It had been a long week after an exhausting summer. On Sept. 14, 1787, delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia put down their quill pens, all but done with the final draft of the country’s founding document they would sign three days later.
It was a Friday night. And delegate George Washington promptly went on the bender that began America.
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At City Tavern, the framers’ unofficial watering hole four blocks from Independence Hall, Washington was the guest of the Light Horse of Philadelphia, a volunteer cavalry corps that had crossed the Delaware with Washington and wintered at Valley Forge. The First Troop, as the unit came to be known, could fight. And, boy, could they drink.
From the archives, the republic’s founding bar tab:
-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 (both of which were probably alcoholic).
In all, according to the itemized bill for the evening from the troop’s archives, more than 45 gallons of booze were served to “55 gentlemens,” who also got dinner, fruit, relishes and olives. The nine musicians and seven waiters ran up their own liquor bill (21 additional bottles of wine) that the troop paid for. There was a line item for cigars and candles and another for the broken wine glasses, decanters and tumblers.
“It was a big night,” said Gordon Lloyd, the professor emeritus at Pepperdine University who came across a summary of the tavern bill while combing through boxes of Independence Hall documents. “George Washington was free to join the troop that he had led in war. Everyone knew what the delegates had done.”
And everyone knew that General Washington was almost certainly going to become President Washington. History doesn’t tell us how deep into the Madeira the father of our country got that night, but it’s unlikely he was to blame for any of the broken decanters. Always a dignified presence, Washington — who had beaten the British and been the calming center of the stormy Constitution debate — had by the end of the Constitutional Convention assumed civic-deity status and was universally assumed to become the first head of the government the new document would create.
“He’s already an icon, and he behaves like an icon,” said Joseph Ellis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “His Excellency: George Washington.” “I could see him sitting at the head of the table at City Tavern and letting things form around him.”
Plus, Ellis said, Washington could hold his drink. As a group, the Founders were known to imbibe. (See “1776: The Musical.”) Benjamin Franklin’s taste for the grape, for example, may have contributed to the gout that gave him fits 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.”)
In fact, when Lloyd found the Washington bar tab, he was hoping to shed light on another City Tavern bacchanal, the farewell gathering of delegates held there three days later after they had signed the long-sought Constitution. No record of that feast has been found, but Lloyd believes the two events — catered to the same tastes from the same kitchen and cellar — would have been very alike.
“I have no reason to doubt the menu would be largely the same for the framers,” said Lloyd. “These people were not teetotalers.”
Lloyd believes the typed summary of the City Tavern bill was created by historians in the 1950s from the troop’s original archives. He began parsing the details and tracing the names.
Col. Thomas Proctor, who submitted the bill to the troop, was an artillery commander under Washington and is buried at Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Samuel Miles, who paid it, was a Wales-born Quaker who also served in the Revolutionary War. Lloyd tracked down the great-great-great grandson of George Christhilf, one of the listed musicians and learned that Christhilf was a German immigrant who had fought for first the British and then the Americans and died in 1793 in a yellow fever outbreak.
Lloyd also calculated the costs of the night’s revelry, figuring the tab of 89 pounds, 4 shillings and 2 pence (for the food and drink) to equal about $15,400 in 21st-century dollars.
And then there are the bottles. Was an 18th-century vessel of Madeira the same size as that Yellow Tail cabernet sauvignon we put in the middle of the table today? Not the same shape but probably a similar volume, said Bill Lindsey, curator of an authoritative online encyclopedia of bottle history.
Bottles were not throwaway commodities in 18th-century America, which had no glass container industry and imported most of the handblown vessels from Britain and Europe. Tavern owners would have nursed a collection of empties, filling them as needed from casks of wine brought from foreign vineyards and beer brewed on the premises.
Lindsey reckons the bottles being passed around Washington’s table at City Tavern would probably have come from England in either tall or squat shape and held between 25 ounces, roughly the volume of a modern wine bottle, and 40 ounces.
“There was certainly enough for the ‘gentlemens’ to get looped to celebrate the new country,” said Lindsey.
They were celebrating, sure. But Lloyd points out the Founders’ drinking was prudent, too.
“Who would want to drink Philadelphia water?” he said.
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