Bob Bestler

18th Amendment? This bar tab shows our Founding Fathers would have scoffed at the idea

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I don’t want to say our Founding Fathers were heavy drinkers, but they were. At least they knew how to party.

The revelation comes from a tavern bill discovered in documents from Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The bill was dated Sept. 14, 1787, a Friday. The writing of the American Constitution was finished and the final draft of our country’s founding document would be signed three days later.

But on that Friday night, some of our boys headed for City Tavern, a favorite watering hole four blocks from Independence Hall.

According to a story by Steve Hendrix in The Washington Post, George Washington was there as the guest of the Light Horse of Philadelphia, a voluntary cavalry corps that had crossed the Delaware with Washington and wintered a Valley Forge.

The Father of our Country was known to imbibe and this time he brought a few other founders with him to wind down. They had, after all, just devised the greatest form of self-government the world had ever seen and now — TGIF.

So is it any surprise that the bill for the night added up to more than 45 gallons of hootch, serving “55 gentlemens,” who also got dinner, fruit, relishes and olives. (I wonder if Benjamin Franklin thus became the first American to say, “What are we gonna do with all that food?”)

Specifically, according to the bar tab, the “gentlemens” downed:

  • 54 bottles of Madeira wine.
  • 60 bottles of claret.
  • 22 bottles of porter.
  • 12 bottles of beer.
  • 8 bottles of cider and 7 large bowls of punch (all of it probably alcoholic).

It was a celebration, after all, so the nine musicians and seven waiters joined in and ran up their own liquor bill —21 more bottles of wine that the troops paid for.

Gordon Lloyd, professor emeritus at Pepperdine University who found the tavern bill, said it showed what historians already knew — that our founding fathers were hardly teetotalers.

“It was a big night,” he said. “George Washington was free to join the troops that he had led in war. Everyone knew what the delegates had done.”

Lloyd calculated the costs of the party at 89 pounds, 4 shillings and 2 pence for food and drink — equal to about $15,400 in 21st century money.

No one thinks Washington was one of the heavy drinkers. He had remained a dignified presence during the Constitutional Convention, the one calming voice when the debate got heated. And it was universally assumed that he would be the first president of the new nation.

Joseph Ellis, the author of “His Excellency: George Washington,” said, “He’s already an icon and he behaves like an icon. I can see him sitting at the head of the table at City Tavern and letting things form around him.”

Not so much the others. Take Franklin. His “taste for grape,” wrote Hendrix, may have contributed to the gout that bedeviled him during the convention: “It was as he was being carried away from Independence Hall on a litter afterward that a woman asked what they had created. Franklin responded, ‘A republic, if you can keep it.’”

There’s no evidence about partying three days later when the document was signed. Can we guess most delegates were still nursing hangovers? Alka-Seltzer was not yet on supermarket shelves.

And we’ll never know what our Founding Fathers thought about the 18th Amendment, the one prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages.

My guess they would have opposed it on grounds that Americans have an inalienable right to imbibe — responsibly, of course.

Contact Bob Bestler at bestler6@tds.net.

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