It began as a family edu-vacation to Williamsburg, VA for our three homeschooled sons, and like most educational experiences, it prompted as many questions as it answered. Oh, I was also pretty sure I’d sample some good beer, given Virginia’s reputation for microbreweries and brewpubs, but that was to be icing on the cake.
Colonial Williamsburg, the result of a friendship between a history-loving preacher and no less a moneyman than John D. Rockefeller himself, is a must visit for every American. With authentic costumes, restored buildings and a living history no classroom can duplicate, the place absorbs you and your family and transports you to another time. And it was during those living history sessions–not over the four-dollar pints of ale in one of the many taverns that line the Duke of Gloucester Street–that a realization dawned on me.
The guides and the movies would recount in marvelous detail the events that led to the eventual separation of child nation from parent nation. Almost without exception, there was one place, they said, to which all our founding forefathers would repair to discuss the critical events of the day and the ways to deal with them: the Tavern.
Certainly there were scenes set in the handsome Capitol Building’s legislative rooms, and surely some great things were said there. But while the formality attendant to such proceedings was favorable for pronouncements or historical sound bites, it did not encourage the casual give and take of ideas that the tavern did.
The Raleigh Tavern, specifically, is cited in much of the Williamsburg promotional material as the site that attracted the cognoscenti and the illuminati–the movers and shakers of American independence. Virginians in political positions of power would frequent the Apollo Room to debate the issues of the day over a pint or twain, and momentous issues they were. The growing rift between Great Britain and her colony, taxes assessed and repealed, gunpowder confiscated by Royal governors–all were flagon fodder for the Founding Fathers.
Today, however, The Raleigh serves up tours and historical reenactments but does not serve food or drink. There are other taverns in the city, of course, that do offer solid and liquid fare, but all of them–The King’s Arms, Shield’s, Cristiana Campbell’s and Josiah Chowning’s are owned by the same corporation and exist to serve the visiting public. Each offered a cozy common room and a glimpse into what it might have been like to pause and ponder politics with a pint.
In Jamestown – the site of the first English settlement in the colonies in 1607 - the tavern is considered the second most important structure in town behind only the Church. The colonial tavern was very often the hub of colonial information–the Internet of the day, if you will. It was, in many ways, not only the progenitor of the office water cooler, but it was most certainly the furnace in which American independence was forged. Over beers, ales and spirits, news was disseminated and the revolutionary spirit was defined, debated and adopted.
It is no stretch, therefore, to say that American Independence was born and bred in brew; or that brewing played a major role in the brewing revolution.
Oddly, the brewer’s art is the only one that is not featured in any of the many observable 18th century demonstrations or exhibits in Williamsburg. Considering the importance of beer to the colonial diet (children drank it for breakfast), it would seem a glaring omission. That might be a worthwhile item for the promoters of the place to incorporate into their presentations. My guess is that it would be one of the most popular exhibits with an incredible potential for promotional marketing, sales–and samples (properly supervised, of course).
That most remarkable of Founding Fathers, George Washington, delivered the farewell address to his troops in Fraunces Tavern in NYC. Fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson also frequented the taverns of Colonial America, for that was where news was exchanged, opinions offered and debate conducted. Patrick Henry, the Virginia firebrand famous for his “Give me Liberty or give me death” diatribe, was also a regular visitor to the Raleigh and surely other not-so- famous colonial watering holes.
Indeed, the ultrasound of a gestating America could be read in her pubs, and perhaps the same is true of America’s pulse today. Democrat and Republican leaders in Washington, DC would do well to drop in for a pint and hear how they’re perceived. Our modern politicians however, do not frequent such places, opting instead for rubber chicken dinners where there is plenty of opportunity for sound bites, but no casual and real exchange of information and ideas.
Perhaps they could take a lesson from our forebears?
I’ll drink to that, and I’m betting our forebears would as well.
A denizen of historic Perth Amboy, Kurt Epps is a retired English teacher, award-winning writer, community theatre actor, entertainer and a serious student of history and politics. Many regular visitors to this site will recognize him immediately as Royal Gov. William Franklin from the annual Proprietary House re-enactment.