“Let every man do what is right in his own eyes!” – John Hancock
December 16th, 1773 was a cold, blistery Boston evening. By 7 pm, the sky would have been pitch black with the only light coming from the stars, candles, and the occasional lantern. The air rolling in off the Atlantic was crisp and biting as it wrapped around the Boston Harbor. On this night, sixty men dressed in Mohawk costumes boarded three ships carrying British tea and tipped, dumped, and stomped into being one history’s greatest, most impactful political protests. It was also the night coffee became America’s drink.
To understand why the Boston Tea Party is so important, and what that meant for coffee, it is important to step back a few years, to the 1760s. America was a British colony at the time, and Britain under King George III was deep in debt after years of war. Hoping to bring in much-needed funds, King George and the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act of 1765, which placed a tax on everything made of paper. This was soon followed by The Quartering Act, which required American colonists to house and feed British soldiers. Two short years later the British Parliament passed the Townshend Acts of 1767, which expanded taxation to basic essentials. The soon-to-be Americans (then referred to as patriots) were livid. If they were going to pay taxes, they wanted voting rights and representation in the British Parliament. James Otis, summing up the colonial sentiment said, “taxation without representation is tyranny”. By the 1770s, Otis’s statement had taken on new life as the American Revolution mantra of “no taxation without representation”.
Tensions steadily increased in the years following the passing of the Townshend Act, with more and more Sons and Daughters (yes, women were politically active!) of Liberty gathering to protest British taxes and, increasingly, British goods. A pivotal shift in what was deemed “right” occurred on March 5, 1770, when British soldiers killed 5 patriots, in what became known as the Boston Massacre. Three years later, with tensions high, and coffeehouse patriots increasingly gathering, and talking, and doing all of those things King George so hated about coffeehouse culture, the British Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773. The Tea Act was designed to save the British East India Company by giving them a monopoly over the American tea trade.
Outraged, the Sons of Liberty, a secret “patriot paramilitary political organization…established to undermine British rule in colonial America”1, began smuggling tea in from Holland, as Bostonians increasingly blacklisted goods shipped over or controlled by the British — tea being the most obvious of staples. No longer in need of British tea, the Sons and Daughters of Liberty, along with thousands of protesters, took to the Boston Harbor on November 28, 1773, and refused to allow the first of three British-controlled tea-carrying ships, the Dartmouth, to unload her goods.
Over the next two weeks, the Sons of Liberty, whose members are still unknown to this day, rallied their fellow patriots, and on December 16, 1773, approximately 7,000 gathered at Boston’s Old South Meeting House to hear John Hancock’s revolutionary call of “Let every man do what is right in his own eyes!”2. Later that evening, 60 axe-wielding men dressed as Mohawk Indians boarded the Dartmouth, the Eleanor, and the Beaver, ordered the crew below deck, and dumped the contents of 342 chests carrying 46 tons of tea valued at £18,000 (approximately $3.5 million today) into the shallow waters of the Boston Harbor. The tide was so low that evening that the ‘Indians’ had to stomp the tea down into the saturated Harbor waters.
That evening, as the crowds cheered in the chilly tea-scented air, coffee became a symbol of American patriotism. Once deemed ‘seditious’ by King George III, drinking coffee was now viewed as an act of American liberty, freedom, and representation. Years later, Thomas Jefferson, by then a devout coffee drinker, declared his coffee “the favorite beverage of the civilized world”3. Today, America is still one of the world’s highest coffee consuming nations, drinking an estimated 146 billion cups per year. As you sit there reading this (hopefully with a cup O’Joe in hand!), I hope you feel a renewed sense of pride in being an American, in being a coffee drinker, and in knowing that your vote, your representation matters.
Fun facts on the Boston Tea Party!
The Daughters of Liberty were instrumental to the success of the Boston Tea Party. The Daughters created safe houses for the 60 men who tea tossed during the Boston Tea Party and, Sarah Bradlee Fulton, often referred to as the “Mother Of The Boston Tea Party”, proposed the idea of wearing costumes to avoid identification. Sarah, an ardent activist, later served as a spy under the orders of George Washington during the Revolutionary War4.
Benjamin Franklin, an American Founding Father, flamed the public rage with a little ditty he shared with the masses5:
There was a second Boston Tea Party, on March 1774, where approximately 30 chests full of tea were dumped into the Harbor6.
History of Coffee in America: From Colonial Days to Your Cup
“The Sublimity of it, charms me!”: John Adams and the Boston Tea Party