City Tavern – Birth of a Nation


One of the ways that Bow Tie Tours differs from the other walking tours is our inclusion of City Tavern.  To me, City Tavern was as important a place as Liberty Hall when it came to creating the country, and I cannot imagine excluding it from a historical tour.  This, I tell people, is the place where we became a country, where we talked and argued, horse-traded and, eventually, learned to trust each other.


When Sam Adams engineered the Boston Tea Party, in which he and a number of others, dressed as Indians, tossed tea belonging to the East India Tea Company into the sea, the act was by no means supported by all Americans.  Benjamin Franklin, for instance, considered it ill-conceived and regrettedi its occurrence.  So did many other Philadelphians, who wondered why they should become embroiled in Boston’s squabbles.

Paul Revere rode to Philadelphia to ask the question – would Philadelphia consider Boston as suffering under a “common cause” and would Philadelphians agree to boycott all British goods?  Arriving with the plea, Bostonians met with the Philadelphia “radicals” known to be on their side – Charles Thomson, Thomas Mifflin and Joseph Reed.  it was decided that they should visit John Dickinson, who lived just outside of Philadelphia.

Dickinson was at that time among the most famous of America’s patriots, due to his “Letters from a Farmer in Philadelphia,” which Americans believed demolished the British position that a direct tax on America was constitutional.  Getting Dickinson on their side would be very important.


Dickinson, however, was less easy to pin down than his reputation might suggest.  Later, he would gain notoriety by heading the opposition to Independence at the 2nd Continental Congress.  Adams would call him a “piddling genius,” a remark which was unfortunately captured by British agents and published to the world.  In 1774, however, Dickinson, the wealthy and well-educated attorney, was in much the same kind of state of flux that others were in.  While he certainly did not consider himself among the most radical elements, he still believed that Britain had acted incorrectly both in its Tea Act and in its responses to the Tea Party.

A plan was hatched.  A meeting would be called at City Tavern, where the question of whether to support Boston and call for a boycott would be made.  The radicals, led by Thomson, would make speeches calling for stringent and quasi-military response.  Conservative elements, of which Philadelphia was filled, would no doubt respond with a call to do nothing.  It would be then left to Dickinson to come up with what would at that point sound like a moderate response – agreement that Boston was suffering in a common cause and that they deserved Philadelphians support.  It took, it should be noted, many glasses of Dickinson’s own wine before he agreed to take part in the plan, but agree he did.

The plan almost went askew the next night when Thomson, exhausted (and perhaps inebriated?) fainted during his radical speech.  Nonetheless, it went along as expected, with conservatives responding, and Dickinson coming to the rescue.  The next day it was Dickinson who brokered the agreement between the two sides.  What came about was a letter far too tepid and vague for Sam Adams and his friends.  Yet, it did discuss the “common cause” of the colonies, although it also pushed for “prudence and moderation.”  Finally, it suggested a Congress meet in Philadelphia so all could discuss the matter.


The Congress, which would meet in Carpenter’s Hall, was not necessarily a welcome suggestion to the Sons of Liberty, who understood far too well that some saw it as a vehicle to reign in the Bostonians, rather than support them.

Nonetheless, a letter of support was born, and this became a necessary step in the byzantine and improbable journey to independence.


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