W.J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition, 1981

Subjects: Colonial Life, Taverns, Revolution, Temperance, Prohibition.

"The tavern has ever played an important part in social, political, and military life, has helped to make history," wrote Alice Morse Earle in Stage-Coach and Tavern Days (published in 1900), and never more so than during the tumultuous days of America's founding. Indeed, despite the dubious scholarship of Mrs. Earle's romanticized and anecdotal paean to the tavern life of yore, most contemporary historians of the colonial era would agree with her assertion that the "story of our War for Independence could not be dissociated from the old taverns." (Earle, 170, 172.) In fact, her words are paralleled by University of Washington professor W.J. Rorabaugh seventy-nine years later in The Alcoholic Republic, when he notes that "Patriots viewed public houses as the nurseries of freedom," and that taverns were "certainly seed beds of the Revolution, the places where British tyranny was condemned, militiamen organized, and independence plotted." (35.)

Whether used as a salve or a sop, alcohol was clearly a staple of the colonial diet and, as a result, the tavern occupied a prominent position in colonial life. In the midst of describing the remarkable extent of eighteenth-century America's love affair with the bottle, Rorabaugh's The Alcoholic Republic notes the centrality of the public house as a "focus of community life." According to Rorabaugh, taverns were often constructed next to courthouses and churches in colonial villages, and just as often aided them in their institutional functions. "Before trials, it was common for defendants, attorneys, judges, and jurymen to gather [in taverns] to drink," he notes, "and sometime matters were settled 'out of court.' At other times, when a controversial case attracted a crowd, it was necessary to hold the trial in the tavern, which was the only public building roomy enough to accommodate the spectators." Similarly, taverns afforded churchgoers a place to congregate and conduct business "before and after service." Due to this centrality of the tavern in the daily functioning of the alcoholic republic, village elders imposed a strict licensing system as means of preserving the social order, so that more often than not only ministers, men of authority, and other "men and women of good moral character" could serve as publicans. (27-28.)

Indeed, in Rorabaugh's casting, the Revolution was seen by the average colonist not only as a revolt against the English, but also partially as a reaction against the prevailing social order, as exemplified by this strict licensing imposed by the upper classes. "Americans perceived liberty from the Crown as somehow related to the freedom to down a few glasses of rum," Rorabaugh writes, and "[u]pper class patriots found it difficult after the Revolution to attack the popular sentiment that elite control of taverns was analogous to English control of America." (35) Thus, according to Rorabaugh, the most important impetus for the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, the first major crisis of the new American government, was a "fierce republican pride" that resented the high excise tax on whiskey not so much because it adversely affected the market on surplus grain than because it "clashed with post-Revolutionary principles…[It was] an infringement of [colonists'] freedom to drink and an effort on the part of the government to control their customs and habits." (56) As another historian explains Rorabaugh's argument, "a personal binge…was in a sense an assertion of individuality, a freedom from communal restraints. Even the drunkard, in essence, was a pluralist - free under the laws of the nation to pursue his or her own lifestyle no matter what others thought." (Lender and Martin, Drinking in America, 54.)

But this "republican pride" evoked by Rorabaugh to promote "freedom from communal restraints" hardly aligns with the traditional notion of republican freedom articulated by Pocock, Bailyn, and Wood. In the words of Gordon Wood in 1969, "[t]he ideal which republicanism was beautifully designed to express was still a harmonious integration of all parts of the community…For the republican patriots of 1776 the commonweal was all-encompassing - a transcendent object with a unique moral worth that made partial considerations fade into insignificance…Ideally, republicanism obliterated the individual." (Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 60-61.)

Rorabaugh's 1979 evocation of "republican pride" to explain the Whiskey Rebellion can be understood as an exemplar of the remarkable spread of the republican concept, "'the most protean' concept in antebellum cultural history," in the 1970's and 1980's. As noted by Dan Rodgers, a decade after Rorabaugh's book republicanism "was everywhere and organizing everything, though perceptibly thinning out, like a nova entering its red giant phase." (Rodgers, "Republicanism: The Career of a Concept," 11.)

Indeed, only three years later, Mark Edward Lender and James Kirby Martin would argue the converse of Rorabaugh's idea in Drinking in America: A History - that republicanism was not an ideology that promoted "the freedom to drink" but rather the main impetus behind what passed for the colonial temperance movement. In The Alcoholic Republic, Rorabaugh ascribes the nascent anti-drinking movement to "a number of impulses, among which were the spread of rationalist philosophy, the rise of mercantile capitalism, advances in science, especially the science of medicine, and an all pervasive rejection of custom and tradition." (36) In Drinking in America, these impulses can and have been brought together under the rubric of republicanism. In direct contrast to Rorabaugh, Lender and Martin write, "[t]he bitterest denunciation of distilled spirits came in the immediate aftermath, and as part of the zeitgeist, of the Revolution. The Revolutionary period witnessed heightened concern that society's traditional values were being lost - that luxury and vice were threatening public virtue and liberty itself." (Lender and Martin, 35-36.)

Cross-posted at http://www.kevincmurphy.com/rorabaugh.html.

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