This past month I portrayed Elijah Sanderson in Lexington Historical Society's annual "Ghosts and Graves" experience. I played my character in the warm Tap Room at Buckman Tavern (where in fact Elijah was that night), but in between performances I got to wondering. Thinking about those dark and chilly hours on April 19, 1775 - with people coming and going from the tavern bearing a variety of information - were the local militia drinking alcohol that night and morning? I had thought about it before - all we veteran tour guides have - but this time I really was trying more than ever before to understand their position.
The answer for many amateur tour guides with a peripheral knowledge of the events in Lexington is a smiling "yes" - they will tell their visitors with a wink and a nudge that the militia had been imbibing "liquid courage" which advanced their next act of taking a stand on the town green that day. This version of events is not confined to colorful retelling but indeed has been enshrined in some popular histories.
Several years ago, a local historian who had just published a successful account of the opening events of the war came to Lexington to deliver a lecture and to field questions. Many of the modern Lexington Minutemen were in attendance, and they took issue with this writer’s assertion that the Lexington militia were “possibly in an alcohol induced haze” on the morning of April 19, 1775. Since the 1775 company were gathered in a tavern, the whole scenario seems to make sense, given (in large part, I suspect) the modern idea of what a "tavern" is. But for the Minuteman company of today, it was grossly egregious to besmirch their honorable reputation by the author’s going so far as to suggest that some were drunk.
In eighteenth century Massachusetts a tavern was a necessary and reputable establishment for sustaining traveling merchants on their way to and from Boston. In many places, including Lexington, a settlement's main tavern provided a warm setting for official town business on days when the unheated church building would not do. It was a decent and convenient place for men and women alike to socialize between church services. In short, Lexington's Buckman Tavern was hardly a place known for revelry and heavy drinking.
For the eighteenth-century Yankee farmers of Lexington, alcohol was probably a daily part of life. It was less potent than today’s equivalents since less sugar was available for fermentation. It contained sediments which we would find unpalatable today but were an added source of nutrition for the colonists. They would have taken beer and alcoholic cider from an early age. Clean water was available in a place like Lexington, but it does not seem to have been the beverage of choice for the Revolutionary war-era colonists. Alcohol was not at all disapproved of, but drunkenness, like any disorderly behavior, most certainly was.
All this notwithstanding, the night of April 18, 1775 was a frightening one for all concerned. The tavern became a hive of activity, with people of all ages - but mostly men - filling the rooms and sharing news. Would the British arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams as they passed through the town? Would they ransack or burn the inhabitants' houses?
It cannot be said for certain what (if indeed John Buckman made his supply available that night at all) any of the militia who would face the redcoats on Lexington green that morning drank just beforehand. Yet we historians deal in evidence where we can, and there is no evidence that alcohol was a factor in the decisions made that fateful morning. The very fact that there is no evidence of this carries special force. Of the myriad sources we have describing the events of that day, not one - British or American - notes that the opposing gunmen seemed in any way impaired. And each side certainly had every reason to characterize the other as disorderly.
There is more to debunking this myth than mere splitting of hairs. It belies the very real fact that the participants in the battle of Lexington understood all too well what was at stake and what they were about. They were in no mood for merrymaking. And when they did what they ultimately decided to do, it was entirely of their own, coherent volition.
-James Miele, Buckman Tavern Shop Manager
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.