The story of tea and its connection with Revolutionary Boston is a well-known tale. This is just a footnote about two ladies and “a little India herb.”
The American colonists back in the 1770s loved liberty more than tea. But not by much. Thus Abigail Adams agonized in the summer of 1776 when tea was hard to find in Massachusetts. She craved tea and wrote to her husband John in Philadelphia, where tea was more readily available, to please send her some. “A little India herb would have been mighty agreeable now” she hinted in a postscript to a July 14, 1776, letter.
John and Sam Adams at Second Continental Congress
Of course, and quite ironically, tea was a good part of the reason John, along with cousin Sam Adams, was in Philadelphia in the first place. The Adamses, two key political leaders in Massachusetts, were attending the Second Continental Congress, a meeting of delegates from each of the thirteen colonies. The meeting was prompted by an act of Parliament closing Boston’s port. That act, in turn stemmed from the famous Boston Tea Party, where men dressed as Indians boarded vessels in Boston Harbor and threw tea overboard in protest of a tax on the tea, which Americans opposed.
In the interval between the Tea Party in 1773 and Abigail’s July 14, 1776, letter, much at transpired: the battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill in Massachusetts; the naming of George Washington as commander of an American army; the siege of Boston, when the American army bottled up the British military in Boston; the evacuation of Boston, whereby the British military fled Boston to resume the war elsewhere; and, just ten days before Abigail’s letter, the Continental Congress’s approval of the Declaration of Independence.
Variolation for Immunity to Smallpox
During most of that time, patriotic Americans discouraged the consumption of tea—especially taxed English tea. But by July of 1776, the consumption of tea was not considered quite so unpatriotic, as long as it was Dutch tea or anything but English tea, and at this particular time, Abigail was in dire need of a good cup of tea or something stronger. She was in Boston with her four children—ages 4, 6, 9 and 11—receiving variolation, a treatment intended to immunize them from smallpox. Preparations for the treatment involved harsh medications that made the children vomit. Thus, as Abigail pointed out to John, she was up to her elbows in puking kids. She also had to deal with her own discomfort related to the treatment.
While awaiting the tea she so longed for, Abigail paid a visit to Elizabeth Adams, wife of Sam Adams. Elizabeth served, as Abigail later wrote, “a very fine Dish of Green tea. The Scarcity of the article made me ask her Where she got it. She replied her Sweet Heart sent it to her by Mr. Gerry.” Mr Gerry was Elbridge Gerry, another Massachusetts man at the Congress in Philadelphia. “I said nothing, but thought my Sweet Heart might have been eaquelly kind considering the disease I was visited with.”
Tea to the Wrong Mrs. Adams
As it turned out, the tea Elizabeth served was actually Abigail’s. John, not Sam, had bought the tea. The woman John ordered it from gave it to Gerry to deliver to Abigail. For some reason, Gerry delivered it to the wrong Mrs. Adams.
By and by, John Adams learned of Gerry’s mistake and felt awful. He wrote: “. . .I flattered my self, you would have the poor Relief of a dish of good Tea under all your Fatigues with the Children, and under all the disagreeable Circumstances attending the small Pox, and I never conceived a single doubt, that you had received it untill Mr Gerrys Return. I asked him, accidentally, whether he delivered it, and he said Yes to Mr. S.A.’s [Sam Adams’s] Lady — I was astonished.”
John sent off another canister of tea, presumably not entrusted Gerry. Also, Abigail retrieved what remained of her tea—about half was left—from the other Mrs. Adams.
- Holton, Woody. Abigail Adams. New York, Free Press, 2009.
- Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 13-14 July 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.
- Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 7 September 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.
- Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 5 September 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.