Sean Kelleher: Toasts as Cultural History

Today’s traditions is to raise a glass and offer a toast to celebrate a wedding and a new year. In the 17th through the early 19th century, public toasting was very common and many of these toasts are documented in old newspapers. “Toasts were efforts to draw all present into an agreeable fellowship, whether they wanted to be drawn in or not. At the best. the practice knitted together people from different classes into a comity of good cheer,” explains historian Peter Thompson in And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.

It was typical during the American War of Independence that 13 toasts were drunk, one for each State, however, the toast below number 18. These toasts were offered on July 5, 1775 by General David Wooster and the officers of the Connecticut forces, who were dining at Mr. Samuel Frances in the Fields with the members of the New York Military Club in New York City. The accounts in Rivington’s New York Gazetteer describe “the day was spent in the utmost harmony every thing conspiring to please being all of one mind and one heart. The following loyal toasts were drank:

1. The king better counselors to him

2. The hon Continental Congress

3. General Washington and the army under his command

4. The several provincial congresses and committees in the confederated colonies

5. A speedy union on constitutional principles between Great Britain and America

6. Conquest and laurels to all those heroes who draw their swords in support of freedom

7. Confusion and disappointment to the friends of despotism and the enemies of America

8. May the disgrace of the rebels against the constitution be as conspicuous as that of the rebels against the house of Hanover

9. All those worthies in both Houses of Parliament who stood forth advocates of America

10. The Lord Mayor and worthy citizens of London

11. The glorious memory of King William

12. The immortal memory of Hampden Sydney and every patriot who fell in defence of liberty

13. May the enemies of America be turned into saltpetre and go off in hot blasts

14. May Great Britain see her error before America ceases in affection

15. May America ever be the dread and scourge of tyrants

16. The daughters of America in the arms of their brave defenders only

17. Death and jack boots before dishonor and wooden shoes

18. The glorious nineteenth of April when the brave Americans convinced General Gage and the friends of tyranny that they dare fight and conquer also

There are a couple of notable items from these toasts. The toasts were drunk the same day as the Continental Congress passed the Olive Branch Petition. The Olive Branch Petition was the last effort of the Continental Congress to avoid war with Great Britain in 1775. Some delegates to the Continental Congress wanted to break with England at this time, but they yielded to the majority who weren’t as radical. Those who were more moderate wanted to explain their position clearly to King George, in hopes that he had been misinformed about their intentions. They made it clear that they were loyal subjects to Great Britain and they wanted to remain so as long as their grievances were addressed. The King refused to even receive their petition. This set the stage for the American Declaration of Independence a year later.

General David Wooster was an American general who served in the French and Indian War and in the American War of Independence (AWI). He died of wounds sustained during the Battle of Ridgefield, Connecticut on May 2, 1777. Cities, schools, and public places were named after him. He has been called &#8220a largely forgotten hero of the Revolution.&#8221 A masonic history of Wooster is:

“DAVID WOOSTER was born near Stratford, Conn., March 2nd, 1710-11. After graduation from Yale in 1738, he served as a Lieutenant of the Connecticut Colony sloop “Defense” cruising between Cape Hatteras, Virginia, and Cape Cod, Mass., protecting fishermen and traders against the depredations of Spanish raiders and privateers in “the War of Jenkin’s Ear”. In May 1742 he was promoted to the command of the “Defense”. In the Louisbourg expedition he served as a Captain, commanding a company in the Connecticut contingent, becoming senior Captain at the end of the siege. He was one of an escort of twenty who accompanied the prisoners to France, being assigned to the flag-ship “Launceston” which transported the officers and their families, leaving on July 4th, 1745, in a convoy of eleven ships. This ship proceeded to London where he and his brother officers were feted and honoured in recognition of the great achievement of the colonial troops in the capture of Louisbourg. He was also appointed in December 1745 a Captain in Pepperrell’s new Regiment. It would seem probable that while in London (September to November 9, 1745) he was made a Freemason. On his return to Connecticut he was employed on recruiting service in that State and in December 1745 married a daughter of the President of Yale, Mary Clap, then 15 years of age, his own age being thirty-five. Wooster was on duty with his Regiment at Louisbourg from April 1747 to February 1749 and on the cession of that city back to France in 1748, he returned to New Haven in July 1749. On August 12th, 1750, the Grand Lodge at Boston “At Ye Petition of sundry Brothers (including Whiting) at Newhaven in Connecticut” the charter for the present-day Hiram Lodge, No. 1 was granted, naming David Wooster as first Master. Among his associates were Nathan Whiting and Joseph Goldthwaite, brother officers at the first siege of Louisbourg, at Louisbourg during the period 1747 to 1749. In 1755 he was made a Colonel in the Provincial Army and served in the Campaign of 1755-63 against the French including Quebec in 1759. He took a leading part in the Revolutionary War, and succeeded to the command of Montgomery’s Army at Quebec, after the death of the latter. He was later appointed Major-General in the Connecticut militia and fell mortally wounded while leading an attack at Ridgefield, near Norwalk. A memorial bearing the Square and Compasses stands over the spot where he fell April 27, 1777, while harrying the rear guard of the British troops that had raided Danbury and New Haven. He died May 2, 1777.”

An irony is that General Wooster was an acquaintance of the African-American poet Phillis Wheatley. Phillis Wheatley shared with his widow, Mary (Clap) Wooster, on 15 July 1778, an elegy poem on the death of General David Wooster. This poem is known for its lines concerning slavery in the hero’s prayer at the end: &#8220But how, presumptuous shall we hope to find/ Divine acceptance with th’ Almighty mind &#8212- / While yet (O deed ungenerous!) they disgrace/ And hold in bondage Afric’s blameless race&#8230-&#8221 A contrast to the 18 toasts which do not mention slavery, but do reference “Conquest and laurels to all those heroes who draw their swords in support of freedom”.

Toasts are truly a wonderful area of research. They provide an opportunity to see what our forefathers valued. Toasts are how a community tried to draw in a community in fellowship and celebration.

Illustration: A Birmingham toast, as given on the 14th of July by the&#8211revolution society from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Sean Kelleher is the Historian for the Town of Saratoga and Village of Victory in the Upper Hudson Valley.

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