Ben had a yen for taverns

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“Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” – Ben Franklin

“Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation.” – Ben Franklin

THERE IS a fine line, apparently, between happiness and excess. As Philadelphia celebrates Franklin’s 300th birthday next week, it’s clear we still have no idea where to draw that line.

Booze is omnipresent in America. It is advertised everywhere. Millions of acres of farmland produce its raw ingredients. Entire businesses are devoted to pouring it into glasses. Half the country consumes it regularly. It is the most common litter on the highways.

Yet booze is the most restricted legal product in America. Its sale is taxed and licensed and frequently banned altogether. The government tells private business how, when and where it can be sold. And still more laws are being enacted to control those who make it, sell it and consume it.

The same contradictions confronted and likely troubled Franklin in 18th century Philadelphia.

Upon running away from Boston in 1723, his first night in our town was spent in, yes, a tavern – the Crooked Billet, at the time the oldest inn in the city, on Water Street at the bottom of Chestnut. Surely he participated in the toasts around the bar’s single table that night. A year earlier, at age 16, Franklin had written in praise of the virtues of alcohol, in an essay under the pseudonym “Silence Dogood. “

Moderate consumption of alcohol aided conversation, Silence declared, and thus “the diffusion of knowledge among the ingenious part of mankind. ” In other words, a few pints made us all sound smarter.

Indeed, taverns were the “focus of community life” in colonial America, according to W.J. Rorabaugh’s “The Alcoholic Republic. ” We socialized in them, conducted business in them, and even heard court cases in them. And, of course, we plotted the Revolution in them as well. The role of places like Tun Tavern, where the Marines were born, and City Tavern, where the Continental Congress recessed, is as much a part of American history as the Betsy Ross House and the Liberty Bell.

Franklin himself practiced that “diffusion of knowledge” over a stein or two of beer. His famous Junto, a group of intellectuals who gathered to discuss the issues of the day, met regularly at the Indian King Tavern, near 3rd and Market streets. (And often the topic of discussion was how to make better beer! )

Yet, while benefiting from the social lubrication of these institutions, Franklin was a leading proponent of shutting them down.

At least, the ones that didn’t meet his standards.

In the early 1740s, the city saw a rapid growth of so-called “tippling houses,” or unlicensed drinking establishments, that catered mainly to underclass residents and slaves. An area south of Race Street had gotten so rowdy, it had become known as “Helltown. “

As chairman of a grand jury that looked into the mess, according to Peter Thompson’s “Rum Punch & Revolution,” Franklin declared that rather than diffusing knowledge, tippling houses were “nurseries of vice and debauchery” where one regularly heard “profane language, horrid oaths and imprecations. “

Franklin pushed for stronger controls, targeting establishments run primarily by women, whom he regarded as unfit to curb drunkenness among customers. His strict view – a product of his era’s republican ideal of “public virtue” – was tempered by more lenient city magistrates who oversaw tavern licenses. But the mindset that favored government control of taverns in the 18th century ultimately evolved 100 years after Franklin’s death into the Prohibitionist movement that shut them down completely.

As Philadelphia marks Franklin’s tercentenary this month, we’re still struggling over the same issues. No, thank heaven, the question of whether women can run a tavern is no longer debated. But whether it’s drunken driving, underage drinking, keg registration, takeout beer or malt liquor, the law still treats beer primarily as a vice – even if God wants us to be happy.

Contradictions notwithstanding, Joe Sixpack will toast Ben Franklin at a special beer tasting next week. This toast will feature beers made by Yards Brewing and Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant that were based on a Franklin recipe for spruce-flavored ale.

The event will be held 6-8 p.m. on Thursday at McGillin’s Old Ale House (1310 Drury St., Center City), the city’s oldest continuously operated tavern. Tickets are $25 ($27 at the door) and are available at www. joesixpack.net. Info: 215-735-5562.

Fill out the coupon at the bottom of this page and you might win free tickets to the toast!

Joe Sixpack by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. This week’s column was written with a pint of the Intimidator from General Lafayette Inn & Brewery.

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