Until recently, historians have either overlooked, vilified, or candy-coated the impact of taverns and have not given scholarly consideration to this key political, social, and cultural institution3. But within the last ten years, scholarship on this topic has increased dramatically. David Conroy, Peter Thompson, and Thomas Brennan demonstrate this transformation in their respective works on colonial Massachusetts, Philadelphia, and Paris4. Conroy argues that taverns served to usurp power from elites and transferred it to the masses, who then used it to foment and incite revolutionary ideals carried to the streets. Contrarily, Brennan views taverns as diffusing revolution, rather than encouraging it. In both studies, historians argue the centrality of taverns in dictating social and political objectives while presenting a unified position to elite leaders who remained fearful of the power wielded by taverns. Thompson veers from these two positions, contesting that instead the egalitarianism provided within the tavern led to the ideology and near-utopian idealism expressed in the Pennsylvania state constitution. These three historians constitute the pedigree from which this study is drawn and provide legitimacy for many of the ideas expressed herein. Yet unlike their analyses, this work focuses on a rural, rather than urban, setting in the nineteenth, rather than late eighteenth, century.
At the heart of the works of Conroy and Thompson is the implicit understanding that Americans used republican ideology both to legitimize the Revolution and to carry on following its successful conclusion. Great debates took place in Philadelphia and Boston about the meaning of republicanism and the manner in which this nation should be run. Similar debates, though not as publicized, occurred in tap-rooms across the country. Indeed political debate dominated much of the conversation occurring within the walls of rural taverns on the Western Reserve.
During the early Republic period of American history, politics transformed from an elite-controlled system of deference into one where politicians actively pursued votes. Political candidates recognized the importance of the tavern and harnessed its political activism through patronage of explicitly partisan public houses. Taverns were identified not only by reputation for strong drink, but also by the political backing of its owner. Scanning the Cleveland area newspapers from the first forty years of the nineteenth century demonstrates this partisan nature. Dunham Tavern, now an historic museum, gained notoriety as a Whig stronghold in Cuyahoga County. Rufus Dunham, its proprietor, held various Whig meetings and elections there, adamantly supporting Harrison in his bid for the presidency in 1840. Whig meetings important enough to garner newspaper coverage were also held at the Ohio House, Alonzo Pangburn’s Tavern, Billings’ Tavern, and Hildreth’s. Although traditionally a Whig stronghold opposition parties did warrant some consideration on the Western Reserve as the Franklin House hosted meetings of the Democratic Republicans during the same electoral period5.
Famed traveler Alexis de Tocqueville recognized these moments declaring that “in the West a candidate must go and harangue his partisans in the public places, and drink with them in the taverns.”6 Over glasses of whiskey and beer, politicians lobbied for votes from the local populace. The tavern also served as a debating center for more unofficial political action.
In recollections written late in his life, Lora Caseof Hudson related a story told by William McClelland, a frequent patron of David Hudson’s tavern that occurred during the early nineteenth century. McClelland, a “witty Irishman”7 argued about the merits of slavery with fellow bar members. Although the story related by Case is somewhat anecdotal, its purpose is clear. McClelland was a staunch abolitionist and used the tavern as a forum for legitimate discussion of his political and moral beliefs.