On Saturday, the nation will focus its attention on Washington as the political class and partisan donors gather to celebrate — or mourn — the transition of power from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush. Whether elated or glum, alcohol will be a fixture at every function, as partiers seek to enhance or bury their feelings. But Americans should raise a glass during this peaceful transition of government and properly toast the men who made it possible.
The greatest toasts to celebrate political occasions came from the generation of freedom fighters, tough guys, and sterling thinkers we call the Founding Fathers. They scorned the notion of a political class and — in their time — the national budget was less than the bankroll now needed to run for a seat in the House. And their toasts offer insight into what those mighty revolutionaries were fighting for.
Historian Joyce Appleby estimates that the average American drank eight ounces of alcohol a day. Americans drank everything. They drank small beers and ciders with breakfast; rum and wine with dinner; and punches with dances. They drank clarets, ratafias, creams, and concoctions we would hardly recognize.
Taverns bustled with activity and were the center of civic life — New York's first City Hall was located in a tavern. Lit by candlelight, colonials wiled away the evening in political discussions about the cause of liberty, the importance of their rights, and the encroaching nature of power in the hands of elites.
Many of those raucous and learned discussions were set off by formal toasts. And those toasts, like bumper stickers today, summarized popular thoughts about the nature of politics.
A popular toast from 1776 said, "May stipenders and pensioners never sit in an American senate." Such words were ominous warnings that showed the Whig fear of unrestrained government growth. "Stipenders" and "pensioners" were 18th century terms for bureaucrats, parasites, lobbyists, and anyone else who bilked goodies from the public coffers.
Toasts such as "Freedom from mobs as well as kings," told of the American Whig's belief in the rule of law.
Even then, economic freedom and independence were thought to be intertwined. The Sons of Liberty raised their glasses, saying, "May the liberties of America never be clipped by the shears of a bad economy." They knew even then, that government moved against liberty by offering quick fixes in times of travail or need, tempting citizens to surrender promises of security.
Some toasts acted as curses: "May the enemies of America be destitute of beef and claret." Having created a land of opportunity where untold prosperity for the poorest man could flow from freedom, going without a hearty meal after an honest day's work was a stinging imprecation.
During the darkest days of the Revolution, curses illustrated how good-humored, and irrepressible the patriots were: "To the enemies of our country! May they have cobweb breeches, a porcupine saddle, a hard-trotting horse, and an eternal journey."
The toast became such a regular part of Revolutionary life that it soon became an art in itself, signaling the bravado and fearless self-reliance that would soon be renown worldwide as the American character.
Benjamin Franklin schooled European diplomats in the tavern skills of the American heart and liver. While emissary to France during the Revolution, Franklin squared off against Europe's best toastmasters — men polished in the art of fine talking, courtly manners, and unctuous praise for those in power.
In one case, the British ambassador to Versailles led off. He, of course, toasted his king: "George the Third, who, like the sun in its meridian, spreads a luster throughout and enlightens the world."
The French minister, not to be outdone, toasted the French sovereign: "The illustrious Louis the Sixteenth, who, like the moon, sheds his mild and benevolent rays on and influences the globe."
Without missing a beat, Franklin fired back, "George Washington, commander of the American armies, who, like Joshua of old, commanded the sun and the moon to stand still, and both obeyed."
American confidence in liberty bordered on bravado, if not swaggering invincibility, in that raucous, hard-drinking, freedom-loving land. Perhaps that's why toasts celebrated this new breed of man: "May the world's wonder be American thunder."
America's founders had every reason to be proud of the self-made men who cut a nation out of wilderness and defeated the strongest military on earth. They were the most educated, least taxed generation ever. And they weren't going to give up control of their destiny or their labor to Britain's sycophantic ministers and tax-hungry special interests.
These men were heroes, not because they were blameless. They were heroes because they embraced the "spark of liberty" that burns in the breast of every man
— an idea that would spread and transform the every nation and every person.
After the revolution, one of the most popular of all toasts was to the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. That document announced America's entrance onto the world's stage, like thunder. For decades to come, men toasted and drank hard, saying:
From this act of treason against the British Crown sprang a chart of Liberty and Emancipation broad as the universe and filled with glad tiding and good will towards men. They who periled their lives by this noble act will live and be cherished in the hearts of free men.
Inauguration Day is an ideal time to not only honor our new president, but to also remember the men who made his presidency possible. But to remember them, we must begin by remember the love of liberty that fired their souls and became the spiritual source of America's prosperity and its ever-present means to renewal.