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  • Inn Civility: Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society by Vaughn Scribner
  • Peter Thompson
Inn Civility: Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society. Early American Places. By Vaughn Scribner. New York: New York University Press, 2019. 280 pages. Cloth, ebook.

The central question at the heart of the historiography on public drinking in colonial America is why people used and supported so many taverns when they were so often dissatisfied by the experience. The obvious answer—people went to taverns and inns to drink—is the least compelling. Colonial Americans drank at home, at work, and while traveling. They drank home-brewed as well as commercially produced liquor—morning, noon, and night. The number of taverns, especially in colonial America’s towns and cities, far exceeded any explanation grounded in unique function or utility. The Founding Fathers inherited an “Alcoholic Republic” that had no pressing need of public houses to feed its thirst (though taverns made excellent scapegoats for critics of drinking culture). Hence the current historiography assumes that colonial Americans frequented taverns in search of something other than drink.1

The most recognizable attraction of sometimes uncomfortable tavern encounters was their capacity to supply, through face-to-face interaction, information distinct from that gained in private letters or newspaper reports. Tavern going was instrumental to the creation of “public opinion,” a source of cultural power. At the same time, tavern going supported majoritarian, bullying, chauvinistic hegemonies, especially regarding gender identities. Both elements underpinned the tavern goer’s ability to contest as well as create cultural norms. Acts of contestation or creation—when represented as immorality or insubordination by elites confronting plebeian tavern goers, as arrogance or condescension by plebeians confronting elites in tavern spaces, or even as “masculinity” when represented by gentlemen and commoners allied in debauchery—helped constitute colonial politics.2

Vaughn Scribner’s Inn Civility aims to reinterpret this landscape by deemphasizing the contestation of cultural norms in favor of a narrative of their creation. The author’s primary interest and focus is the production and cultivation of “civil society.” He welcomes “a recent uptick” (183 n. 26) [End Page 166] in work on civil society in colonial America, and his work is informed by recent developments in the equivalent British historiography. He is not especially engaged with the existing literature on colonial tavern going (which he cites sparingly and generally in summary). Within the historiography of civil society, he allies himself with scholars on eighteenth-century Britain such as Vic Gatrell and Anna Bryson who have challenged an adversarial reading of the relationship between civil/uncivil or polite/impolite behaviors and instead asserted the existence of a more unitary culture.3 Scribner is keen to explore the ways in which civil society, as articulated in American tavern going, fed into emerging notions of “metropolitanism” (15) and, ultimately, “cosmopolitanism” (42.) Inn Civility does not venture a comparative discussion of the goals of sociability among the marchlands of a British imperium. Despite the prominence of Scottish theorists as definers of civil society and Scribner’s announced interest in the affective ties of empire suggest the relevance of such a comparison, the focus here is the Eastern Seaboard of North America.

What was civil society? Scribner’s definition is rooted in the Scottish Enlightenment.4 “Eighteenth-century Scottish philosophers,” Scribner summarizes, believed “that civil society was, in essence, a successful commercial society internally constituted of strict notions of order, interdependence, and a thriving public sphere” (5). Accordingly, Scribner’s interests lie less with the tavern trade of colonial America as a whole and more with a handful of establishments in the mold of Philadelphia’s London Coffee House that served as the wheels of commerce and social differentiation. His discussion of the London Coffee House and its proprietor, William Bradford, adds to our understanding of establishments of this type. In such spaces, Scribner argues, a hegemonic civil society can be seen taking shape.

Ultimately, Scribner is keen to demonstrate how America’s revolutionary ideals—in his view, republicanism, liberty, and civil society—emerged from a colonial world made interdependent through commerce, manners, and an acceptance of hierarchy. This is in the spirit of work by...


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pp. 166-169
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