issues of the day.”

The City Tavern is where Washington met Adams, where Paul Revere arrived with word of the British closure of the port of Boston.

On any evening, the guest list included such familiar Philadelphia names as Powell, Cadwalader and Penn.

Yet, as Thompson notes, the City Tavern also represented an important, anti-populist change in the city’s taverngoing culture.

Before the Revolution, the poor and wealthy drank together around long tables in single-room taverns. A farmer could easily share his opinion of the Tories with the likes of Alexander Hamilton.

But the City Tavern was founded by wealthy citizens and built through 25-pound subscriptions solicited among their friends. The tavern was intended for so-called “gentlemen.”

“Well-to-do Philadelphians subscribed to the new tavern precisely because they were dissatisfied with the conversation, and much else, on offer in the rest of the city’s public houses,” Thompson writes.

Thus, for the first time in the city’s history, the political elite were no longer rubbing elbows with the hoi polloi.

Indeed, Thompson, who received his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a recent e-mail exchange, “Taverns were regarded as unsafe places to visit after about 1779. The reason being that inflation had killed laboring wages and therefore a rich guy going into a working guy’s tavern was, for the first time, regarded as potentially ‘slumming it’ and patronizing them.”

The antagonism grew to the point where, in 1787, an angry mob of militiamen got soused at a local tavern and then chased Congress to Princeton, N.J.

Thompson believes that by seeking refuge, and by solving disputes through polite consensus, Congress avoided grappling with – and solving – the biggest issue of the day.

“Instead of, say, John Adams saying ‘I’m not going to take any s– off a bunch of slaveholders’ and George Mason saying, ‘Well, up yours buddy,’ the convention made a point of rationality . . . ,” Thompson says.

“That style of debate is a pale facsimile of how people actually spoke – and it’s one that is endlessly open to spin-doctoring. In my ideal past, Adams and Mason would have torn lumps out of each other, then had a coupla beers and then agreed to ban not just the slave trade but slavery itself!”

Sadly, by the end of the 18th century, American politics had completely withdrawn from the tavern. Thompson notes that tavern owners were condemned as lowlifes, unfit for political office, and Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush was bad-mouthing liquor as the root of evil.

Another hundred years later, the temperance movement was in full swing.

But not before America paid proper homage to the importance of the tavern. In 1788, New Yorkers parading in celebration of the Constitution lifted their mugs and proclaimed that ale is “the proper drink for Americans.”

* Tonight, the 225th anniversary of the British evacuation of Philadelphia will be marked at a champagne reception in the City Tavern garden, 5:30 to 7 p.m.

The event features accurately dressed and trained military performers from Fort Mifflin.

Joe Sixpack’s advice: Dump the elitist bubbly and run inside for a proper pint of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington ales. They’re the City Tavern’s recreations of colonial recipes by Kensington’s Yards Brewing.

Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of General Lafayette Union Jack.


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