How The Taverns of New York City Stirred The American Revolution

Taverns of New York City

Photo:  “Fraunce’s Tavern” The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Founding Fathers of the United States have been given well deserved credit for their role in the American Revolution. Their fiery speeches and brilliant writings have been studied for years by students of American History. However, recent trends in historical research have developed new thoughts into the origins of the American Revolution. Writers such as T.H. Breen and Benjamin Carp have argued that the roots of the American Revolution grew out of the hands of the common people. Breen has reasoned that without the support of the common people, there may have been no American Revolution.[1] The landscape of the British colonies in the mid to late eighteenth century differed dramatically between the hinterlands of the country sides to the crowded streets of the urban cities. Revolutionary ideas and issues expanded differently between the cities and urban centers because of the dynamics of communication and culture. However, it can be argued that there were dramatic differences in how revolutionary ideas spread not only between rural and urban centers but also between individual cities.

The Taverns of New York City hosted a vast different experience in shedding revolutionary ideas than the outdoor meetings in front of the State Buildings in the city of Philadelphia. New York’s diverse population of immigrants and the cities’ proximity to the Atlantic defined a city intimately connected to the Atlantic world. [2] Philadelphia‘s relationship between its city and the Pennsylvania hinterland described a city not as diverse as New York, yet equally focused on raging revolution. Comparing the roots of the American Revolution between the streets of New York and the roads of Philadelphia defined unique differences between colonial city cultures that both shared the same goals of freedom and independence.

Without communication there can be no mobilization. Colonial cities offered access to information that could spread easily because of the dense growing urban populations. Unfortunately, for the British Empire, the British Imperials did not take the colonial cities very seriously. The British Imperials looked down on colonial cities and took them for granted.[3] The British did not understand the distinction between colonial cities and the countryside.[4] British ignorance of the role that cities would play in the American Revolution proved to be a crucial mistake.

All major colonial cities during the pre-revolutionary period shared many common factors. In the cities, people from all social ranks of life came together in protest of imperial policies.[5] In Benjamin Carp’s book Rebels Rising; Cities and the American Revolution, the author referred to the city experience of revolution as being noted by historians as the “cultural landscape,” of the city.[6] Carp explained that the “buildings, the material objects in the buildings and the space in between the buildings had been built by the many different ethnicities inhabiting the cities.”[7] The buildings hosted the many different activities that would play a role in the revolution. Activities such as, political meetings, bureaucratic meetings, ceremonies, economic exchange, and even riots all took place within the heartbeat of the colonial city.[8] The buildings and centers of activity gave the colonialist an opportunity to meet on a consistent basis and discuss the ideals that would play an important role in the American Revolution.

 The Taverns of New York City

Photo: Tim Pierce CC BY-SA 3.0

It was the Taverns of New York City that distinguished the boroughs of New York from the streets of Philadelphia. In the city of New York there were more taverns than any other type of building besides residential houses.[9] The tavern experience set the stage for the ideals of revolution in the late eighteenth century in New York. In his work “Rebels Rising,” Carp argued that the Taverns of New York City were the perfect venue for political mobilization among the revolutionaries.[10] It was within the taverns that people of all different social orders found unity as they discussed politics.[11]

The battle between loyalist and revolutionaries were often fought in the city taverns. However, loyalist stood little chance in opposing the revolutionaries within the drunken atmosphere in the city taverns. Loyalist were forced to buy drinks for the tavern patrons in order to voice their loyalist opinions.[12]Eventually, the loyalists discovered that buying drinks only led to a more violent and drunken opposition.[13] The Taverns of New York were not the place for loyalist ideals. It could be argued that loyalist opinions increased the revolutionary’s frustrations with the British. A lethal cocktail of loyalist propaganda served alongside whiskey and ale served as a brewing ground for revolutionary notions.

The Taverns of New York were utilized in the formation of civic clubs. Carp quoted Scottish philosopher David Hume in defining the psychology of men during the 18th Century.   Hume said that men would gravitate to cities to “receive and communicate knowledge.”[14] Hume argued that men would form clubs in order to feel an increase in humanity.[15] The taverns were a breeding ground for the formation of clubs and societies.  “Tavern clubs provided structure and support for otherwise rowdy bachelors, encouraging their drive for self-improvement and upward mobility as well as the wider public interest.”[16] Carp’s explanation of the colonist’s interests in tavern clubs is significant because it describes the mindset of the revolutionaries. The colonialist desire to break the chains of British rule and overcome their inferior status in the eyes of the British defines their desire to organize within the taverns. The bond between men of all social classes became stronger within the crowded walls of the city taverns.

The most significant factor that taverns played in the origins of the revolution is the experience of common men and politicians drinking together. The intoxicating effects of alcohol can render an individual to speak more honestly and without guard. Carp explained the power of the taverns within the social context of meetings and alcohol consumption, “The ever-present power of drinking in taverns, as a social lubricant and as a source of purposeful disorder, was even more useful for cross-class political mobilization than petitions or newspaper articles.”[17]

The Sons of Liberty would meet at William Howard’s Tavern in New York City to discuss reactionary responses to issues such as the Stamp Act.[18] The Sons of Liberty described their organization as following the codes of the taverns in which unity, masculinity, and civic improvement would come to characterize revolutionary movement and its institutions.”[19] The Taverns were a meeting ground in which Carp described the actions as, “strong word, and strong drink,”[20] as having a great impact on the spreading of revolutionary thought.

While revolution brewed in the Taverns of New York City, the colonialist in the city of Philadelphia were planning their own pursuit of the bells of liberty. Revolutionary thought and activism took place in the courtyards of the Philadelphia State House. [21]  The State house was the source of power in the city of Philadelphia.[22] The colonist in Philadelphia would hold demonstrations in the yards of the Philadelphia State House because it was a place in which their voices would be heard before the most important people in the city [23]

The State House court-yard assemblies were staged in an orderly fashion for the purpose of gaining legitimacy in the colonialist grievances against British Law.[24] Because the State House courtyard featured an enclosed perimeter, the Assembly were able to control the crowds better than they could have on the open streets of such avenues as Market Street. The proximity of the waterfront to Market street gave rise to many, “violent activities of unbridled violent popular expression.”[25]  The State House Court Yard was a better choice for real grievances to be aired by the colonist. [26] Within the State House were the Supreme Court, assembly men and the Governor’s Council. Voicing an opinion in front of the State House made more sense than screaming blindly into the winds of the waterfront on Market Street.

In time, the crowds outside the State Court House began to gain greater recognition. The goal of the crowds were to distinguish the boundaries between the Assembly and its constitutes.[27] However, unlike the more enclosed surroundings of New York’s Taverns, the open arena eventually led to disruptions of court activities. In one instance the crowd had begun hissing, stamping their feet and clapping hands after listening to an Assembly Speaker talk. [28] The Assembly became outraged at the disruption and ordered the State House Doors closed.[29] The closing of the State House Doors began a new battle between the colonist and the members of the Assembly.

The colonist fought to be admitted into the State House to hear the debates in the house and be informed of the current state of affairs. The colonist argued it was their right to hear such matters that were to be deliberated by the “Representatives of the People as may in any wise affect the Interest and Welfare of their Constitutes.”[30] However, the doors were shut in the faces of the colonists.  For the next two years a battle brewed between the assembly and the colonist over the right to observe Assembly meetings and to air grievances inside the State House.[31] The Assembly eventually handpicked certain colonialist to observe some meetings. The few chosen were among a select group of individuals that received privileges based on their close relations to assembly members.[32] Cries of nepotism rang from the voices of the colonist not chosen to represent the will of the people inside the State House. The denial of representation only fueled the anger of the colonist in their outdoor meetings. The colonist began to compare the State Assembly of Philadelphia to the “corrupt House of Commons,” as two “unresponsive legislative bodies, in their minds.”[33]  The origins of revolution were growing in the streets of Philadelphia as the colonist began comparing local governments to the disdain they had for English rule.

The streets of Philadelphia filled with protest not only from the cities inhabitants, but also from the colonists of the rural landscape. In 1775, Broadsides were published in Philadelphia asking for all Americans to unite in cause against unfair taxes levied against colonial merchants and mechanics[34]. The broadsides argued that the colonialists needed to “manifest to the world, their rights as free Americans.”[35] Meetings were scheduled and then postponed a few days in order to make sure that all inhabitants of Philadelphia including those living in the country side has time to travel and attend the protest meetings.[36] The broadsides represent a significant difference in the communicating of ideological protests between the streets of Philadelphia and the taverns of New York City The Broadsides were reaching out to the hinterlands and reinforcing the importance of including all colonist regardless of their status or location in the fight against the unfair practices and laws that the British were imposing on the colonies.

Behind every successful man or women is a spouse or partner fueling the success of their loved one. T.H.Breen’s argued that the Founding Fathers could not have succeeded in gaining American Liberty without the strength of the common colonist. Benjamin Carp defined that the common colonist were indeed the strength behind the American Revolution. Carp’s argument aligns itself with the new historiographical analysis that looks at deeper meanings behind historical events. Benjamin Carp defined the role of the revolutionary colonist by distinguishing the differences between revolutionary thought and practice within the cities of New York and Philadelphia. The most important point that is evident in Carp’s writing is that ideology has no boundaries. The voice of revolution will resonate regardless of cultural or logistical differences. From the sounds of drunken and sobered conversations over whiskey in New York’s taverns, to the screams of the masses in the state yards of Philadelphia, the sounds of Liberty were heard. When tyranny reins its ugly hand upon a common people, the sound of rebellion will echo from the red bricks of the city streets to the rolling rivers of the countryside. Beyond the signing of documents and deliverance of political speeches by the Founding Fathers, were the ideals of the common people. The principles and actions the common man screamed for, were truly indeed the sounds of the American Revolution.

How The Taverns of New York City Stirred The American Revolution

Written by Brian Kachejian

Featured Photo: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Fraunce’s Tavern” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1901 – 1907.

2nd Photo: By Tim Pierce (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Works Cited

Breen T.H. American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010.

Carp L. Benjamin. Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007


[1] T.H.Breen, American Insurgents, American Patriots. Hill and Wang, New York; 2010, p.3.

[2] Benjamin L. Carp, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution. Oxford, New York; 2007, p. 66.

[3] Benjamin L. Carp, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution. Oxford, New York; 2007, p.9

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.,12

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.,13

[8] Ibid.

[9] Benjamin L. Carp, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution. Oxford, New York; 2007, p.63

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibdi.,77

[15] Benjamin L. Carp, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution. Oxford, New York; 2007, p.77

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid., 84

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid.,85

[20] Benjamin L. Carp, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution. Oxford, New York; 2007, p.178.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.,193

[23] Ibid.,194

[24] Ibid.,194

[25] Ibid.,193

[26] Ibif.,194

[27] Benjamin L. Carp, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution. Oxford, New York; 2007, p.194.

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.,195

[32] Ibid.

[33] Benjamin L. Carp, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution. Oxford, New York; 2007, p.197.

[34] Ibid

[35] Ibid

[36] Ibid

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