The Serious Side of Drinking: Political Toasts

Tippling is mainly a recreational sport today, but beer was an important source of nutrition in colonial New York.  And alcohol also played a role in early American politics, through the time-honored ritual of drinking toasts.

Washington’s farewell to his officers. PR 52, Portrait File.

In 18th century America, nearly every public occasion ended with a score of ceremonial drinks and toasts. Verbatim transcripts of the toasts then appeared in local newspapers.  Not merely tossed off, these “sentiments” were composed in advance and often expressed pointed and even seditious political opinions.

For example, in his 1954 essay “The American Revolution Seen Through a Wine Glass,” Richard J. Hooker traces the evolution of toasts in the revolutionary period.  The traditional “loyal health” to the King was replaced  successively by toasts to colonial supporter William Pitt,  revolutionary firebrand Thomas Paine, and finally, to “General Washington, and victory to the American arms.”  Soon after the stamp act, toasts to “America,” “North America,” and “the American colonies” introduced the idea of intercolonial unity.  Increasingly explicit toasts on this theme followed, as colonists raised their glasses to “A Constitutional And Permanent Union of the Colonies in North America”  and “Perpetual Union to the Colonies.”   As Hooker persuasively argues, “the published lists of toasts . . . provide an invaluable, sensitive index to shifting currents of thought and feeling during the revolutionary period.”

Republican Broadside, circa 1800. SY1796, No. 36

In the new Republic, the unified front of Revolution began to disintegrate into factions and parties, and toasts were employed as informal platforms to express the competing values of political adversaries.   That these toasts were taken seriously is clear from this circa 1800 campaign broadside: the Republicans charge their rival Federalists with “insolence” and pro-British sentiment on the basis of a toast allegedly offered at a Federalist banquet (“ENGLISHMEN!– Go where they will, they have more courage and more Honor than the natives of any other country”).

“Toasts could form, as well as reflect, the public mind,” Hooker notes, and we can see this process taking place during the Nullification Crisis of the 1830’s.

Proceedings of the State Rights Celebration at Charleston, South Carolina. JK316.P76 1830.

Incensed by the federal government’s adoption of a protective tariff which favored the manufacturing north, a number of South Carolina citizens endorsed the state rights principle of “nullification” to declare the tariff null and void within their state.  A State Rights Celebration was held in South Carolina in 1830, concluding, as usual, in an endless round of toasts.  While a surprising number of these take a conciliatory tone — supporting “the preservation of the Union” and “The United States, one and inseparable; Disunion their only irreparable evil” — other toasts urge a more incendiary view: “May every Carolinian who backs down one inch be down six feet,” “South Carolina . . . she never will be enslaved by Northern monopolists,” and “South Carolina — her sons are conscious of her rights and will die in her defence.”  The latter eventually proved more persuasive, as the Civil War bloodily attests.

Perhaps as a result of the increasing momentum of the temperance movement, toasts gradually ceased to be used as a means of political communication.  But throughout the summer, you can raise your glass (filled with a tasty locally-brewed beer) to New York’s brewing history by visiting the beer hall featured in our current exhibition, Beer Here: Brewing New-York’s History.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *