Every family has Christmas traditions, some are more conventional than others. On Christmas Eve in 1826, the cadets at the West Point Military Academy decided they would create a little tradition of their own with some holiday spirits, in both senses of the word. Unfortunately, what started out as some Christmas cheer with a young Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, ended as a full on riot against the bureaucracy.
What is the history of Christmas? Who was Jonathan Pintard and what research did he do about Christmas?
Christmas in America: A History, written by Penne Lee Restad
How Christmas Became Merry, written by Andrew Burstein
1826: The great ‘Eggnog Riot’ at West Point when cadets revolted, written by Jonathan Croyle
The Christmas Conspiracy, Liberty Chronicles Podcast
00:02 Anthony Comegna: Probably always and forever, the rich and the strong have used their power to escape justice. Yes, long before the invention of boofing back before there were devils triangles or spirit cooking, there were things like our current subject, the 1826 Eggnog Riot at West Point. That year on Christmas Eve an assortment of young officers in training conspired together to temporarily overthrow military rule. Keep the holidays in their traditional fashion, and to restore the military to the days of the revolutionary militia. So they must have been anti-capitalist class rebels against the steady push for a more bourgeois culture, right? Well, mostly they wanted to get drunk and party and while normally I’m all for that, the party quickly spilled over into a riot, then a mutiny, then a series of attempted murders and then courts martial, where the most powerful got away with it all. And the most marginal suffered dismissal and a lifetime of shame. Some things never seem to change. Merry Christmas.
01:11 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna. Now, before we get going too quickly, let’s review our last Christmas show a bit. Traditionally, Christmas was a seasonal holiday, when working people inverted the social hierarchy. They played with living more freely than they were normally allowed. Then along came a secret cabal of antiquarians and landholders in New York City who foisted a bourgeois style of celebration on the general public, forever transforming Christmas. We told the stories of Jonathan Pintard and Clement Clarke Moore, co-inventors of the modern Christmas and their desire to create a new sort of holiday that would allow working people, all the benefits of wassailing and Callithumpian parades without all the drunkenness, distractions and threats to social order.
02:06 Anthony Comegna: Pintard personally experimented with a variety of Bourgeois styles of keeping the season. In the early 1820s, Clement Clarke Moore poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” translated the most workable version into verse. Their conspiracy included others from the New York antiquarian society, like Washington Irving and it was, undoubtedly, successful. Yet still, historians go wrong in assuming that consumers are mindless followers easily led by wily aristocrats. And they certainly go wrong when they assume markets have agents. Pintard, Moore, Irving and the like were the agents here, but so were all those people who kept the traditional holidays in the face of bourgeois shaming.
02:52 Anthony Comegna: And so were the millions more who gradually adopted Pintard’s vision. The story of Christmas, and every other human story is murky and complicated, and our desire to reduce cultural changes to economic forces, frankly, just leads to lazy history. But Jonathan Pintard was no lazy historian. He spent a great deal of time trying to understand what Christmas and its celebrations actually meant to real people. How else could he expect to devise a new holiday that would both meet the people’s needs and conform them to his own bourgeois standards. To change history to consciously revolutionize a holiday, Pintard understood that he would have to build Christmas both from the bottom up and the top down. The idea came from above, but it would have to serve popular purposes to catch on, thrive and predominate. Before we get on to the Eggnog Riot then, let me remind you a bit about what Jonathan Pintard said in a letter to his daughter about the need for Christmas rebels. He said that practically all other cultures made a great deal of room in their calendars for people to blow off steam. But American Protestants, had only Independence Day, Christmas and New Years.
04:11 Anthony Comegna: “Not enough,” he commented, “for youth pent up, mechanics and laborers, will seek fresh air and rural exercise on that day, in spite of all human laws to the contrary.” Now, let that line linger in your mind a little bit, pent up youth, mechanics and laborers, we might add cadets at the Military Academy will seek fresh air and rural exercise on that day, in spite of all human laws to the contrary. He’s right about that. But part of the problem with laws, is that they are selectively enforced, malleable, pliable and pliant, subject to the machinations of powerful people. As it happens, alcohol was explicitly banned from West Point in 1826, no exceptions, and cadets caught with it on campus could be expelled. So, could the regular stream of students who snuck out at night to frequent Benny Havens or Martin’s Tavern nearby. On this particular night, of Friday December 22, 1826, a couple of cadets bribed one of the army regulars on guard to take a boat over to Martin’s. They probably had a few whiskeys while they were there, and they probably put it on their tabs. The bar owners worried slightly about incurring the corp commander’s wrath, but the cadets always paid their debts. Most officers appreciated the safety valve effects anyways, so this was all common practice.
05:36 Anthony Comegna: Like Jonathan Pintard, they believed in that awful old saying that boys will be boys, and so long as no one did anything too stupid, the officers generally looked the other way. But that was not the still relatively new corp commander’s opinion. A sour and strict man named Sylvanus Thayer and this Christmas he mandated strict prohibition. The two cadets at Martin’s meanwhile intended to keep the holiday in their traditional fashion. They bought at least two gallons of rum destined for combination with cream, sugar, and spices stolen from the kitchens and stirred together over the fire. They also managed to steal bread and butter and purchased eggs and cold meats, from Benny Havens, a perfect recipe for mutiny. Even Thayer usually allowed students to enjoy a bit of rum punch to celebrate Christmas and Independence Day, but he believed the national need for regular order and discipline now outweighed sentimental attachments to cadets’ home traditions. Thayer was one of those who witnessed, America’s long string of military follies in the War of 1812, and he came out of it believing the old militia system needed serious updating. Long gone were the days when the rag tag crews of hill men and sharp shooting farmers could tear up British supply lines and take a decade to win a war.
06:56 Anthony Comegna: This was the post-Napoleonic era now and the country’s military seriously needed to catch up. People like Jackson might enjoy the limelight, but ultimately Thayer believed that national security depended upon well-trained, highly-educated, highly-disciplined and elite officers like himself. Jackson’s militiamen might win headlines, but when the next war came the officers would deliver victory for the whole nation. So Thayer meant business. And while many of his officer professors disagreed with the prohibition, they were unflinchingly loyal. West Point was no home for the disenfranchised looking for a shot at glory in service to their country. It was a repository for America’s elite young men training to become privileged leaders, in one of the countries more powerful and important institutions. Some of these scheming cadets intent on keeping good and drunk over the holiday hailed from the nation’s most wealthy and powerful families, including none other than Jefferson Davis, future Confederate President. In Marxist terms, he should have run the place. In reality, Thayer was in command and his ruling party consisted of officer professors and privileged cadets, like, yet another name you’ll recognize, Robert E. Lee.
08:13 Anthony Comegna: Lee was still a student at the time, but he served like an adjunct professor and when necessary, he was an informant for Thayer, providing information and insight on his fellow students. When rumors began circulating that cadets smuggled grog on to campus and intended to make a Christmas party out of it, Thayer asked Lee what he knew and Lee told him. Not much, because of course, no one invited him. Thayer advised his enforcers to be on watch and he trusted that the military’s rigid hierarchical structure would hold. And if the cadets intended to break discipline, he would enforce it all the way through and end the conflict for good. When the cadets returned to West Point with their illegal tipple, one of them supposedly declared, “Boys, there will be a good Christmas at West Point this year, if our cargo is any measure. Sylvanus Thayer be hanged.” Spreading news of the impending party at a December 23rd card game, one cadet told his fellows, “They’ll have to triple the guard and put the bombardiers at every window to stop it and God help them who does try to stop it.” He estimated that there were 10 or 15 ring leaders with a guest list expected to reach about 40 to 50, or a third of the corp.
09:25 Anthony Comegna: Among the ring leaders was Jeff Davis, of course, who’s only real distinction so far were his colossal screw-ups. Perhaps most famously, Davis had already been court martialed once for drinking at Benny Havens. Davis fled from Havens and escaped capture, but in the process, he literally fell off a cliff side and broke various parts of his body. Another time during laboratory work on grenades, Davis thought it a jolly jape to pull the pin on one while his teacher’s back was turned. Our Mississippi planter coolly asks his instructor, “What does one do with a smoking grenade?” As one classmate told the story, “Well, cadets were scurrying under benches and through doors and Jeff like a veteran artillerist picked up the god damn thing, sputtering, walked calm as you please to the window and let her fall outside.” [chuckle] Yeah, fun pranks. He was never seriously punished, though he could have been expelled. Thayer needed officers after all, and much as he wanted to reform the corp’s discipline, he could not do it by expelling everyone whose behavior warranted it. He had to pick his battles well and fighting the Mississippian would lead nowhere good.
10:34 Anthony Comegna: When the time came on Christmas Eve, the conspirators gathered together all their ingredients for the party and got down to business. They split the rum, cream, sugar, and eggs between two rooms, two different parties, both of which would be illegal even without the rum. Cadets could not gather in one another’s rooms after hours, precisely because they could only be up to no good. Gradually, as the first drams of Nog passed around and disappeared, the parties grew louder and attracted more attention. They pulled in cadets from their expected guest lists and others nearby. Most importantly they caught the notice of Captain Hitchcock. Hitchcock was as an interesting figure by the way, and someone we very well might return to later in the show. Among other things, he believed in Alchemy, and even published books on the subject later in his life. He spent his free time voraciously reading about the occult, and no doubt he was deep in his very weird thoughts when disturbed from the sounds coming from room number 28. The odd Captain did his duty, he went to investigate and the moment he opened the suspicious door, he inaugurated the Eggnog Riot.
11:43 Anthony Comegna: Hitchcock surveyed the scene before, obviously drunken cadets who had obviously hidden, whatever they were drinking, and were very obviously trying to hide their inebriation. One cadet lingered in the corner covering his face with his hat. When Hitchcock ordered him to show himself, the cadet ignored it. Again, again, ignored, silence. Hitchcock warned that he would resort to force if necessary, “Sir, do not compel me to use violence with a gentleman.” One cadet, Barian even helped the unknown man escape the room, but Hitchcock blocked them, and the scene exploded into an argument, before the captain finally pulled the hat away to expose Louisiana’s George Skipworth, drunk out of his mind. Another cadet was actually purple with liquor, sick to the core of his being. Hitchcock admonished them all, and made a mental note of each name and all of their offenses, then he left. But it was all too much for some of the cadets’ wounded honors. Our purple gentleman, Billy Murdoch declared to the remaining party-goers, “I intend to kill the son of a bitch, gentlemen fetch John Stocker, and Billy Fitzgerald. Get your dirks and bayonets boys and pistols if you have them. Before this night is over Hitchcock will be dead.” Everyone else was stunned. But also stupendously drunk.
13:00 Anthony Comegna: So, away the riot went. Sometime later Hitchcock heard a variety of odd sounds right outside his door. He flung the door open, seeing only a shadowy figure at the end of the hall, which shouted, “Hello Hitch,” and disappeared. He went upstairs to investigate more noise and saw cadet John Stocker totally drunk and carrying a club. Hitch ordered, Stocker return to his room. The cadet leaned on the wall and retched, but did not vomit. And yes, that’s according to testimony. As Hitchcock squared off with Stocker, Jefferson Davis watched him through a crack in door number 11. Davis spread word to his fellows that Hitch was on the way to the other party in number five. When Hitch crashed the party Davis eavesdropped outside the room. He had circulated through both parties and even other rooms throughout the night. But at this point, he was again evading detection safely away from an eclipse. This party was even larger than the last. And when Hitchcock demanded whether there was alcohol in the room, the wily orderly in-charge replied, “Remains to be seen, sir. Probably they polished it off already.” Hitchcock ordered them all disperse, and returned to his room at 4:50 AM Christmas morning.
14:11 Anthony Comegna: But out there in the barracks, the liquor still ran freely and cadets were still drunk raving and raging. Several armed themselves with wooden cudgels and planned to attack an officer named Thornton, saying, “I’ll kill the bastard,” as they camped out near his usual path through the halls. When Thornton eventually emerged in the stairwell, the cadets smashed him with their clubs. He toppled down the stairs, his lantern crashed and the cadets proudly left him there motionless. On the second and third floors cadets roamed the halls with swords and guns shouting and vomiting everywhere. One bragged to another, “I have a pistol Jim, I could shoot someone. Tell you what, Jim,” he continued, “Let’s go take care of Hitch and then tear the whole North Barracks apart. You and me, maybe if we need help, we can go get Jeff.” Jeff Davis, of course, the guy who almost blew up his class with a grenade, you know, as a joke. Meanwhile, other cadets stole the Fife and Drum used for the assembly yard and blasted the campus with what one historian calls four minutes of the most unintelligible incoherent excuse for Martial music ever played.
15:18 Anthony Comegna: Hearing such a clatter, students all over flocked to the windows to see what was the matter. And now, officers like Thayer himself started taking notice that something was definitely going on out there. Students intent on killing Hitchcock barricaded him in his room, but the Captain took advantage of their state of mind. He burst out of the room, surprised them all, and fled to safety. Cadet swung from banisters, hacked apart window dressings with their swords. And one even managed to hit Hitchcock with a club while he was escaping. When Hitch called out for a loyal cadet nearby to fetch the com here, or go get Commander Thayer, the drunken cadets misheard. They thought he said, “Fetch the bombardiers,” and now they all believed they were the ones under siege. “Hitch is fetching the bombardiers,” they yelled. And the rumor spread like wild fire. The boys strapped on their weapons and readied themselves for battle, stumbling along in fits of vomiting and starts of testosterone. Thayer awoke at 5:00 AM and immediately realized the musicians at least must be drunk.
16:24 Anthony Comegna: He and practically all the other officers on campus began prowling for ne’er-do-wells, and gradually as dawn broke at West Point, so did the mutiny. One by one rioters were brought to their senses by daylight and the power of superior officer’s influence. They slunk back to their rooms hoping to get light judgments at the impending court martial. Hoping that the worst offenders were still out there and they would take the heat in the end. For their part, those worst offenders still fancy themselves, “Masters of the Barracks.” They smashed windows, threw rocks and continued threatening the lives of superior officers. Other cadets bodies failed them, their mutinies ended as they passed out in the hallway surrounded by the debris of smashed furniture and upturned trash cans. At 5:45 AM, the official army musician sounded the standard morning Reveille or call to order and the strange story of class rebellion came to an end. The carnival was over. The usual political class of officers restored to power, and those who kept their traditional Christmas would now have to pay for their transgressions. No such thing ever happened at West Point again.
17:39 Anthony Comegna: So what then? What do we make this ridiculous little event and why is this story worth retelling? Well, it does illustrate that point from last year about how historians make way too much of large impersonal forces like the Market Revolution. Yes, this is a story of changes in military ethics, if you’ll pardon the phrase, toward the bourgeois. But these were not impoverished working people in desperate need of leisure. They were not resisting the power structure, so much as its particular rules about drinking on Christmas. At West Point, Thayer’s new dry Christmas won out for purely political reasons, having little at all to do with markets. His systematizing persona triumphed, because he was in charge, not because he commanded wealth. Although, we should also remember that power of every sort has its privileges. The trial results illustrate what I mean. Most of the cadets meekly and honorably accepted their fate. They told the truth when asked any direct questions and left information out or obscured it, when possible. Some put up whatever defense they could muster, including all out assaults on the officers, their testimony and the whole damn system, as it were.
18:51 Anthony Comegna: Out of the 20 arrested, one was released during the trial. Who else, but Jeff Davis. The other 19 received convictions ranging from light demotions to expulsion and disgrace. Generally speaking, Thayer dealt out the heaviest penalties to the worst students and those with troublesome political thorns attached. Generally speaking, Thayer dealt out the heaviest penalties to the worst students and those without any troublesome political thorns attached. An angry Jeff Davis could return to his family plantation, and stir up a great deal of trouble, but no one would be backing up the cadets that Thayer did choose for dismissal. After the trials and sentencing, West Point returned to normal and the riot became legend. The cadets who were not expelled graduated into officers just a few years later and many of them re-appeared to fight the Mexican War and the Civil War. Once they were no longer students, they became members of the power structure themselves and their brief stints as class rebels melted away into the past.
19:57 Anthony Comegna: It was a function of youth and relative powerlessness within the military rather than any ideology, or broader class interest. In his capacity as Commander-in-Chief President Adams reviewed the court martial ‘s decisions and approved. In his letter, he remarked that the party itself, even the liquor would not necessarily have warranted expulsion, neither thing being a heinous events. But though, it is not the character of the act itself, it is the spirit in which it is perpetrated. The pernicious tendency, the contumacious temper, the reckless rushing into vicious indulgence, which call for unyielding and a mad version. That spirit was the thing that had to go in John Pintard’s bustling New York City and at Sylvanus Thayer’s West Point. The spirit of individual commitment to Liberty had to give way for the spirit of authority to triumph. In Adam’s words, “The old world, its old styles, old habits, and old classes must yield to the necessity of a rigorous example.”
21:16 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.