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Taverns and the War for Independence

Nov 05, 2013 09:57AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Ellen Moyer // Photos by Tim Poly

Strike, man, strike,” he shouted and within seconds, the head of Sir Walter Raleigh—poet, soldier, explorer, favorite of Queen Elizabeth I—was severed from his body. Walter Raleigh had spent a lifetime protecting and advancing the interests of England. Charged with a crime he didn’t commit, the 1618 execution would be judged by many as unnecessary and unjust. Such was the temper of the times.

Image titleOne hundred years later, almost to the day, Raleigh would be remembered in another land, in a colony he founded and lost without a trace (one of the world’s still unsolved mysteries) in the naming of a tavern. Built in 1717 in Williamsburg, Va., Raleigh’s Tavern was the former capital city’s center for news and business and a favorite haunt for elected burgesses and students from the College of William and Mary. Within its walls, and those of other taverns like it throughout Colonial America, the theater of life was never boring. This was where the building of America was done. In England, taverns were raucous centers for drinking and gambling. By the 1650s, however, a new rage was sweeping England: coffeehouses, built on the exotic drinks from the east”—coffee, also known as the “wine of Islam,” and tea. Governed by rules of civility prohibiting swearing, quarreling, gambling, alcohol, and mourning over a lost love, coffeehouses were places of fellowship. Without regard for rank or privilege, any male could enter a coffeehouse for a penny. These “penny universities”—where freedom of conversation, the power of words, and notions of equality abounded—threatened King Charles II, who tried unsuccessfully to shut them down. So powerful were they as a social and business institution that a man might be asked what coffeehouse he frequented as a clue to his character.

The egalitarian and free-speech culture of the coffeehouse migrated across the Atlantic and merged with taverns. Sometimes ballrooms and space for local government courts and meetings were added features; Raleigh’s Tavern reflected the times. Words of wisdom, “Jollity is the offspring of wisdom and good living,” were engraved over the fi replace in Raleigh’s Apollo Room, where the future leaders danced, reveled, conversed, observed, and absorbed this power of positive thinking message, a confidence that would be tested in the War for Independence.
Image title In the midst of the Revolutionary War, on December 5, 1776, William and Mary students gathered at Raleigh’s Tavern to found Phi Beta Kappa, dedicated to the philosophy that “the love of learning is the guide of life.” Here, too, in 1779, The Pulaski Club, named for the Polish born “Father of American Calvary,” was founded, dedicated to opposition to tyranny. These two principles for knowledge, inquiry, and freedom underscored the tavern’s place in the colonies’ growing shadow government of scrappy, free–speaking upstarts who called themselves Patriots in the decade before 1776.

Image titleThe Stamp Act of 1765 began the controversy. When elected representatives in Colonial legislatures objected to the king’s arbitrary actions on taxes, royal governors shut them down. In England, Parliamentary debate described the objectors as “Sons of Liberty.” In America, the description was applauded and purloined by Sam Adams and Paul Revere, who formed the secret Sons of Liberty. Not so secret, however, were the Committees of Correspondence permanently organized in 1772 to inform voters, rally opposition to common cause, and develop plans of collective action in the towns of all 13 colonies. Couriered by horse and ship, written communication was delivered to the network of tavern news centers favored by Patriots. With the birth of a sense of solidarity, the voice of the Patriots illegal shadow government soon superseded Colonial legislatures and royal officials who took flight to England.

In Virginia’s capital ”—the burgesses, men such as Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and Peyton Randolph”—unable to act in a closed down royal legislature, moved to the Apollo Room of Raleigh’s Tavern and voted on matters of state. Here, they adopted the Non-Importation Agreement, a boycott of English goods, and formed the Committee of Correspondence.

Committees of observation and safety were created to enforce and to spy on the actions of the Loyalists. Persons of suspicion were arrested, tested for loyalty to the Patriots’ cause, and certified for protection against personal molestation or hindrance to business. Reform was in the air. In Portsmouth, N.H., John Stavers changed his tavern name to The William Pitt Tavern in honor of the British statesman who advocated the American cause for representation in the decisions of Parliament.

In Maryland, William Eddis acknowledged the depth of citizen engagement when he described the unsettling times where committee upon committee meeting in taverns fomented rebellion. On June 22, 1774, Maryland’s first state convention called for a continental congress to meet in Philadelphia. Many still hoped to convince King George III to deal with his English subjects on an equal and participatory footing, but the first act of the First Continental Congress was to draft the Articles of Confederation, America’s first constitution, which set the groundwork for independence. The colonies were approaching the point of no return.
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On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the town of Oxford, chartered in 1673, was a booming port town. Merchants from London, Liverpool, and Bristol bustled about Maryland’s largest port-of-call to trade for tobacco. The most prominent citizen, Robert Morris, earned a fortune as chief factor for the Liverpool trading houses. He acquired a home built in 1710 near the harbor on the Tred Avon River, and expanded it with features inspired by the Raleigh Tavern in time for the arrival of his 13-year-old son named after him, who also gained a fortune in shipping and banking. The Robert Morris Inn carries their name.

Despite making a fortune in trade and a political life in Pennsylvania, Robert Morris was a Patriot. He was at Yorktown as George Washington’s quartermaster when Cornwallis surrendered; in fact, if he had not supplied $1,400,000 in his own credit, the army would never have arrived in Virginia. He lost 150 ships from his shipping firm.

Image titleMorris was one of two people to sign all three of the nation’s founding documents—the Declaration of Independence, The Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution. He was the chief financier of the revolution. Yet in 1798, over a failed investment in land, he was sent to debtors’ prison. It would take an Act of Congress to get him released in 1801. Like Sir Walter Raleigh 200 years earlier, it was an unnecessary and unjust ending for a man who gave so much of himself and his fortune for American independence and the nation’s success.

In October 1781, courier Tench Tilghman hustled up the Bay from Yorktown to Annapolis, where he delivered the news of the British surrender at Middleton Tavern, the raucous “Inn for Seafaring Men.” News would quickly spread to the network of city taverns. Reynolds Tavern on Church Circle, one of the oldest in continuous use in the U.S, was a dominant place for leisure and a place for meetings of the mayor’s court and city fathers. Today owned by a British family, the Petits, the inn operates as it did 270 years ago. On February 6, the birthday of Queen Anne, Annapolis’ namesake is celebrated here with the ambassador for Britain.

News from Yorktown in Philadelphia turned the streets into one great party as revelers celebrated with fireworks. Members of the Continental Congress flocked to the City Tavern. Originally named The Merchants Coffee House, it served as the business, social, and political center of the new nation, acquiring a reputation as the “most genteel tavern in America.” Damaged by fire and demolished, it was reconstructed and reopened in 1976.

Meanwhile at Fraunces Tavern in New York City, Brits and Americans convened a Board of Inquiry to negotiate settlement of American property, including the slaves who escaped to freedom to fight with the British. On Dec. 4, 1783, at an elaborate party, George Washington said farewell to his officers. He wished that their days be as “prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.” An atmosphere of appreciation for the War for Independence permeated the new nation. Washington’s officers, hoping no one in the future would forget the remarkable revolution, responded by forming the Education Society of Cincinnati, dedicated to the principle of selfless service. Distinguished by the motto “He relinquished everything to save the Republic,” the society took the name of Cincinatus, the Roman consul called to service to lead Rome in an emergency war and after the battle won, returned power to the Roman senate and returned home to farm his land.
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Nineteen days later, George Washington would do the same in Annapolis, the new nation’s first peacetime capital, resigning his commission as general of the Continental Army, returning power to the people and retiring to his home, Mount Vernon. In Annapolis, jollity reigned. At Mann’s Tavern, a confiscated property once owned by Loyalist Lloyd Dulaney on Conduit Street, Thomas Jefferson, responsible for the pageantry of the week’s events, hosted a dinner for 200 to honor George Washington. Wise to the quality of good living, $614 was spent for wine.

In 1789, George Washington returned to Fraunces Tavern in New York City to be inaugurated as the new nation’s first president under the U.S. Constitution. The temper of the times had changed mightily from the days of arbitrary political power experienced by Walter Raleigh and English colonists. The times were more egalitarian; there was a deepened respect for freedom of speech and conscience, education, and inquiry. The new nation offered a more just society reminiscent of the culture of fellowship found in the coffeehouses of mother England and adopted in the taverns of America as a way of life.

The Taverns mentioned in this article, with the exception of Mann’s, are all operating today. Some have been restored; most are National Historic Landmarks and are in National Historic Districts. In them, visitors can mingle with the memories of our founders, enjoy good food and drink, and discover “Jollity, the offspring of wisdom and good living,” so important to our founding fathers.