A Hot Cup of Patriotism

As you sit down to enjoy your morning, afternoon, or evening cup of coffee (don’t worry, we won’t judge you if you’re in that last category), do you ever wonder how America became a coffee society?  According to scholars, it has a lot to do with the Revolutionary War.

Coffee was a commodity enjoyed by early colonial settlers.  However, because they were mostly from England, a primarily tea-drinking country, coffee took the back burner as the preferred hot beverage.  When the English began drinking coffee in social settings in the late 17th century, many were skeptical, but were persuaded that coffee

“does the orifices of the stomach good, it fortifies the heart within, helpeth digestion, quickens the spirits … is good against eyesores, cough, or colds, rhumes, consumption, headache, dropsy, gout, scurvy, Kings evil and many others.”  

Drinking coffee in social situations then spread to the colonies and influenced the birth of the coffee house. [1]

When the British decided to tax imports to the colonies, and granted the British East India Company a monopoly over the tea trade, colonists were outraged.  This resulted in the Boston Tea Party of 1773 where colonists threw barrels of British tea overboard and into the harbour.  Ironically, this act was apparently planned in a coffee house. [2]

After the Boston Tea Party, drinking coffee instead of tea became a form of patriotic duty.  This idea was further emphasized with the start of the Revolutionary War, when refusing British products symbolized the rejection of British domination.  As the American population at large considered drinking coffee to be patriotic, people  continued to drink it in social settings. However, coffee also began to seep into homes.  Even John Adams was refused his request for a cup of tea that had “been honestly smuggled, or paid no Duties.”  He was then served a cup of coffee, and wrote home to his wife that he “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.”  [3]

The soldiers enjoyed coffee as well.  In 1781, General William Smallwood included 1,500 pounds of coffee on his list of “most essential [items] to be procured immediately” for regiments in the south.  He also requested 1,500 pounds of soap, which shows how high coffee was on the list of priorities.  Smallwood was not the only one who wanted coffee for his troops; it is included on almost all of the requests from the Continental army, among other popular items such as rum and blankets. [4]

After the war ended, some returned to drinking tea, but coffee houses retained their popularity.    People would gather in coffee houses where they would sip a delicious cup of coffee, and discuss business and pleasure alike.  So as you enjoy National Coffee Day, which for many of us is actually celebrated every day, gather together with your friends and family to share some coffee and quality time!

-Natalie Miller, Maryland Society Sons of the American Revolution Research Fellow, 2017


[1] William H. Ukers, All About Coffee, (New York: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1922), chapter 7; Frank Clark, “Chocolate and Other Colonial Beverages,” in Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage, ed. Louis Evan Grivetti and Howard-Yana Shapiro, (New Jersey, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009), 274-275.

[2] “The American Plate,” Museum of the American Revolution, 10 March 2015; Tori Avey, “The Caffeinated History of Coffee,” Public Broadcasting Service, 8 April 2013.

[3] “The American Plate”; Clark, “Colonial Beverages”; Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 6 July 1774, “Our J. [Justice] H. [Hutchinson] is eternally giving his Political Hints…” [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.

[4] Smallwood’s List of Essential Items, Maryland State Papers, Brown Books, 1781, MdHR 4609 [MSA S991-2, 01/06/05/003].

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