Every Gentleman's Duty - Toasting in the 18th and Early 19th Century
“A Toast or Sentiment very frequently excites good humor, and revives languid conversation; often does it, when properly applied, cool the heat of resentment, and blunt the edge of animosity. A well-applied Toast is acknowledged, universally, to soothe the flame of acrimony, when season and reason oft used their efforts to no purpose.”
The subject of today’s article is “toasting.” We’re not talking about the browning of bread over a heat source, but rather, the act of drinking a person’s health, success, or offering a sentiment to honor an individual, group or idea. In today’s world, unless you happen to be acting as someone’s Best Man or are a part of a military “dining in” event, it is unlikely that you will find yourself called on to do this and very seldom would you need to do it extemporaneously. In the 18th and 19th centuries however, it was important for all gentlemen; whether part of the Gentry, a respected Professional, a military officer, or a businessman; to be prepared and ready to propose an elegant toast with little or no notice since toasting was a part of almost any dinner or event that he might attend.
The History of Toasting
Few people know the history behind this ritual. It’s a tradition that began centuries ago. The now-respectable custom of toasting began as an exercise in aggressively competitive drinking. Historians guess that the toast most likely originated with the Greek libation, the custom of pouring out a part of one’s drink in honor of the gods. From there, it was an easy step to offering a drink in honor of one’s companions. Ancient Greeks drank to each other’s health and welfare. In The Odyssey, Ulysses drank to the health of Achilles.
The Romans built upon this Greek custom of drinking to others’ health and well-being. In the first century B.C., it became a duty when the Roman Senate decreed that the health of the Emperor Augustus was to be drunk at every meal. Sometimes though, Roman toasting became more of a of a drinking game. The poet Martial, who wrote snarky verses in the first century A.D., described a Roman party practice in which each guest was compelled to drink as many glasses of wine as there were letters in his mistress’s name. Depending on the lady’s name, this could become a major challenge.
During the Middle Ages, the toasting custom spread throughout Europe and England. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12th-century “History of the Kings of Britain”, the first recorded toast in England took place in 450 A.D., at a feast given in honor of British King Vortigern by Hengist, leader of his Saxon allies. Hengist’s daughter Renwein (Rowena) offered a goblet of wine to the king, saying “Louerd King, waes hael!” — “Good health!” — after which both drank. (Vortigern, who was purportedly swept off his feet, promptly proposed marriage.) The holiday wassail bowl takes its name from this Saxon “waes hael” toast; traditionally this was a large single bowl from which everyone shared a drink.
In the 17th century, toasting became immensely popular, eventually resulting in the creation of the position of “toastmaster”. In England, the toastmaster presided over events, delivering, and asking for proper toasts. In those days, the duties of the toastmaster tended to be referee-like in that his main function was to give all toasters a fair chance to make their contribution. This could be a challenging position as the toasting at dinners was not for amateurs. During a dinner in America in 1770, that brought together forty-five male friends, no less than 45 toasts were given (presumably, one for each man in attendance).
With the overall revival of the art of oratory in the 18th century, toasts often took a turn to the more high-minded, morphing into long-winded speeches, and studded with sharp political commentary and wit — though they could still be as cheeky as ever. During the Revolutionary War, Americans’ toasts often took the form of vexes on the British: “To the enemies of our country! May they have cobweb breeches, a porcupine saddle, a hard-trotting horse, and an eternal journey!” toasts could become masterful pieces of rhetoric such as when Benjamin Franklin was acting as the American emissary to France and attending a government dinner there. He listened as the British ambassador introduced a toast to “George III, who, like the sun in its meridian, spreads a luster throughout and enlightens the world.” Then a French diplomat offered his own toast to “The illustrious Louis XVI, who, like the moon, sheds his mild and benevolent rays on and influences the globe.” Finally, it was Franklin’s turn to pay tribute to his boss. Raising his glass, he proposed a toast to “George Washington, commander of the American armies, who, like Joshua of old, commanded the sun and the moon to stand still, and both obeyed.” After the war, Fourth of July celebrations were always accompanied by toasts to the signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as thirteen toasts in honor of each of the thirteen states.
In the 19th Century, toasting continued in America at an unchecked pace. When, in 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette visited Norfolk during his almost 2-year tour of the United States as a guest of our government, the Norfolk and Portsmouth Herald reported the following toasts were given at the civic dinner:
Drank at the Civic Dinner, given by the Citizens of Norfolk, in honor of General La Fayette, at the Exchange, on Saturday last.
1. The Memory of Washington; the Father of our Country.
2. General La Fayette; the disciple of Washington, the friend of the United States, and the votary of Freedom.
3. The General rose and after a short address which we could not hear distinctly, gave the following: Norfolk — And may her former sufferings be more and more rewarded by the prosperity which her happy situation warrants her friends to anticipate.
4. The old Continental Congress; the founders of a new nation.
5. The Officers and Soldiers our Revolutionary War, dead and living; the dead are living in our hearts, and the living shall never be dead.
6. The United States of America; free, sovereign, and independent.
7. The President and Congress of the United States; the true interpreters, and faithful ministers of the People's will.
8. The Judiciary of the United States; the wise and independent guardians of the People's liberty.
9. The Army and Navy of the United States; the gallant and victorious defenders of our nation's rights and honor.
10. The Agriculture, Commerce, Manufactures, Arts and Sciences of the United States; the sinews of our nation's wealth, happiness, and glory.
11. The Siege and Victory of York; an epoch in the annals of Liberty.
12. The young Republics of South America; new stars in the constellation of free states.
13. Greece; herself again.
14. The cause of Liberty throughout the world; it is great and must prevail
By the Secretary of War — The Chesapeake Bay; on her shore our settlement first commenced, and the struggle of the Revolution terminated—May she never again be profaned by the presence of a hostile fleet.
By Col. McLane — The gallant defenders of Craney Island.
By Miles King, Esq. — The family at La Grange; those who are dear to our friends will ever be dear to us.
By Gen. C. F. Mercer — Public Virtue, and her sons, Washington, Lafayette, and Bolivar.
By Henry St. George Tucker, Esq. — The spirit of civil liberty, which unites as a band of brothers, those who are separated by language, religion, and country.
By Gen. J. Mason — Public Gratitude; the manner in which the great benefactor of this people is everywhere received, will assure the future generations of our country of the value we set on our rights and liberties, and stimulate their efforts to transmit them, unimpaired, to their latest posterity.
By Col. J. P. Preston — The gems presented by the Genius of Norfolk to Gen. La Fayette; may they be found decorating none but the bosoms of the brave.
By Gen. Macomb — Kosciuszko; In revering the living defenders of Liberty, let us not forget the dead.
By Col. Eustis — Virginia's Jewels; the living Gracchi, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.
By Mr. J. B. Moussier — The State of Virginia; placed in the centre of the Union, she forms the heart of it. The pages of history are adorned by the names of her statesmen and heroes.
By Thomas Newton, Esq. — Knowledge; the Aegis of freemen.
By John Cowper, Esq. — The next President, the President of the People
By Dr. R. Archer — Patriotism and Philanthropy, when combined in the same individual, he may be justly styled the noblest work of God.
By Mr. P. I. Cohen — The Memory of our first friend and ally, Louis 16th.
By Everard Hall, Esq. — La Fayette, the noble of Nature—among other nobles a star of the first magnitude.
By Mr. J. McPhail — Thomas Newton, our worthy Representative; the firm and consistent patriot.
By Mr. Bernard Mulhollan — Major General Richard Montgomery, a son of Erin, who nobly fell in the cause of liberty and in defense of American Independence.
By Dr. Rich'd Kennon — The Memory of Lieut. W. H. Cocke, who was sacrificed at Porto Rico — the officer, the seaman and the gentleman.
J. A. Chandler, Esq. — "Let the brave ne'er despair, for tho' myriads oppose, "The arm nerved by freedom shall conquer all foes."
The following toast was given by one of the company: — George Washington La Fayette; worthy of both his names.
This is a total of thirty-four toasts, of which every gentleman, who did not wish to offend the assembled company, had to partake. There are similar accounts of toasting at civic dinners throughout Lafayette’s Tour, as well as throughout President Washington’s Southern Tour 33 years earlier.
The English were not to be outdone. During the early 19th century, the Royal Navy had a roster of toasts to be drunk. The first was always “To the king!” This was followed by various toasts including:
“Absent Friends” “Our Ships at Sea,” “Our Men,” “A Willing Foe and Sea Room,” “A Bloody War or a Sickly Season,” “Our Wives and Sweethearts, May They Never Meet,” and “Ourselves, for Nobody Else Will Concern Themselves with Our Well-being.”
The irrepressible Prince Regent (later King George IV) favored competitive toasting in which gentlemen, in pairs, drank bumpers to admired ladies until one or the other of the drinkers collapsed senseless to the floor.
This sort of drunken carousing was not without its detractors, however. For many, it was too much. The first temperance society, the Order of Temperance, set up in Germany in 1517, was dedicated to abolishing toasts. Louis XIV banned toasting at his court; and puritanical Massachusetts, in 1634, banned the “abominable” custom of drinking to another’s health. Others, in lieu of ending toasts altogether, opted for refurbishing their tarnished image. One of the earliest (pro) books on toasting, published by J. Roach in 1791, was titled "The Royal Toast Master: Containing Many Thousands of the Best Toasts Old and New, to Give Brilliancy to Mirth and Make the Joys of the Glass Supremely Agreeable.: Also The Seaman’s Bottle Companion, Being a Selection of Exquisite Modern Sea Songs." The toast, wrote Roach, is:
“well-known to all ranks, as a stimulative to hilarity, and an incentive to innocent mirth, to loyal truth, to pure morality and to mutual affection.” He proposed that toasts be drunk to such uplifting sentiments as “Confusion to the minions of vice!” and “May reason be the pilot when passion blows the gale!”
Why Would You Want to Toast Today?
Toasting, while almost a lost art to most gentlemen today, is perhaps the most challenging non-athletic activity you can take part in today. Some of the challenges it presents are:
Toasting requires courage, it’s sort of a mini performance, one that requires facing the chance of achieving remarkable success or stumbling over what you say. Your toast may bomb or soar — that’s the wonderful, heart-enlivening risk of it!
Toasting requires practicing the art of oratory. A toast is nothing more than a noticeably short speech. In our modern life, we get too little practice in public speaking. Toasting gives you a chance to practice speaking to a group.
Toasting involves the art of improvisation. While you may prepare a toast beforehand, as the night progresses and others make their toasts you tweak the toast according to the mood and needs evening and the mood of the crowd.
Toasting injects a bit of drama into an event. When you give a toast, not only will you be feeling some nerves, but your audience will experience a bit of compelling tension as well. They’ll be interested in hearing what you’ll say and how you’ll say it — whether you’ll flounder or succeed.
Toasting prompts you to share feelings that you might otherwise not. We often think of pleasant things we’d like to say to others, but sometimes it’s hard to find a suitable moment to express them. The established ritual of toasting supplies an easy opportunity to express these feelings.
Toasting enhances the mood of an occasion. Toasting can provoke, heighten, and even change the mood of an event; it adds a special something to a special occasion.
Toasting inspires feelings of togetherness and camaraderie. If you combine the risk that the toaster is taking and the audience’s sympathy for it, the shared feelings of anticipation and mood, and the common publicly sharing of sentiments, you’ve got a recipe for building closer bonds.
Making a toast is both a challenge for the individual and a bonding activity for those who hear it. Toasting elicits laughter, dispenses well wishes, and venerates people, events, and ideas (like liberty). The world needs more things like this so, let’s bring the practice of toasting back!
How to Construct an Elegant Toast
While the toasts that we have listed above are, for the most part, short and direct, as we mentioned above, in the 18th Century there was a revival of oratory. Toasts at smaller, more intimate occasions became longer and more elegant, allowing the speaker to show his oratorical skills to his friends and colleagues. Today, however, due to the tradition of toasting being so rare, few have the instruction or the practice to do a decent job of it.
To construct a decent toast, one needed to begin by asking themselves what the purpose of the toast was. Toasts were given to honor a people, events, a patriotic occasion, or ideas. They also needed to consider who the audience was for the toast. Toasts could be solemn, sentimental, humorous, bawdy, or insulting. Presenting a bawdy toast when ladies were present would cause great offense. In the case of toasting a person with an insulting sentiment, with the wrong audience, one could quickly find oneself challenged to a duel for impugning another gentleman’s honor.
With that in mind, the general guidelines for proposing a toast today are as follows:
Keep it short. Keep the length of your toast to no more than 30 to 45 seconds – even shorter if possible.
Lean towards sincerity rather than humor. A lot of folks try to be humorous in their toasts but end up having them fall flat. Humor can work if you speaking to a small, perhaps all-male group of friends or comrades.
Before you begin, make sure everyone involved has a drink and that their glasses are not empty. Toasting is all about inclusion and building camaraderie in the group so keep this in mind.
Don’t toast before the host does. If you aren’t the host of an event, don’t give a toast before they’ve had the chance to do the honor.
Announce your intentions with both words and behavior. At large occasions in the 18th and early 19th century, where a Toastmaster had been appointed, it was only necessary to get his attention and then wait for him to create a pause for you to propose your toast. Today, however, you need to get everyone’s attention before giving your toast. If at a dining table, or seated, stand up. Raise your glass to shoulder level while extending your arm. If this does not get everyone’s attention, loudly announce something to the effect of; “If I can have everyone’s attention.”
Give your toast confidently and loudly enough that all can hear it. We have all had the frustration of being somewhere where someone is addressing a group and we can’t hear them. Make sure that as you give your toast, you enunciate clearly and project your voice so even those furthest from you can hear.
End your toast with a clear sign that it is over. You don’t want the assembly to be confused whether you are finished, so end your toast with something like “Cheers” showing the time has come to drink.
As far as the content of your toast or sentiment goes, we are not going to try to coach you on that here. What follows, however, is a brief list of examples that work for many occasions.
“To us and those like us… Damn few left!”
“To the memory of those departed heroes who sealed our Independence with their blood—Whilst we taste the fruits of their labors, may we never be tempted to take their sacrifices lightly.”
“To our host, (say the name of the person), and his/her company. May they know our gratitude for their hospitality.”
“To the health of those friends in company tonight”
“This joyful day, (name the holiday or occasion) and all who honor it.”
Additionally, there are several books available online in our reference list, which have large collections of 18th and early 19th century Toasts – mostly with an English flavor – that can be used as a template to create your own period sentiments proper for the event. Once you have read over them, you should, by applying a bit of public speaking and improvisation skills, be able to produce a sentiment that will make the evening a memorable occasion.
Finally, Americans have a special tie to toasting. In 1778, John Stafford Smith published a musical composition in a London magazine titled “To Anacreon in Heaven,” named after Anacreon, a Greek poet known for his poems in praise of love and wine. The Anacreon Society, a contemporary gentleman’s club dedicated to “wit, harmony, and the god of wine,” enthusiastically adopted it, opening each meeting with a rendition of the song as a musical toast. The melody soon became so popular that it was co-opted for any number of popular songs. Among these, on our side of the Atlantic, was “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
We hope you found today’s post interesting, informative, and hopefully it made you want to develop the skills to be able to give a toast at your next get-together with friends, family, or history enthusiasts. Please join us again in two weeks for our next post on getting involved in 18th and early 19th century living history.
you are here, on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample some of our earlier articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.
Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.
Harrison, Craig. The History of Toasting. n.d. 8 January 2022. https://www.toastmasters.org/magazine/articles/the-history-of-toasting.
Roach, J. The Royal Toastmaster. London: Unknown, 1791.
Rupp, Rebecca. Cheers: Celebration Drinking Is an Ancient Tradition. 26 December 2014. 8 January 2022. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/drinking-alcohol-culture.
Scudder, H. E., ed. Men and Manners in America One Hundred Years Ago. New York: Scribner, Armstrong, and Company, 1876.
TOAST-MASTER. The Toast Master: Being a Genteel Collection of Sentiments and Toasts. London: W. Thiselton, 1791.
—. The Toast-Master's Pocket Companion. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1814.
Ward, Robert D. An Account of General La Fayette's Visit to Virginia in the Years 1824-25. Richmond: West, Johnson, & Co., 1881.