Huzza!: Toasting a New Nation, 1760–1815


March 18, 2024
by Kelly Mielke Also by this Author


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Toasts are a familiar concept, but most people probably do not consider toasts to carry political weight or any real social significance beyond the ritual of bonding and celebration. However, as Timonthy Symington demonstrates in Huzza!: Toasting a New nation, 1760-1815, toasts occupied a place of special significance bolstering public support and creating political ideals during the Revolution and early national periods. This book traces toasts from the crises of the 1760s through the War of 1812 to show how they were carefully crafted to both reflect public sentiment as well as persuade public opinion of certain ideals. Huzza! provides an innovative take on the events of this time period through the familiar concept of toasting and the ways it was applied in now unfamiliar ways that are unique to this time period.

As Symington observes, toasts became carefully crafted, effective political weapons (page 2). Although the act of toasting is itself a verbal act with an accompanying demonstrative ritual, print culture in fact played an important role in the creation and spread of toasts. Newspapers printed toasts to be used on certain occasions, and the act of performing the toast created an important link between print culture and the illiterate portion of the populace. People who could not read newspapers themselves still received the information through the public ritual of toasting, thereby giving toasts some power in shaping public opinion. Furthermore, newspapers provided a way for those who did not attend ceremonies to absorb the patriotic messages that toasts delivered (p. 20).

Rather than merely celebrating, toasts advocated agendas, vilified or celebrated individuals, and encouraged a sense of identity in the young nation. Furthermore, toasts were used strategically to persuade the public of certain viewpoints. Toasts provided definition for the people of the nation and their beliefs. The performative aspects of toasting were observed and carried great weight. Symington notes that since toasting bound a person to a group, remaining silent during a toast caused conflict and raised suspicion (p. 15). The use of toasts as political tools is particularly apparent surrounding the ratification of the constitution and the formation of political parties in the early national period, during which time they changed to reflect shifting ideals and competing ideologies.

Given the tenuousness of the federal union in the nation’s early days, toasts emphasized loyalty to the state above the nation. By the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, however, toasts shifted to emphasize national loyalty (p. 46-47). As the Antifederalist and Federalist parties developed, they created corresponding toasts to encourage their respective sets of abstract ideals. By extension, the toasts focused on upholding or maligning certain people and ideas. Washington’s birthday became the holiday of choice for Federalists while for the Antifederalists, Thomas Jefferson and his ties to the Declaration of Independence made the 4th of July a holiday that they successfully manipulated to fit their own set of ideals. In these toasts, Washington was also venerated, but the policies of his administration were denigrated. Some of the toasts in this regard are surprisingly bold. As an example, Symington points to a group of farmers in Vermont who acknowledged Washington’s deserved fame but went on to wish that he would die before he became further contaminated with tyranny or despotism (p. 70). Throughout the early national period, these toasts increasingly set the stage for the regional splits that followed decades later.

The chapters move in a generally chronological fashion until the closing chapters of the book in which Symington discusses the rituals of toasting for women and marginalized groups, including enslaved persons and Native Americans. Although toasts regularly recognized women and their contributions, social decorum considered female participation in the act of toasting unacceptable. As Symington observes, the stated reasoning behind barring women from participating in toasts was for their protection from badly behaved men (p. 192). Although toasting was generally considered unacceptable for women, Symington notes that there were some patriotic celebrations at which women were allowed to raise a glass. While the content of toasts frequently included women, however, Native Americans and slaves were largely excluded altogether. Native Americans occasionally participated in toasts with whites, but usually only out of deference to the custom during events like treaty negotiations. Enslaved individuals were frequently present at toasts as servers, but rarely were they allowed to raise glasses themselves. If toasts mentioned the enslaved population, it was usually to disparage those who fled to British lines (p. 209).

Since newspapers served as the main vehicle for the dissemination of toasts, they serve as Symington’s main source. His narrative weaves together the toasts published in newspapers along with commentary about toasts, which makes apparent the dialogue that developed in contemporary print culture surrounding the practice of toasting and the crafting of toasts for specific occasions and to support or attack certain viewpoints. Personal correspondence supports the newspaper content to demonstrate the importance accorded to the practice of toasting and the impact these carefully crafted toasts. Overall, Symington provides a very readable book that examines events from the Revolutionary and early national time period through a refreshing lens.

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