Over the course of most of the eighteenth century, a distinctive culture began to emerge in America. Farmers, workers and artisans lived in remote areas and had little contact with government. American thinking, in the hands of intellectuals, developed around concepts of personal freedom and human rights based on British traditions such as the Magna Carta, as well as the beginnings of democracy in ancient Athens and the much-admired Roman Republic.
Lifestyle and philosophical thinking, however, in themselves would not be enough to light the fires of rebellion. Americans learn in school that a series of taxes, and the way the British imposed them, took care of that. In truth, a great deal of economic friction between the two sides predated the tax controversies by at least fifty years. Both sides wanted to run commerce in their own way, especially trade in sugar, and in that intoxicating product of sugar, rum. The rum and sugar trade brought the institution of slavery in its wake, which would later bring the United States its greatest crisis.
The Portuguese, Spanish and French were the first colonizers to set up the slave-driven sugar industry in the Caribbean, but the British were the people who turned it into a true commercial science. Britain would trade manufactured goods for slaves from Africa, sell or trade the slaves in the Caribbean, and ship raw materials, especially molasses (a sugar byproduct used to make rum) either to the American colonies or back to Britain, yielding enormous profits at every juncture: the “triangle trade.” By 1690, a rum industry had begun in America. Americans soon developed a taste for rum, but could not get enough molasses from British sources. Enterprising Americans soon strove to right the imbalance, turning to the French Caribbean islands for their molasses, which they would in turn manufacture into rum to trade for slaves in Africa for their own “triangle trade.”
The British were quick to react, enacting the Molasses Act in 1733, banning American trade with the French “Sugar Islands.” The Americans ignored the act, but the Sugar Act in 1763 brought British military force into the picture. Soon thereafter, the British instituted a series of relatively minor taxes, unrelated to sugar and rum, which the Americans were not in the mood to obey. They protested against taxes in which they had no say, since they did not have representation in the British Parliament. The British backed down on most of the taxes, but left a tiny tax on tea, largely to support the principle that they had the right to tax the colonies at their will. The tax on tea may have been the spark, but larger conflicts caused the rebellion. The American patriots who tossed boxes of tea into the harbor during the “Boston Tea Party” of 1773 took their courage from rum, they drank rum during the darkest hours of the Revolution that followed, and toasted their eventual victory with rum. Very few of them were particularly fond of tea.
The American Revolution had no single cause. The ocean, and 150 years of development in relative isolation, made the revolution possible. Commercial tensions, and British arbitrariness, made it inevitable. Gallons of rum helped it along. Philosophy made it stick.
As a postcript to the issue of rum, on American independence, the British cut off most supplies of sugar to the new nation. Americans turned to grain from the interior, and switched their allegiance to whiskey.
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