As we celebrate the nation’s 237th birthday, it’s time that coffee gets a nod for its historic role in early American history. It’s often said that seeds of revolution (you’ll excuse the pun) were planted in heady discussions in the coffeehouses of Europe. Essentially, the social media of its day, European coffeehouses during the 17th and 18th centuries were indeed hotbeds of political discussion and enlightened discourse.
It’s a tradition that crossed the Atlantic with the colonists, although there’s more to coffee’s role in the American experience.
As you probably already know, coffee is an Old World plant that had to be imported to the Americas. During the 17th century, Britons such as the famed Captain James Cook and William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, saw to it that coffee was available in the colonies. At the same time, a French naval officer brought the first live coffee plant to the Americas, eventually starting the first New World coffee plantation on the Caribbean island of Martinique.
During the pre-Revolutionary period, American coffeehouses served as important meeting places. As early as 1709, the General Assembly of the Colony of New York held meetings in coffeehouses in present-day Lower Manhattan. History notes that some of the actual planning for the American Revolution took place in the coffeehouses of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.
But, coffee wouldn’t yet get its full patriotic stripes for another 75 years.
Echoes of the Old World sustained tea as the preferred drink in the colonies for many years. But as the British pushed the limits of economic domination, tea became the flashpoint of rebellion. After the famous Boston Tea Party in 1773, tea took on the symbol of the crown and its excesses. Colonial leaders such as John Adams, who would go on to become our second President, advocated for a boycott of tea. Adams himself went so far as to write “Tea must be universally renounced and I must be weaned, and the sooner the better.”
Through the efforts of leaders such as Adams, colonists eventually switched over to coffee. By the time the American Revolution ended 10 years later in 1783, Americans had become so used to coffee that there was hardly any market for tea.
Today, 83% of Americans say they drink coffee, 63% of them every day, according to NCA consumption tracking data. Coffeehouses are on every corner (although much of the world’s revolutionary discourse has moved to Twitter, it seems). But, coffee is nearly synonymous with American culture, an icon of morning routines and evening rituals, culinary enjoyment and social interaction, innovative menu ideas and societal norms and niceties. It is an intrinsic part of American lore, legend and song.
So, as you sip your coffee on Independence Day, savor the richness of history along with the aroma.
Happy July 4th from NCA!