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  • Inn Civility: Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society by Vaughn Scribner
  • Michael Zuckerman
Inn Civility: Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society. By Vaughn Scribner (New York, New York University Press, 2019) 304 pp. $35.00 cloth

Think Al Swearengen in Deadwood, downing booze as if it were water, seemingly unaffected by his epic consumption. Early Americans drank like that. Their daily intake dwarfed ours. They probably passed their lives in an alcoholic haze. Although the city dwellers among them surely drank heavily at home, they drank even more at taverns.

The numbers vary from city to city, but only a little. There was one licensed tavern for every 100 or 150 inhabitants, and a swarm of unlicensed taverns besides. A contemporary estimated that one of every eight buildings in eighteenth-century Boston was a tavern. A modern [End Page 608] scholar calculated that virtually all the residents of colonial Philadelphia lived within a block of a tavern.

Taverns were not just the preeminent public places of early America. They were very nearly the only such places. There were dozens of them for every church and hundreds for every public market or court house or school, and their influence was pervasive and profound. They were not only where colonists did business and politics. They were also, as Scribner shows in a superb reconnaissance of their expansive functions, sites of libraries, postal centers, shipping offices, auction houses, slave sales, wax museums, exhibition halls, and trade in sex and stolen goods.

In addition, Scribner argues, they were centers of considerable contestation over the sort of social order that would prevail in the cities of the British colonies. In a country without a resident monarch or any semblance of a nobility, some men feared that the settlers would lapse into a savagery not very different from that of the Indians beyond their clearings. Scribner calls those fearful ones elitists, because he rightly recognizes that they were nothing like the elites of the Old World.

His elitists fancied themselves instructing their inferiors about a British liberty that they defined by order, hierarchy, and refinement in urban places without much order, hierarchy, or refinement of their own. Their selfappointed civilizing project was riddled with contradictions—between cosmopolitanism and parochialism and between a keenness to set themselves apart and an aspiration to instruct—but the illogic of their endeavor was not nearly as fatal to their design for dominance as its fatuousness.

The elitists simply could not command subordination from those that they thought beneath them. They were too recently risen from the motley masses. Their demands for deference were, as Scribner says repeatedly, a pipe dream. The places where their fantasies of teaching the lower echelons manners emerged were the taverns, because the arenas of public life in British North American cities were the taverns.

By combing conventional sources—newspapers, letters, diaries, travel journals, and memoirs—Scribner brings those taverns compellingly to life. His history is not so much interdisciplinary as inter-sub-disciplinary—a seamless synthesis of social, political, intellectual, emotional, and materialculture history, enhanced by telling comparisons with the history of taverns in England and Europe. He also engages other disciplines but in a casual way, especially those that contribute to the scholarly conversation about the civilizing process that began with Elias.1 Nonetheless, he is ultimately a historian of the public sphere. He studies taverns as a social historical means to a political historical end.

Scribner even seeks to tell a story, one that turns on a purely political hinge. He treats the taverns as contested terrain before 1765—the elitists attempting to impose civility and everyone else resisting their efforts—and then taken over by crowds of commoners in and after the Stamp Act [End Page 609] protests. His story line is not as clear as it might be. Sometimes he sees the Stamp Act as transformative. Sometimes he sees that that the taverns were already more republican by mid-century than the elitists could admit to themselves. Sometimes he argues that post-Revolutionary America was more attached to pre-war ideals of civility than republicans were comfortable acknowledging. He does not help his cause when he badly...


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pp. 608-610
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