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Benjamin Franklin’s Views on The Boston Tea Party

Drinking tea in the morning at home and socially in the afternoon or early evening became an “established custom” in 18th century America. According to Benjamin Franklin “at least a Million of Americans drink Tea twice a Day.” Another contemporary estimated that one third of the population drank tea twice a day.

Visiting foreigners left vivid accounts about tea drinking in Pennsylvania and New York. “The favorite drink, especially after dinner, is tea.” The tea ceremony, with tea drinking, became the core of family life. A Swedish traveler found that there was “hardly a farmer’s wife or a poor woman, who does not drink tea in the morning.” In Philadelphia the women would rather go without their dinners than without “a dish of tea.”

During the colonial tea ceremony, social and economic affairs were discussed. Tea had become the excuse for many a social gathering, and being invited to share tea became a special occasion for the colonists. In 1745, Benjamin Franklin wrote a note showing his appreciation for Mr. Fisher’s “Company to drink Tea at 5 o’clock this afternoon, June 4.”

According to Swedish Professor Peter Kalm, who toured North America in 1748, tea had not only replaced milk as a breakfast beverage, but also was drunk in the afternoon.

The professor once had a conversation with Benjamin Franklin where the Philadelphia printer/inventor told Kalm “he had drunk tea cooked from the leaves of the hickory with the bitter nuts. The leaves are collected early in the spring when they have just come out but have not yet had time to become large. They are then dried and used as tea. ” Franklin said that, next to the real tea from China, he had in his estimation not found any American “tea” as palatable and agreeable as this concoction.

Franklin’s moderation in the early years of the conflict of this country with England is well known; he with many other strong and patriotic minds hoped that the colonies might secure redress without a resort to arms. How he viewed the Boston Tea Party is perhaps not so well known. He was in London at the time, and the following is a letter that he wrote to several men in Boston—ardent patriots, among them Samuel Adams and John Hancock. The original of the letter is in the New York Public Library among the Adams papers.

LONDON, Feb. 2, 1774

Gentlemen: I received the Honour of your Letter dated Decr. 21, containing a distinct Account of the Proceedings at Boston relative to the Tea imported there, and of the Circumstances that occasioned its Destruction. I communicated the same to Lord Dartmouth, with some other Advices of the same import. It is yet unknown what Measures will be taken here on the Occasion; but the Clamour against the Proceedings is high and general. I am truly concern’d, as I believe all considerate Men are with you, that there should seem to any a Necessity for carrying Matters to such Extremity, as, in a Dispute about Publick Rights, to destroy private Property; This (notwithstanding the Blame justly due to those who obstructed the Return of the Tea) it is impossible to justify with People so prejudiced in favour of the Power of Parliament to tax America, as most are in this Country.

As the India Company however are not our Adversaries, and the offensive Measure of sending their Teas did not take its Rise with them, but was an Expedient of the Ministry to serve them and yet avoid a Repeal of the old Act, I cannot but wish & hope that before any compulsive Measures are thought of here, our General court will have shewn a Disposition to repair the Damage and make Compensation to the Company. This all our Friends here wish with me; and that if War is finally to be made upon us, which some threaten, an Act or violent injustice on our part, unrectified, may not give a colourable Pretence for it. A speedy Reparation will immediately set us right in the Opinion of all Europe. And tho’ the Mischief was the Act of Persons unknown, yet as probably they cannot be found or brought to answer for it, there seems to be some reasonable Claim on the Society at large in which it happened. Making voluntarily such Reparation can be no Dishonour to us or Prejudice to our Claim or Rights, since Parliament here has frequently considered in the same Light similar Cases; and only a few Years since, when a valuable Saw-mill, which had been destroyed by a Number of Persons supposed to be Sawyers, but unknown, a Grant was made out of the Publick Treasury of Two Thousand Pounds to the Owner as a Compensation—I hope in thus freely (and perhaps too forwardly) expressing my Sentiments & Wishes, I shall not give Offence to any. I am sure I mean well; being over with sincere Affection to my native Country, and great Respect to the Assembly and yourselves,

Gentlemen, Your most obedient and most humble Servant


Honble Thomas Cushing, Sam’l Adams, John Hancock, William Phillips, Esquires.

Excerpt from A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew & Bruce Richardson. Benjamin Press, available September 2013.

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Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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