The Real Spirit of 1776

Tom Standage, technology editor at the Economist, is author of "A History of the World in 6 Glasses" (Walker & Co., 2005).

American independence owes much to a dispute over a drink, but it wasn’t tea.

Even someone with the most tenuous grasp of history will be familiar with the Boston Tea Party. The short version goes like this: In 1773, the British government imposed a tax on the tea shipped to its American colonies. The colonists objected, marched onto a ship in Boston Harbor and tipped its cargo of tea into the water in protest. Similar tea parties followed in other ports, and relations between London and the colonies soured, leading to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775 and ultimately to American independence.

The full story, however, is more complicated. For although the schism between Britain and its colonies did indeed begin over the taxation of a drink, the drink in question was not tea. It was rum.

The dispute began decades earlier, in 1733, when the British government passed the Molasses Act. This imposed a tax on all molasses imported into the colonies from French sugar-producing islands in the West Indies. (Molasses is the leftovers from the sugar-making process.)


New England distillers used molasses to make rum, which was consumed locally and exported to West Africa, where it was used as a currency to purchase slaves. The resulting Atlantic traffic in rum, sugar and slaves is sometimes called the “triangular trade.”

The imposition of a heavy tax on French molasses was intended to encourage the American colonists to buy their molasses from the British sugar islands instead. But British molasses was regarded as inferior and was not available in sufficient quantities. At the time, rum accounted for 80% of New England’s exports and was the preferred drink of the colonists, who each consumed an average of four gallons a year. So the Molasses Act struck directly at the prosperity -- economic and alcoholic -- of the colonists.

Despite the tax, the colonists continued to rely on French molasses as before.

This undermined respect for British law and set a dangerous precedent: Henceforth, the colonists felt entitled to defy other laws that seemed unreasonable. The British government, for its part, did almost nothing to enforce the law. This changed in 1764, when the government passed a new Sugar Act -- which lowered the 1733 tax but made it enforceable -- and began collecting duty on molasses to pay off the debts incurred during the French and Indian War.

New England rum distillers led the opposition to the new law by organizing a boycott of imports from Britain. The cry of “no taxation without representation” became a popular slogan. Advocates of independence, known as the Sons of Liberty, began to mobilize public opinion in favor of a break with Britain. They often met in taverns and distilleries. John Adams, the revolutionary leader and future president, noted in his diary that he attended a meeting of the Sons of Liberty in 1766 in a distillery where the participants drank rum punch, smoked pipes and ate cheese and biscuits.

The Sugar Act was followed by other unpopular laws that imposed duties, including the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767. Finally, the British government staked its authority on the taxation of a single commodity, tea, which led to the Boston Tea Party.

Although this meant that tea remains the drink associated with the origins of independence, rum had played a more important role in the decades leading to the Revolutionary War.


Wine historian Alexis Lichine, among others, has recounted a story about Paul Revere. On the eve of the outbreak of hostilities, when Revere made his famous ride from Boston to Lexington to warn of the approach of British troops, he stopped off for a rum toddy (rum, sugar and water, heated by plunging a red-hot poker into the mixture) on the way.

Once the fighting started, rum was the preferred drink of American soldiers. The taxation of molasses, which began the estrangement of Britain from its American colonies, had given rum a distinctly revolutionary flavor. But you need not take my word for it. Many years after the British surrender in 1781 and the establishment of the United States of America, Adams, by then one of the country’s founding fathers, wrote to a friend: “I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence. Many great events have proceeded from much smaller causes.”

The real spirit of 1776, in short, is to be found in a bottle of rum.