The American Revolution: The Patriotic Renunciation of Tea and the Switch to Coffee

John Adams wrote to Abigail Adams on July 6, 1774,

I believe I forgot to tell you one Anecdote: When I first came to this House it was late in the Afternoon, and I had ridden 35 miles at least. “Madam” said I to Mrs. Huston, “is it lawfull for a weary Traveller to refresh himself with a Dish of Tea provided it has been honestly smuggled, or paid no Duties?”

“No sir, said she, we have renounced all Tea in this Place. I cant make Tea, but He make you Coffee.” Accordingly I have drank Coffee every Afternoon since, and have borne it very well. Tea must be universally renounced. I must be weaned, and the sooner, the better.

So why the transition to coffee?

In 1773, the British Parliament passed the Tea Act, a bill designed to save the faltering East India Company. Many colonists viewed the act as yet another example of tyrannical taxation, because it left an earlier duty on tea entering the colonies in place, while removing the duty on tea entering England.

In December 1773, Patriots boarded British ships carrying East Indian Company tea dressed as Mohawk Indians and dumped the tea chests aboard, valued then at £18,000 (nearly $1 million in today’s money) into the water. This became known as the Boston Tea Party. [Interestingly, the Boston Tea party was planned in a coffee house called the Green Dragon].

Outraged by the destruction of British property in Boston and elsewhere, Parliament enacted the Coercive (or “Intolerable”) Acts in 1774. These acts established formal British military rule in Massachusetts, closed the port of Boston to merchant shipping, immunized British officials from prosecution, and required colonists to quarter British troops. This, in turn, leads the colonists to call the first Continental Congress to consider unified colonial resistance to British oppression.

Once imported tea became politicized as a drink fit only for loyalists to the Crown, it dropped out of fashion. Tea drinkers were criticized by their neighbors, and a new age of coffee drinking dawned. Grown in the New World, coffee did not represent British economic interests. It was hot and highly caffeinated, and it retained much of its popularity even after the Revolution, when tea drinking no longer made one a pariah.

According to historian Libby O’Connell

Coffee would completely eclipse hot tea in 1865, when Union soldiers trooped home from the Civil War. The U.S. government had issued coffee as part of their standard rations, and returning veterans kept right on drinking it. By the 20th century, people drank coffee everywhere in the United States.


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