Fraunces Tavern Back

The American Revolution is in vogue. If schlock movies like Mel Gibson’s The Patriot and simplistic musicals like 1776 gave plenty of love to the Revolution, they distorted facts in favour of entertainment. The more recent popularity of the musical Hamilton and of bestselling books on the Revolution by serious historians like Joseph Ellis and Gordon Wood has revived interest in the complexity of people and events before, during, and after the War for Independence. Yet illiteracy persists.

Consider, for example, President Trump’s speech to the nation this year on the Fourth of July, Independence Day. He praised the Continental Army for defeating the British on land, on sea, and in the air—yet the Wright Brothers’ first flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina was in 1903. Did we mention that many Americans are ignorant of our history?

Located in Lower Manhattan, Fraunces Tavern offers an enlightening antidote, providing engaging perspectives on the Revolution and on daily life in the thirteen colonies and in the early republic. Indeed, the combination of galleries of historical artefacts, along with food and drink options, makes for an informative and enjoyable visit. Although the museum has several paintings on display, it is not primarily an art museum but rather a historic structure with thousands of artefacts that provide insight into material culture.

New York City’s oldest building and one of the oldest bars in America, The Tavern was originally constructed in 1719 by merchant Stephen Delancey. In 1762 Samuel Fraunces purchased the private residence and turned it into a tavern.

It was clear that Fraunces was going places. Most colonial taverns served their main meal at 1:30 pm. But his popular tavern offered food and drink at all hours and even provided take-out food. Fraunces, who specialized in desserts, prepared many of the meals himself.

In colonial America, taverns were places where serious discussions of current affairs mixed with gossip, games, drinks, and grub. The Fraunces Tavern soon became one of the city’s leading gathering places, where one might find the likes of George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton. But once the colonials lost control of the city, the British occupied The Tavern until the war ended in 1783. After the British evacuated, Washington used The Tavern’s Long Room to deliver an emotional and eloquent farewell to his officers.

During the nation’s first three years, The Tavern housed the original offices of the Departments of Foreign Affairs, War, and Treasury. Thereafter the site was almost destroyed by deterioration and by several fires.

In 1904 the New York chapter of the Sons of the Revolution took ownership and renovated the structure, which nearly fell victim to the wrecking ball. Several years later The Tavern Museum and Restaurant opened. The entire block, now consisting of five integrated buildings, was designated as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

The museum lacks sufficient space to display more than 5% of its collection of 8,000 artefacts.  But a substantial portion is now available online. The plan is to upload the entire collection. These items include eighteenth-century prints and engravings; maps, letters, and journals; historical paintings; tables, chairs, clocks, chests, and desks; coins and commemorative medals; ceramics, flatware, bowls, teacups, and glasses; state flags and the American flag as it evolved.

Living up to its name and fame, The Tavern offers over 200 whiskeys and 130 craft beers and ciders. It serves up typical tavern food of the eighteenth century: veal cutlets, mutton and pork chops, beef steaks, soups, oysters, cakes, tarts, and jellies.

The museum offers daily guided tours, outside walking tours, and lectures on subjects like “Mad” Anthony Wayne, the secret plot to kill Washington, the influence of Native Americans, and Washington and Hamilton in Manhattan. (Talks may be downloaded here.)

The Fraunces Tavern wonderfully illuminates the history and the material culture of Colonial America and the American Revolution. Especially at a time when so many Americans are ignorant of their history and when the past is being distorted by pseudo experts for ideological agendas, The Tavern deserves more than its 30,000 annual visitors.

The Fraunces Tavern can be found at 54 Pearl Street, New York City.