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Brewing in Colonial America - Part III:
Judge Sewall, the Law, and the Tavern

by Gregg Smith

In early America a tavern was one of the most important buildings a community could have. It disseminated the news, served as the center for commerce, and filled the social needs of an often harsh existence. The colonial government found taverns so important to development of this new land they enacted laws to encourage their construction. Thanks to the nature of good New Englanders it wasn't long until nearly every village had one. Indeed these were the motels, restaurants, and shopping malls of their day.

Developed with private funds the taverns were used by a government short on capital funds. In fact they were in a manner of speaking used as an extension of government. In those days court wasn't held in a set courthouse and the people didn't come to the law, the law wIed over cases by "riding the circuit", and one of the most famous of these early judges was Samuel Sewall. Coming into town Sewall did exactly as his peers. The first thing he looked for was the place all circuit riders held court, the tavern.

Use of the tavern was a matter of practicality. More often than not the only communal building in an area was the local tavern. From the 1680's on the tavern of John Turner hosted so many sessions of the Boston court that he actually designated one of the rooms as court chambers. In those times a barrister needn't travel far to celebrate a successful case, the convenience was in the next room. Our friend Judge Sewall (who didn't patronize taverns within Boston) was none the less often in the town's ale-houses - he presided over many cases heard in the court chamber of George Monck's tavern.

This tradition of conducting a trial in the local watering hole continued for more than a century. Years after Sewall's career the ever proper John Adams was himself riding the circuit and gladly visited many a tavern. He recorded his impressions of them for posterity but his ratings should be looked upon with skepticism judging by how many he described as "most genteel".

The first serious threat to the tavern business came as the 1700's began and the cause of it all was a gesture of friendliness. As early as the mid 1650's the government was alarmed by intemperance among its citizens. However, complete abstinence was never one of their goals; they just wanted to keep things under control. It was one of the new social drinking rituals which gave them no end of grief, the drinking of toasts.

The custom began innocently enough, raising a glass to someone's health was a means of promoting good spirit and a routine which gathered all together in a tavern's main room. What better way to cement a new friendship than over a mug of foamy ale? Unfortunately, the government was given reason to believe things were getting out of hand. People were raising a mug to not only each others health but to the king, the queen, the royal offspring, the colonial governor, his spouse and offspring and on down to the royal dog catcher. It was all just becoming too much and something had to be done. The first laws in the 1640's were largely ignored and it wasn't until 1712 when the "Act Against Intemperance, Immorality and Prophaneness, and for Reformation of Manners" put some teeth into enforcement. In reality it wasn't the act which raised a fuss, it was the conscientious acts of a dedicated law man, a lone protector who would attempt to extract order from the chaos.

The night of February 6, 1714 was typical of mid winter Boston. Shops had long since closed and shuttered their windows. Even at an early hour the streets were relatively empty, but it didn't mean everyone was asleep. A group had gathered in John Wallis's tavern to commemorate the Queen's birthday and as they began their festivities they anticipated the arrival of a distinguished guest, none other than a member of the Governor's Council and esteemed Justice of the Superior Court. As he entered the tavern he was warmly greeted. The assembly raised their glasses to the queen's health and then to his. Instead of pleasing this guest of honor they only succeeded in raising his ire. It seems they were violating one of the colony's newest laws and the guest was not amused. Judge Samuel Sewall was angry.

It was this "tavern disorder" which prompted the constable to call Sewall away from the warmth of his fire, and he quickly ordered the band of party'ers to disperse. Instead of following his directive the group stood their ground in protest. After more than an hour of heated debate they left the tavern, however any hope Sewall had of this being the end of the confrontation immediately evaporated. The merry-makers only moved the fun to one of their nearby home's and after settling in called for the colonial equivalent of a beer to go.

This defiance was more than Sewall was willing to overlook; it wasn't long before he had the aid of his associate justice Edward Bromfield who threatened them with calling out the militia. Further they infuriated Sewall by jokingly spelling their names for his future use in court and compounding this by insisting the colonial government was incapable of passing Even "one good law". Sewall would see they had their day in court.

The conclusion should not be drawn that Sewall was against tipping a glass of beer. In fact, he was known to freelypartake of not only beer but also wine and cider. His journal recounts many evenings of hoisting a beer. He even owned a malt house, but the law was the law.

This incident was one which serves to illustrate the paradox created by colonial law. There was no question the establishment of taverns was beneficial to commerce, but the authorities also saw the problem of people gathering and drinking. This was evident in Sewall's conflict when the party insisted the government did not have even one good law. As sure as people may have gathered initially for social purpose the conversation inevitably turned to politics. It was the political discussions which made the Royal Governors' nervous; it was questioning both the crown's wisdom and authority. The answer was to outlaw the drinking of toasts but the intent was to inhibit what were becoming political gatherings. So although the government was encouraging the growth of taverns they concurrently enacted laws to discourage their use. Yes even then laws sometimes seemed to irrationally contradict each other.

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Gregg Smith reserves all rights that pertain to the text of his articles, in any form that it appears.


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