Alcohol to Zealotry: The Revolution A to Z (Part 1)

Beyond the Classroom

August 15, 2013
by Matthew P. Dziennik Also by this Author


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atozOne of the great ideals of the American Revolution was the notion that political authority derives from the will of the governed.  Of the key principles expressed by American revolutionaries, popular sovereignty – the idea that government should be an expression of the collective will and aspirations of the people – was paramount.  What is more, American understandings of popular sovereignty evolved beyond simply the consent to be governed and, instead, came to see “the People” as the building block of good governance.

As historians are keen to remind us, however, this ideal was not always consistent with the other aims of the enlightened leaders who sought vainly to contain the democratic forces the Revolution had helped unleash.  As Gordon Wood has recently argued, the political leaders of the movement found that “the Revolution’s enlightened and liberty-loving principles … contained within itself the source of its own disillusionment.”  In Wood’s analysis, the democratization of American politics was inconsistent with the enlightened extension of rights and freedoms to marginal groups, namely women, Native peoples, and the enslaved.  It is possible to argue, for instance, that as the gap between rich and poor expanded in the post-revolutionary period, questions of enlightened principles were drowned out by the boisterousness of male citizens, who felt deeply insecure about the effects of the Revolution and who wished to secure for themselves a part of the diminishing revolutionary legacy.[1]

While there are some flaws with parts of this interpretation, there is good reason to believe that the involvement of ordinary people in the revolutionary process did produce a political climate that was not always enlightened.  For while we like to think of the struggle against parliament as marking a flowering of popular political participation, the flip side of that same coin was the occasionally dangerous trend toward the baser aspects of human nature.  Some of this can easily be understood by the pressures of civil war; others reflected the emergence of a more confident populace that was permitted, because of the disruptions of the crisis, to foist upon their neighbors their own ideals for society.  This quick A to Z of local politics during the Revolutionary War is designed to help illuminate the best and worst of life in revolutionary America.

Buckman Tavern by Lexhistory via Wikimedia Commons
Buckman Tavern by Lexhistory via Wikimedia Commons

A is for alcohol.  Alcohol was an integral part of politics in the colonial period.  Prospective politicians would ply voters with copious amounts of food and alcohol as a means of demonstrating their power and largesse.  Taverns, where many polling day speeches were made, would be a cacophony of music and voices that would move en-masse to the polling stations to vote.  Increased levels of voting during the Revolution did nothing to arrest this trend and committees of safety meetings, which were the organizations that controlled the Revolution at a local level, were sometimes alcohol-fuelled binges of dinner with brandy, punch, and grog.  The accounts for some committees suggest that almost as much was spent on food and drink as was spent on committee affairs themselves; never were the words “revolutionary spirit” more apt.[2]

B is for Black Americans.  The antipathy of many white colonists toward African-Americans is well-known.  Less well-known is that fact that many revolutionaries decided to use the disruption of war to restrict the already limited freedoms of Black Americans.  In Monmouth County, New Jersey, for instance, the local committee of safety spent much of its time in early 1776, when it might have had more pressing concerns, legislating against the enslaved community.  Communal meetings were banned and the movement of slaves was severely curtailed.  The Monmouth committee decreed that slaves found off their master’s property after dark were to be arrested and, if a fine was not paid by their owner, they were to receive 15 lashes “on the bare back.”[3]

C is for care.  The importance of “the people” to revolutionary ideals meant that while those who opposed the Revolution (or those deemed unfit to participate in it) were subject to extreme social exclusion, those who supported the movement were often cared for in ways unknown in the colonial period.  Local revolutionaries actually made remarkable efforts to care for those disadvantaged by the war, offering public charity, distributing food, and offering compensation for losses caused by the war.[4]

Button Gwinett painted by Nathaniel Hone (1718-1784).
Button Gwinett (1735-1777) painted by Nathaniel Hone (1718-1784).

D is for duelling.  There are several instances of duels being fought on both the British and American sides during the war; one signer of the Declaration of Independence, Button Gwinnet, was killed in such a duel in 1777 by his fellow Georgian revolutionary Lachlan Macintosh.  But a remarkable story suggests that personal honor often took a back-seat to revolutionary politics.  In 1775, one New Jerseyian made the mistake of challenging a member of the New Jersey General Assembly to a duel over a personal matter.  Not only was the man arrested but he was also fined and forced to make a formal apology, according to the proceedings of the Council, in order to “maintain the dignity of the House.”[5]

E is for entertainment.  The expansion of male participation in politics did not always mean the expansion of male habits and pastimes.  Actually, many committees sought to ban public entertainments, mirroring the efforts of puritan parliamentarians during the English Civil War.  Some committees declared “that they Recommend to all society of Christians that they discourage as much as possible at this melancholy time all publick entertainments Assembly, Dancings and Such Like proceedings and also to every inhabitant … to endeavor to their utmost to have the laws against gaming horse racing etc. put in execution.”[6]

F is for forced declarations.  In an age when oaths meant a great deal, oaths of loyalty were a fundamental part of the Revolution.  The committees of safety frequently ordered oaths to be taken by the disaffected, demanding that they swear loyalty to their local communities, the committee, and the “liberties of America.”  Oaths became ritualized as declarations of community togetherness, a process that socially excommunicated anyone who opposed the aims of the revolutionaries.  In this way, Patriots managed to link their actions to the wider interests of the community in ways that were not always fair or consistent.[7]

G is for guards.  Far from signalling new-found freedoms, the reality of the Revolutionary War was often strictures upon freedom of expression and action.  House arrest was a common form of punishment for the more well-known Loyalists.  Mather Byles, Sr., the Anglican clergyman, famed for reputedly uttering the phrase, “which is better—to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away, or by three thousand tyrants not a mile away” (paraphrased by Mel Gibson in The Patriot) was one such individual who spent much of the war under house arrest.  Forever the wit, when asked who the man was in uniform outside his house, Byles responded “O, that is my observe-a-Tory.”[8]

H is for housing.  As part of the effort to care for those who had suffered as a result of the war, many local communities decided to house displaced war refugees.  Abandoned and confiscated farms were rented at reduced rates to refugees after the British occupation of New York City and Long Island in the fall of 1776; the poor from the city’s alms houses were also offered accommodation in communities further up the Hudson Valley.[9]

I is for inoculation.  Typically, civil wars promote massive dislocation of the population as civilians flee the areas of fighting.  At the same time, they often promote a severe suspicion of those who are unknown to the community.  A major reason for these suspicions was the fear of infectious diseases.  As the war effort demanded the continued health of large numbers of people, however, revolutionary authorities tried to suppress inoculation in the interests of the short-term healthiness of its citizens.  Just how many more deaths such decisions ensured, in a period marked by a virulent small pox epidemic, “Pox Americana,” is impossible to know.[10]

J is for judge, jury, and executioner.  The emergence of committees of safety in most counties placed an extra-legal political organization on top of the pre-existing legal organs of colonial government.  While other features of colonial government, namely the colonial assemblies, were quickly dissolved, local sheriffs and the law courts continued to function as they had done before.  Where magistrates did not share the attitudes of committee members, committees sometimes decided to try cases that had already been resolved by the law courts.  Legal measures could also be adapted to suit the needs of revolutionary authorities with death sentences for crimes sometime being commuted if the accused enlisted in the service of the country.[11]

K is for knowledge.  Local knowledge was clearly a major advantage possessed by the revolutionaries over their British opponents.  But this went far beyond knowing the roads, terrain, or the disposition of local settlers.  After all, many of these potential disadvantages were corrected by the British through the use of local Loyalists.  What local revolutionaries did extremely effectively, however, was to compile vast amounts of local information in an effort to manage the war effort.  One of the strangest incarnations of this phenomenon was efforts to compile lists of all useful goods within a locality.  An inquiry in Dunmore County, Virginia, produced a list of all available salt in the county.  As the best means of preserving foodstuffs, salt was considered vital to the war effort and committees such as Dunmore’s took special care in ensuring they knew where they could get salt and who could be trusted to keep it.  Securing everyday items such as salt helped sustain loyalty as it meant that only those on good terms with the committee were likely to be able to acquire such items on good terms.[12]

L is for land.  As the most important factor in economic security in the eighteenth century, land was a crucial issue during the war.  For those who did not own their own land and instead rented from landed proprietors, there was a huge incentive to find any means of acquiring the land that would confer on them the right to vote and a sense of independence.  The offer of land to those who fought in the Continental army is well known, but land was also offered in areas of widespread tenancy to promote militia service.  It also seems likely that in the Hudson Valley, where landlordism was prevalent, men fought not so much out of support for a particular cause but in order to protect or expand their land rights. According to historian Thomas Humphrey, many New Yorkers were left frustrated by the outcome of the Revolution and had to wait decades before rural landlordism was sufficiently weakened to allow them to acquire outright ownership.[13]

Tomorrow: M to Z

[1] Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford, 2009), 3-4, 10-11; Terry Bouton, Taming Democracy: “The People,” the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution (New York, 2007), esp. 262-5.

[2] For the role of taverns in voting, see the example of James DeLancey and voting during the New York elections of 1768, New-York Journal; or, the General Advertiser, 18 Feb. 1768 (my thanks go to Christopher Minty for his suggestion of this source); for the consumption of alcohol in committee meetings, see Committee of Charlotte county accounts, 12-22 Nov. 1776, f. 14, Box 7, John Williams papers, New York State Archives.

[3] Monmouth Committee minutes, 29 Feb. 1776, f. 26, East New Jersey Collection, New Jersey Historical Society.

[4] See, for example, the distribution of grain by authorities in Tryon county, New York, after a series of Tory raids had destroyed much of the areas agricultural production in 1780, “Account of Flour & Indian Corn issued … to Distressed Families According to Several Acts of the legislature of New York,” [n.d. 1780], Commissioners of Sequestration folder, Box 5, War of the Revolution Collection, New-York Historical Society.

[5] Minutes of the Provincial Congress and the Council of Safety of the State of New Jersey (Trenton, 1879), 86.

[6] David Ammerman, In the Common Cause: American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774 (Charlottesville, 1974), 116; Monmouth Committee minutes, 12 Feb. 1776, f. 26, East New Jersey Collection, New Jersey Historical Society.

[7] For forced declarations of loyalty, see Robert M. Calhoon, “Loyalism and neutrality” in A Companion to the American Revolution, eds. Jack P. Greene and J.R. Pole (Malden, MA, 2000), 235-47; for the “ritual language of Revolution,” see Peter Shaw, American Patriots and the Rituals of Revolution (Cambridge, 1981), 2.

[8] Arthur W.H. Eaton, The Famous Mather Byles: The Noted Boston Tory Preacher, Poet, and Wit (Boston, 1914), 173; an excellent interpretation of the effects of the Revolution on “freedom” can be found in Barbara Clark Smith, The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America (New York, 2010).

[9] State of New York to Benjamin Hopkins, 8 Jun. 1784, f. 1, Box 12, New York Misc. Mss., New-York Historical Society.

[10] Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-1782 (New York, 2001); Monmouth Committee minutes, 11 Jan. 1776, f. 26, East New Jersey Collection, New Jersey Historical Society.

[11] Mohawk Valley in the Revolution: Committee of Safety Papers & Genealogical Compendium, ed. Maryly B. Penrose (Franklin Park, NJ, 1978), 31-33; Pardon of David Sellers, 1 Jan. 1776, f. 62, East New Jersey Collection, New Jersey Historical Society.

[12] Interestingly, this list is written in German due to the high numbers of German settlers in Dunmore County in 1775, Dunmore Committee minutes, 23 May 1775, Virginia Historical Society.

[13] Thomas J. Humphrey, Land and Liberty: Hudson Valley Riots in the Age of Revolution (DeKalb, 2004), esp. 82-111, 137; see also Sung Bok Kim, Landlord and Tenant in Colonial New York: Manorial Society, 1664-1775 (Williamsburg, 1978).

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