As someone with a background in Conflict Resolution and an affinity for history (and alliteration), it only made sense to do a series for the blog titled “Coffee and Conflict.” The history of coffee is a tumultuous yet fascinating one, one that I briefly summarized in Coffee 101. However, with each post in this series, I will more closely examine how particular conflicts led to the distribution and increased consumption of our favorite beverage, beginning with our nation’s forefathers.
Coffee reached New Amsterdam (now known as New York) between 1660 and 1670, most likely brought over either by a settler who became acquainted with the beverage in Britain before making his way to the New World or by British officers who were said to frequent coffee houses in their home country. However, despite its introduction to what we now call the United States and the subsequent opening of coffee houses throughout the colonies, the preferred drink of choice remained tea for quite some time. It was not until a little known event called the Boston Tea Party changed that trajectory.
In the years leading up to the Boston Tea Party, colonists became fed up with King George III’s control over them. From taxing their printed materials to forcing them to feed and house British troops, colonists grew increasingly agitated with each occurrence. Following the implementation of the 1765 Stamp Act, a group of patriots gathered together at the Green Dragon Coffee House in Boston and formed an organization to stand against Great Britain, dubbing themselves the Sons of Liberty. This organization, whose members included Paul Revere and founder Samuel Adams, are the ones who came up with the famous motto: “No taxation without representation.”
In May 1773, in order to save the floundering East India Company and maintain control over the colonies’ imports of tea, which of course were taxed, Britain passed the Tea Act, resulting in a government-created monopoly and some very angry colonists. The Tea Act actually reduced the price of tea for colonists; however, by paying for tea from the East India Company, they were also paying taxes to Great Britain, implicitly agreeing to the British parliament’s control over the colonies.
Later that year, the East Indian Company sent over seven ships with their cargo load of tea- four to Boston and one each to New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Once the ships reached land (only three survived the trek to Boston), the duties had to be paid within a certain period of time before customs seized control of the goods. The Sons of Liberty did not want to submit to this rule and instead wanted to send the ship back over the pond. The governor of Massachusetts however, with sons who were directly benefiting from this trade, refused to send the ships back, thus creating a stalemate.
It was December 16, 1773, the evening before the deadline to pay duties on the first ship that reached Boston. Following a meeting of the Sons of Liberty led by Samuel Adams, these patriots knew what they had to do. Participants disguised themselves as Native Americans, supposedly not only to hide their identities, but to symbolically show their allegiance to America rather than Britain. Over the course of three hours, the protestors dumped out 342 chests of tea into the harbor, resulting in 90,000 pounds of tea ruined and a nearly $2 million loss (in today’s money!). This came to be known as “the destruction of the tea.”
At that moment, the colonists vowed against drinking tea. Not only did coffee then become the preferred drink, but it became the patriotic one as well. To back this up, Mark Pendergrast in his book Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World cited a letter from John Adams to his wife Abigail “in which the Founding Father proclaims his love of tea but says he will have to learn to embrace coffee instead, because drinking tea had become unpatriotic.”
As we know, the Boston Tea Party was one of those signifying events that led to the American Revolution. During those formative years, our nation’s forefathers chose Merchant’s Coffee House (now known as City Tavern) in Philadelphia as a meeting place for the Continental Congress. It is also the place where the Declaration of Independence was read aloud to the public for the first time. So when you think about it, from Boston to Philadelphia, coffee houses played a crucial role in the founding of our nation.
It is crazy to think that the colonists’ world (and hundreds of chests of tea) had to turn upside down for people to embrace coffee as their drink of choice. And now every time I drink coffee, I will do so with a little more patriotic pride.
Coming up next in the series- how coffee played a role in the Civil War.
* While researching and writing this piece I realized I have eaten at the City Tavern before and had a little coffee geek out.