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The Real Story Behind The Tea Party

Since the mid-term elections have now passed and the tea-bagger impact on voters is now painfully clear, the Boston Tea Party seems like a fitting topic for beverage investigation. So, I am going to ask you all to try to remember the reason for the American Revolution. Within the context of my tea party reference, most readers are now vaguely recalling some fifth grade social studies lesson and miming the phrase “taxation without representation.” Sound familiar? You are probably thinking, “I do remember, now… They threw the tea into Boston Harbor in protest of the excessive tax on tea imposed by King George III.”

Wrong. Perhaps you are smarter than a fifth grader, but that is precious little consolation once you realize we were all lied to in the fifth grade. Contrary to popular opinion, the Puritans who founded this nation drank like fish. That is, if fish swam in ethyl alcohol. In those days, people still believed that water was not fit to drink. They thought it was unhealthy. Perhaps they were right at the time. After all, they had open sewers and livestock walked in the streets. So everyone in colonial American drank ale or hard cider for breakfast, rum for lunch and then wine for dinner – that is, if they could afford it and were still sober enough to dine. Based on production levels, estimates suggest that colonial-era Americans drank as much as 8 ounces of pure alcohol per day, per capita.

So, why did those tipsy colonial-era tea-baggers toss their Earl Grey into the harbor? The simple answer is this: They had absolutely no intention of wasting a precious drop of the real reason for their revolt – rum. In point of fact, rum was the central reason for the American Revolution. Our forefathers wanted cheap booze. Period. Everything else in the history books is just propaganda.

So why has America’s rum-soaked history gone largely untold? Prohibition helped erase the importance of alcohol in general, and rum in particular, to the country’s development. Rum was not just the beverage of choice in early America, rum was as economically important in colonial times as oil is today. Rum was the key commodity in trade, development and negotiation in colonial times, and thus helped shape what America was to become. Estimates of rum consumption in the American colonies before the Revolution suggest that every man, woman, or child drank an average of three imperial gallons of rum each year. The popularity of rum continued long after the American Revolution. In fact, our first president insisted on a barrel of Barbados rum for his 1789 inauguration.

Rum originated in Barbados as a by-product of sugar refining- molasses. After rum’s development in the Caribbean, the drink’s popularity spread to the British Colonies. Caribbean molasses became one of the three points in a transatlantic trade triangle that became the basis of pre-revolution British tax revenue. The manufacture of rum was colonial America’s largest and most prosperous industry. New England became a distilling center due to their superior technical, metalworking and barrel-making skills. But more importantly, the rum produced there was lighter and tasted more like the familiar British whisky. To support the increasing demand for the West Indian molasses required to produce this rum, a labor source was needed to work the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. A triangular trade route was then established between Africa, the Caribbean, and the colonies. Sugar went north to fuel the stills and then the excess rum went east to pay for slaves that were then sent south to the Caribbean to work the cane fields. The exchange of molasses for rum and slaves was quite profitable, and the Sugar Act in 1764 disrupted this trading windfall. When passed by Parliament, the new Sugar Act halved the previous tax imposed on molasses – however, it also came with promises of stricter enforcement and an end to smuggling and rum-running. That was a fatal mistake. Protest against the Sugar Act ultimately progressed from revolt to all out war.

It is now clear that economic impact and a desire for cheap alcohol (rather than a constitutional issue of taxation without representation) was the real cause of the American Revolution and our own freedom from British tyranny.

Mix me another rum and coke and pass me a lime, so I can toast the 4th of July with a Cuba Libre. But wait, I am confusing my revolutions. Sorry, that must be the rum talking again.

Suggestion for more reading: Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776 by Ian Williams

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