We all know of taverns as places to enjoy a drink, play some games, or have a nice meal but in Colonial America, the tavern’s role in public life was much more central than it is today. Taverns were used as meeting places for political assemblies (like the militia or the courts), they were necessary places for rest and refreshment for travelers, and they were the primary means of spreading news and ideas across the thirteen colonies. It was in the taverns that we conducted trade, participated in governing communities, and discussed important topics of the day.
Samuel colt is credited for opening the first tavern or “ordinary” in North America in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. Soon the various colonial legislatures up and down the seaboard, seeing the value of taverns on promoting trade and exchange of critical news, were offering inducements in the form of land grants and selective tax exemptions in order to encourage people to open taverns. Other than licensing, there were relatively few restrictions on who could open a tavern, and many were owned and operated by women and freedmen. By 1750 counties like Philadelphia (current Philadelphia + Montgomery + parts of Delaware counties) had over 120 licensed taverns along their highways. Outside the church, the tavern was the most important institution in most towns.
Taverns were especially important to travelers as even a trip of 10-15 miles would demand an overnight stay in the 1700’s. Roads were primitive and travel was slow. Even those privileged enough to ride in a fine carriage could look forward to a bone-jarring, exhausting ordeal when they traveled outside the city. Most travelers needed to stop to rest and refresh themselves every 8-10 miles. This is why you see taverns every 3-5 miles all along the major thoroughfares like the King’s Highway.
In addition to being a benefit to travelers, taverns were, especially in rural communities, the focal point for civic life. Most towns only had a few public buildings. These were generally the church, the schoolhouse, and the tavern. When people needed to conduct business meetings or hold markets, their choices were generally the church or the tavern. Since the tavern also sold food and drink, it was the clear choice for most meetings. Furthermore, since the Colonial Legislatures offered inducements to tavern owners, they saw these businesses as “operating for the common good,” which ultimately meant that tavern meeting rooms could be appropriated for government business like courts, polls, and meetings of the militia. Taverns also served as our first post offices.
With all the people coming and going through their doors, taverns also promoted the rapid sharing of ideas. Newspapers and stories were often shared by travelers and this was one of the key ways that information moved from colony to colony. As conflicts erupted between the Crown and her colonies in the 1760’s, it was in the taverns that men discussed their responses and ultimate aims. There are no better examples than the Green Dragon in Boston where the Son’s of Liberty planned civil disobedience (including the Boston Tea Party), the City Tavern in Philadelphia where delegates to the Continental Congress adjourned to draft their resolves, or the Roe Tavern in Setauket where the Culpepper Ring spies were purported to practice their craft. Here amongst friends, and perhaps foes, and fueled by just a little drink, the fires of revolution were kindled.
Far from being just a place to grab a drink and a good meal, Colonial Taverns were integral to the life of all colonist. Everyone used the tavern in one capacity or another and these small businesses knitted together the 13 Colonies into a cohesive country. Theses are the places where we met, discussed business and politics, traded goods and services, and created the revolutionary spirit that launched our nation. Without taverns, it is likely that the various colonies would have remained separate and subjugated to the greater British Empire. No revolution can be sustained without continuous dialog and sharing of ideas and goals. It is in our taverns, churches, and meetinghouses that our nation was truly born.
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