TWO HUNDRED ninety years ago Sunday, Benjamin Franklin – Philadelphia’s most celebrated beer drinker – stepped out of a boat on the Delaware and into a tavern.
I was inspired to mark the occasion of the 17-year-old runaway’s arrival in town by visiting the newly reopened Benjamin Franklin Museum in Old City.
That’s the place, tucked in a courtyard off Market Street, that features the steel-beamed “ghost house” marking the outlines of Franklin’s long-gone home. The adjoining museum, dedicated to his life and legacy, has been spruced up with new exhibits.
The many facets of his life are on display – printer, inventor, diplomat, Founding Father, public servant, sage. Although it’s a bit dumbed-down for my taste (too many cartoons and simpleminded interactive displays, not enough artifacts), you leave with a fair appreciation of his accomplishments.
But it’s missing some important context that helps explain Franklin’s genius.Namely: booze.
Hang in there with me, because I’m not being facetious.
Among the notable Franklin quotes highlighted by the museum is one that declares, “Man is a sociable being.” It’s illustrated chiefly with chatty letters Franklin wrote with a variety of correspondents.
Franklin, though, wasn’t talking about writing, which in practice is an act of solitude.
He was referring to human contact.
And in his time, meaningful contact was found in a tavern.
It was a tavern – the Crooked Billet Inn on the wharf just below Chestnut Street – where Franklin sought refuge on his first night in the city after his long trip from Boston.
It was a tavern – the Indian King near 3rd and Market streets – where Franklin and his fellow intellectuals founded their discussion group, the Junto.
It was a tavern – the Tun Tavern on the wharf between Walnut and Chestnut streets – where Franklin organized the Pennsylvania militia.
It was a tavern – the City Tavern at 2nd and Walnut streets – where Franklin and his fellow revolutionaries argued and conspired to craft the Declaration of Independence.
These weren’t just convenient places to rest or conduct business. They were places to drink wine, rum, cider and beer while conversing and sharing ideas with one’s fellow man.
Clearly, Franklin recognized the importance of social lubrication:
“I doubt not but moderate Drinking has been improv’d for the Diffusion of Knowledge among the ingenious Part of Mankind, who want the Talent of a ready Utterance, in order to discover the Conceptions of their Minds in an entertaining and intelligible Manner.”
Or more succinctly:
“There can’t be good living where there is not good drinking.”
The museum not only overlooks the importance of taverns and drink in Franklin’s emergence as a public intellectual, but it also demonizes booze with a bizarre cartoon re-enactment of his pithy “Dialogue Between Franklin and the Gout.” Nearby, a reproduced fragment of a household wine inventory is displayed as if to underscore Franklin’s gluttony.
Yet, when it came to alcohol, Franklin was better known for moderation.
It was Franklin who organized the first wholesale closure of the city’s unlicensed “tippling houses,” the source of so much unrestrained drunkenness. It was Franklin who, while toiling as a printer in London, was known as the “aquatic American” because he drank water, not porter, during work hours.
At the tender age of 26, he was already wondering “whether it is worth a rational man’s while to forgo the pleasure” of good food and drink “for the sake of enjoying a healthy old age.”
That’s a deep philosophical question, but without taverns and their ale, the museum misses an opportunity to examine it, and much more. The role of taverns in the American Revolution is well-understood, but I wonder about their role in the creation of Philadelphia’s greatest citizen.
Would Franklin have been a greater man if he’d forgone pleasure? Would he have pulled that stunt with a kite in an electrical storm if he’d been stone-cold sober?
Oddly, the museum does get one thing right when it comes to drinking. It amends that misquoted adage, that “Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
Franklin, we now know, was actually talking about wine.
You won’t see the corrected quote among the museum’s displays, however. Instead, it’s inscribed on a fine-looking wine decanter available in the gift shop for $34.95.