Vast Early America

Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society with Vaughn Scribner

Historian Vaughn Scribner examines the role taverns played in catalyzing the American Revolution. The results are intoxicating!

Vaughn Scribner is the author of Inn Civility: Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society (New York University Press, 2019).

Who is Vaughn Scribner?

Hi! I’m Vaughn Scribner, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Central Arkansas. Academically, my research investigates early American history in a global context, specifically striving to understand how early modern Britons sought to define (and redefine) their positions in the empire.

Beyond Inn Civility, my published articles and book chapters range from an analysis of how colonists used mineral springs to transform the natural environment to a “deep-dive,” if you will, into how the smartest men in eighteenth-century Europe chased merpeople around the globe to better understand the human condition.

Personally, I live in Conway, Arkansas with my wife, Kristen, and our seventeen-pound orange tabby (he’s down two pounds!). Like any good Millennials, we love traveling the world, trying new restaurants, and attempting to make craft cocktails.

Now, to Inn Civility—this book began as my doctoral dissertation at the University of Kansas—well, it actually began my first semester of graduate school, when I was trying to think of a dissertation topic.

I knew I wanted to do something that dealt with sociability in the early modern Atlantic world, but wasn’t sure where to go with it.

I love Tolkien, and one day I had this kind of “ah-ha” moment with a passage in The Fellowship of the Ring (162):

Down the Road, where it swept to the right to go round the foot of the hill, there was a large inn…Bree stood at an old meeting of ways; another ancient road crossed the East Road just outside the dike at the western end of the village, and in former days Men and other folk of various sorts had traveled much on it.  Strange as News from Bree was still a saying in the Eastfarthing, descending from those days, when news from North, South, and could be heard in the inn, and when the Shire-hobbits used to go more often to hear it.

This idea of taverns as central meeting places really piqued my curiosity, and I began making connections with colonial America.

And, well, the rest is history.

Inn Civility uses the urban tavern—the most numerous, popular, and accessible of all British American public spaces—to investigate North Americans’ struggles to cultivate a civil society from the early eighteenth century to the end of the American Revolution.

Such an analysis, this book argues, demonstrates the messy, often contradictory nature of British American society building and how colonists’ efforts to emulate their British homeland ultimately impelled the creation of an American republic.

What kind of source material is available to tell you what occurred in taverns generally and specifically hundreds of years ago?

All sorts of stuff—the thing is, it’s also scattered everywhere. When I first brought this idea to may excellent PhD advisor, Paul Kelton (now at SUNY-Stonybrook), he was encouraging, but also worried that the source material might be too hard to find. I found it, but it was incredibly time consuming.

There is no “tavern” section at archives. Rather, I had to read through whatever travel narratives and letters I could find (online, in print, and in archives), and make notes of whenever he/she visited or talked about a tavern.

Luckily, we live in the twenty-first century, with all of the word-search options available on our vast digital databases. This was a god-send, as I was able to key in terms like “tavern,” “civility,” etc. on databases such as “America’s Historical Newspapers,” which allowed me to scour thousands of issues of early American newspapers. Google Books and Hathi Trust were life savers.

I also used a lot of tavern ledgers, probate inventories, and architectural records, which allowed me to “walk through” the tavern.

In what ways was the tavern a microcosm of 18th century life?

As a British ship captain opined in 1710, “Upon all the new settlements the Spaniards make, the first thing they do is build a church, the first thing the Dutch do upon a new colony is to build them a fort, but the first thing the English do, be it in the most remote part of the world, or amongst the most barbarous Indians, is to set up a tavern.”

He was right—the British loved their taverns, and crafted them into multi-faceted spaces which could satisfy basically all of Britons’ sociable needs.

They were both ubiquitous and unique, complicated and simple. Taverns were spaces where a diverse set of peoples could interact (or avoid each other) in a shared space; where they could dine, drink, sleep, fight, fornicate, trade, teach, read, revel, and riot.

In short, as the most numerous, accessible, and popular of any public space in British America, taverns are the perfect places to look at what colonists wanted out of their “New World” and, just importantly, what they didn’t want.  

What places in today’s society are most comparable to the taverns in your book?

This is something I think about a lot, and the truth is: there is nothing like early American taverns in modern society.

They were basically the internet, bank, hotel, restaurant, bar, auto-repair shop, brothel, and library all in one.

Unfortunately, our modern ability to digitally connect is severing many of these face-to-face social interactions—a development which is becoming all-the-more-clear in the UK, as pubs close at an astonishing rate.

You illustrate civilized people were rarely as civil as they professed. How was the presence of ordinary lower classes essential for those who professed a higher class civility?

This elitism and difference were ideas that supposedly “civil” colonists brought with them from Europe and Britain. Elitist colonists believed that, in order to profess their superiority, they needed the presence of their inferiors.

It was odd, though, because at the same time that they needed these people, they also constantly complained about them.

Dr. Alexander Hamilton is especially well-known for this. In his 1744 peregrinations, Hamilton constantly talked about the lower class peoples he came across—in doing so, he repeatedly attempted to differentiate himself from them.

But these notations reveal deeper insecurities in Hamilton, for in Britain Hamilton’s profession—medical doctor—would have placed him firmly in the middle class, since he worked with his hands.

In America, however, men like Hamilton had the chance to “move up” in society, since there were no aristocrats. As a result, they constantly attempted to assert their “elitist” proclivities against their social inferiors. They had inferiority complexes themselves, used their supposed inferiors to try to break out of the mold.

It didn’t always work…

How was the Stamp Act Crisis not just an economic threat, but “a crisis of civil society”? 

It was a “crisis of civil society” for elitist colonists like Hamilton and Adams who had spent their entire lives trying to create their pipedream of society in North American cities.

Rather suddenly, these tenets of “order” and “hierarchy” which they liked to believe existed crumbled before their eyes, as the lower classes gathered in taverns, got drunk, and rioted throughout the streets.

Not surprisingly, many of their prime targets were elitist colonists. Initially, some elitist colonists tried to rule these processions, but many of the riots got so out of control that the upper classes could only hide in their homes.

You explain only 5% of colonists lived in cities, but that “these urban centers were far more influential than their size or proportion suggests.” Expound on their outsized influence.

This is a topic I have been doing a lot of work on lately, beyond the tavern, into other spaces like pleasure gardens.

Colonists were constantly trying to emulate the metropolis—London—in America. They considered it the center of the civilized world, and wanted nothing more than to create their own London in America. We can especially see this with Benjamin Franklin who, after visiting London as a young man, spent the rest of his life crafting Philadelphia into the crown jewel of America (along the London model).

For this reason, their cities had more concentrated (and diverse) peoples, amenities, sociable opportunities, trade networks, and governmental structures than anywhere else in British North America.

They were key nodes from which colonists could expand the British Empire into America.

Pick a tavern and time. Paint a picture of how you envision an ordinary evening there.

I’ll have to go with Henry Wetherburn’s Williamsburg tavern, which he opened in 1738.

Wetherburn’s Tavern, September 2017. Credit: Colonial Williamsburg.

I especially like this tavern because of its diversity—it had the “Bullhead Room” for elites, the “Middle Room” for the middling sorts, and the “Great Room” for mixed companies (mostly the lower classes).

From the historical record, an ordinary evening would include a group of elitist colonists locking themselves in the Bullhead Room for a club. They would probably say this club is erudite and exclusive, but by late in the evening this group of men would probably be drunk and disorderly, spilling out into the Great Room for bumpers and sociability.

In the Great Room, meanwhile, a diverse set of ordinary colonists would have crowded the bar, asking for sloshing bowls of rum punch and tankards of local ale.

“First Floor of Henry Wetherburn’s Tavern, Reconstructed According to Archaeological Records and His 1760 Estate Inventory.” Adapted by Vaughn Scribner from Cynthia D. Jaworski, “Wetherburn’s Tavern Planned Preservation Project Completion Report, Block 09 C.” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA, 2004. Credit: Vaughn Scribner.

There probably would have been a fiddler in one corner, while in another corner a group of slaves waited for their masters to finish in the Bullhead Room or Middle Room.

Wetherburn’s female servants would have flitted among the male crowd, yelling back at them and telling them how it was.

Like colonial American society, tavern interactions were confused and complicated, resting upon ad-hoc communications more than established notions of hierarchy and order.

Compose a Tweet in which a tavern-goer from your book might profess the importance of civility if Twitter had existed.

I’ll use an actual quote from the Boston Evening Post in 1760 (which basically was their twitter):

“It is a truth acknowledged by all who have examined into the constitution of civil society, that the strength and vigor of the whole, depends on the union and harmony of the particular constituent parts.”

Vaughn Scribner’s work desk where he wrote ‘Inn Civility: Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society’ (New York University Press, 2019). Credit: Vaughn Scribner.

What lessons does your book hold for those who want to mold a better society?

Accept—and embrace—differing peoples and points of view.

Most elitist colonists were so hell-bent on crafting their cities into what they considered “civil societies” that they didn’t stop to think about the realities on the ground.

This ultimately helped to lead to the American Revolution.

If you could go back in time and spend an evening in a single tavern, where (and when) would you go—and what would you hope to learn?

This is actually something I think about a lot. In theory, I would love to go to William Bradford’s London Coffeehouse (Philadelphia) in the 1750s, before things got bad in colonial America with the Stamp Act riots.

At the same time, however, I don’t know how well I’d do then. It was stinky, diseased, etc. for my modern-day sensibilities.  I also have this deep (rather post-modern) fear that, what if I went back to this tavern, and things weren’t the way I thought they were—they weren’t the way I’ve been saying they were?

So, I suppose, if I could go back then, I would hope that my research would be wholly confirmed, haha.

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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