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Taverns and the complicated birth of early American civil society


Upon arriving at a Maryland tavern in 1744, Dr Alexander Hamilton (not to be confused with the more famous secretary of the treasury) found himself seated amid a ‘drunken club’ of lower-class men. He was revolted by the ‘Bacchanalians’ who were so intoxicated that ‘the only thing intelligible in [their conversation] was oaths and God damns’, and left the tavern only when they found ‘no more rum in play’. As an elite physician travelling North America’s eastern seaboard, Hamilton was not keen to mix with men of inferior social standing, especially when they were drunk. On the contrary, he hoped to control the masses from a safe distance: to ‘keep the great Leviathan of Civil Society under proper discipline and order … as that the frantic animal may not destroy itself.’ But when Hamilton complained to the tavernkeeper about the ‘disorderly fellows’, the publican could only reply: ‘Alas Sir! We that entertain travellers must strive to oblige everybody, for it is our daily bread.’

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