Revolutionary Taverns


uring the late colonial and early revolutionary periods, taverns became increasingly popular throughout colonial America, especially in New England. The tavern was a place to gather, have a pint of stout, share a newspaper, peruse the latest broadside or pamphlet, and engage in friendly—or not so friendly—banter concerning the latest news and gossip. Here oral and print culture collided. [figure 3.16] Newspapers were delivered by post to taverns, and the literate patrons eagerly read them aloud to their illiterate neighbors. [figure 3.1]  Dr. Alexander Hamilton states that he “returned to my lodgings at eight o’clock, and the post being arrived, I found a numerous company at Slater’s [tavern] reading the news … [and their] chit-chat kept me awake three hours after I went to bed.” In a time when news traveled slowly, all were eager for its arrival, literate or not. [figure 3.2]

Inside the colonial tavern time stood still. [figure 3.3] The stout frothy.  The talk local or of distant England — unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Slow. [figure 3.4] Things became more interesting when, for example, the Massachusetts General Court held its sessions in a local tavern as it circled about its district hearing cases.  Lucky patrons of James Pitson’s Boston King Street Tavern might help themselves to one of the eighty-eight books and thirty-one pamphlets resting on his barroom bookshelf. [figure 3.6] But there was no rush.  The Sugar and Stamp Acts of the early 1760s, however, changed everything. Time might stand still in the tavern, but things began to happen outside faster than many could grasp.  News was vital, full of consequence, political.  Are you a Loyalist or a Patriot?  Do you support the English Crown or American independence?  [figure 3.8]  Rumors abounded, and the presses were hot and would be hotter still.  Weekly newspapers were now common, but news needed to travel faster than that. [figure 3.18] Broadsides littered doorways, covered walls, and hung on posts, serving people’s need to keep up.  Pamphlets sprung out of nowhere.  Anonymous. Filled with sedition or freedom, depending on the reader’s perspective. Taverns became breeding grounds for the Revolution. Reading was essential to the revolutionary process.

Imagine, for a moment, that you were a patron of Boston’s Green Dragon tavern in the period leading up to the Revolutionary War and through the war itself. [figure 3.7] From the vantage point of your table, the war would unfold before you in printed form and through heated debate.  Discontent over the Sugar Act and Stamp Act would provoke the ire of rum drinkers and readers alike.  The Sons of Liberty would join you at your table, insisting that you too boycott English goods.  News of the repeal of the Stamp Act in April 1766 would bring joy and relief—temporarily.  [figure 3.5]The New York Assembly’s consent to fund the British military leader Alexander McDougall’s angry response in a broadside titled To the betrayed inhabitants of the city and colony of New York led to discontent on both sides.  Irate British soldiers soon after struck down a liberty pole belonging to New York patriots and a violent skirmish ensued.  As the news traveled north, Boston patriots in the Green Dragon Tavern would have cheered at the realization that New York was finally swinging to their side.

But too many English troops were crowding Boston’s streets.  Riots broke out.  Shots were fired.   Neighbors died. Paul Revere engraved The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street Boston to commemorate that event on March 5, 1770, as propaganda against England to further the Revolutionary cause. [figure 3.10] He and fellow Sons of Liberty secretly filed into the Green Dragon tavern and plotted revenge.  Three years after the massacre, East India Company tea was ceremonially dumped into Boston Harbor in protest of the tea tax. [figure 3.9] Letters and statesmen went to England to plead the colonies’ case.  The King’s replies—increasingly irate—were printed on broadsides, read aloud, and then hung in public places. [figure 3.11]

Certainly newspapers, broadsides, and tongues discussed the battle of Lexington and Concord and the start of the Revolutionary War on April 19, 1775. [figure 3.12]  News couldn’t reach the Green Dragon Tavern fast enough.  Throughout America the residents of other colonies rallied behind their Massachusetts brethren at war.  Word of fellow tavern patrons spread north from the Raleigh Tavern in Virginia, especially when Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia was passed around.  All were desperate to know what the Continental Congress was doing in Philadelphia.  When Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense was published, it became an instant bestseller, further uniting the colonies as it clearly laid their troubles on King George III’s head.  When Loyalist James Chalmers of Maryland replied to Paine with his pamphlet Plain Truth, it may well have made it onto the Green Dragon essential reading list. [figures 3.13-3.14]   But with its obscure literary language and infuriatingly unpatriotic sentiments, it was probably not read by the common man. 

Finally, however, Paine’s sentiments were reinforced on July 4, 1776, when the Continental Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence and ordered its publication and distribution. [figure 3.15]   Jefferson’s fame was ensured for ever after.  Ministers read the text throughout the new nation. It was posted on tavern and meetinghouse doors and was reprinted again and again.

News, of course, doesn’t stop here.  A war was still waging, loved ones in danger, a nation at stake.  A Yankee Doodle ditty needed to be sung.  [figure 3.17]   The Green Dragon tavern would provide news of all this and more.  People talked, read aloud and silently, and prayed fervently for success.  New England’s taverns were truly Revolutionary reading places.








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