Home > History of Wine > “[An] instance discharge of 13 cannon”: Madeira in celebration

“[An] instance discharge of 13 cannon”: Madeira in celebration


Independence Day Toasts from Boston, 1784.

For much of American history, Madeira was the drink of choice. In some colonies, such as New York, Madeira accounted for nearly 85% of all wine imports. Down in Charleston, South Carolina it was the “common” wine drunk. The best Madeira was obtained by ordering straight from the Island. While there are sadly few records left on the Island itself, the lengthy process of ordering, paying for, and arranging shipment appear in American letter books with insights into the preferences for this wine and the culture that developed around it. While we cannot specifically describe if Madeira was drunk at all of the early Independence Day celebrations,  it is possible to examine how it was used in toasting at other important celebrations.

As soon as George Washington was proclaimed, “The President of the United States”, there was an “instant discharge of 13 cannon and loud repeated shouts”. There were no immediate toasts that Thursday, April 29, 1789, for the new President retired to the Senate Chamber to deliver a speech. There was, however, a celebration that evening, along with two hours of fireworks, and prior to that, numerous celebrations as George Washington journeyed from his home at Mount Vernon, Virginia up to New York for his inauguration. These were, no doubt, noisy affairs. A week earlier, in Philadelphia, the bells were rung throughout the day and night while a feu de joie was fired as he moved to the City Tavern. Here he was treated to an “elegant Entertainment” for 250 people. After each toast there was a discharge of artillery.

If the firing of guns and artillery were common at these celebrations then so too was toasting. Celebrations took place that year not just for the Presidential Inauguration but the Anniversary of Independence , Artillery Elections , and even the re-election of Governor Clinton of New York. Newspaper articles recount the toasts throughout that century: On Independence Day at Fraunces Tavern “toasts suited to the occasion were drank”. After toasting George Washington, “the officers rose and saluted it with three cheers; and the band immediately gave General Washington’s march”, at the New York Artillery Election, “1. The illustrious THE PRESIDENT of the United States – [three cheers.]”, and back at Fraunces’ Tavern for Governor Clinton, 13 toasts “were drank, under the American salute of cannons to each” including “12. The memory of these heroes who gallantly fought and died in defence of American liberty.”

Despite the detailed records of toasts and discharges of weaponry, there are but few accounts of what was drunk. If we look at Independence Day celebrations, we find a few reports of what was consumed. At the 1781 celebration in Princeton, the Governor and his company drank a “few draughts of good punch”. It appears most of the crowds drank “water, beer, cider”. The ratification of the Constitution in 1788 saw a fad for all things American. At one celebration people were refreshed with “federal punch“. The massive Grand Federal Procession in Philadelphia called out imported liquors as non-Federal so only “American porter, beer and cyder” were served. There was noise for the toasts, of course, announced by a trumpet, answered by a discharge of 10 artillery which in turn was answered by a discharge from the ship Rising Sun.

If beer and cyder were the celebratory drinks of the masses then we must turn to the dinners attended by officers, elected officials, and wealthy landowners.


“Washington Taking Leave of the Offices of the Army”

It was not until peace was reached at the end of 1782 that Madeira began to flow again with the resumption of trade. In Maryland, at the Official State Celebration for Peace and Independence, we find Madeira being served. The celebration was held on April 23, 1783, and was hosted by Charles Carroll at his family house in Annapolis, Maryland. General George Washington was a guest. After dinner there were thirteen toasts answered by the discharge of thirteen cannon. The state house was illuminated at night where an “elegant entertainment” took place.

We fortunately know what was drunk because the bill for the dinner and the ball survived. At dinner the waiters served 49 gallons of Claret, 35 gallons of Port, 32 gallons of Madeira, and 6 gallons of spirits. There were surely a few hundred people in attendance because over 1,000 pounds of meat was prepared and 43 wine glasses lost.

After the last British troops left New York City on November 25, 1783, and the American troops took possession of the city, a procession led by General Washington and Governor Clinton made its way to Fraunces’ Tavern were the Governor gave an Evacuation Day celebratory dinner. For the 13 toasts we know it was primarily Madeira that was drunk that evening, some 75 bottles of it compared to 18 Claret and 16 Port. At a dinner shortly before George Washington resigned his commission in December 1783, 120 diners drank some 135 bottles of Madeira compared to 36 of port. There were 60 wine glasses broken.

Perhaps no dinner affirms Madeira as the drink of America as the December 20, 1803, celebration of the Louisiana Purchase. To complete the purchase Spain turned over the land to the French who then turned over the same land to the United States. Civil and military officers from all three countries were present at the evening dinner. After the first course there were three toasts: ”Charles the 4th and Spain, in Malaga and Canary. The French Republic and Bonaparte, in Red and White Champagne” and “The United States and Jefferson, in Madeira. ” Each minister toasted with wine considered of their country. In the expenditures of the US Commissioners who took possession of the land between that December 1803 and the end of April 1804, we find they required some 196.5 gallons and 1 quarter-cask of Madeira.

If you are not in possession of a cask of Madeira then a bottle or even a glass for your Independence Day celebration will suffice.  Give your toast to the day as the fireworks are going off and you might form a sense of what it was like to celebrate in the 18th century.

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