November 14, 2017
The Greenwich Tea Burning: The Political and Religious Roots of Local Revolutionary Resistance
9 min read
Today’s post accompanies “The Politics of Tea,” episode 160 of Ben Franklin’s World and part of the Doing History 2: To the Revolution! series. You can find supplementary materials for the episode on the OI Reader app, available through iTunes or Google Play.
by John Fea
In 1772, Philip Vickers Fithian, a twenty-four year old graduating senior at the College of New Jersey at Princeton, delivered his commencement disputation on the topic, “political jealousy is a laudable passion.” The disputation echoed the words of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon’s Cato’s Letters. It distinguished between “domestic and ecclesiastical jealousies,” which were harmful to the kind of Christian morality essential to sustaining a republican government, and “political” jealousy, which Fithian described as “rational, uniform, and necessary.” The truly “jealous” citizen kept a careful and virtuous watch on his government leaders to guard against vice and corruption. Political jealousy served as a unifying force. Fithian said that it had the “natural tendency” to “unite people” around interests closely associated with the preservation of a political community. Two years later, Fithian would witness political jealousy in action among the patriots of his hometown, the small hamlet of Greenwich, New Jersey.
Greenwich is located on the Cohansey River about six miles from the Delaware Bay. In the eighteenth century it served as an official British customs port, albeit not a very busy one. Sometime in the second week of December 1774 a brig—local lore identifies it as the Greyhound—docked at John Shepherd’s river landing. It carried East Indian tea. Fithian, who had just spent a year working as a tutor on Robert Carter III’s Nomini Hall plantation on the Northern Neck of Virginia, was in town when the Greyhound arrived. He knew that these were not ordinary times and the Greyhound, because of its cargo, was no ordinary ship.
For much of the previous year, the British-American colonies had been resisting England’s efforts to flood their markets with cheap tea from India. The colonists paid taxes on tea beginning in 1767, the year the commodity was included on a list of luxury items levied as part of the Townshend Duties. Upon the repeal of the Townshend Duties in 1770, the tax on tea continued, causing the product to become the object of many colonial boycotts during the seven years that preceded the dreaded Tea Act of 1773. This spirit of resistance was not lost on the inhabitants of Greenwich.
As was the case in many port communities, Greenwich patriots viewed the refusal to consume tea as a test of loyalty to the American cause. Fithian’s letters and diary entries, once filled with references to teatime visits with friends, now mentioned coffee as the beverage of choice. After writing and sending what he later deemed to be an embarrassing letter to Elizabeth Beatty, the woman he would eventually marry, Fithian asked her to use the epistle to “boil your tomorrow-Morning’s coffee.” Elizabeth’s brother Reading Beatty once asked his teacher and brother-in-law Enoch Green if his sister Mary, Green’s wife, still kept tea in their household: “Does Mrs. Green drink Tea yet? I hope not, if she does and you allow her, you will perhaps fall under the denomination of a Tory.”
In Greenwich, the politics of tea were closely connected to the politics of religious faith. Presbyterians led the patriot movement in Greenwich and the surrounding Cohansey River region. The Cohansey Presbyterians, including the three local ministers in the region, all had strong ties to the College of New Jersey. Many Presbyterians with Princeton connections thought that drinking tea was more than a political transgression. John Witherspoon, the president of the College, exhorted all Presbyterians to be frugal in their habits of consumption. Self-denial was a religious virtue and non-consumption was an example of how Christianity informed all dimensions of life. “Consider, therefore,” Witherspoon exhorted, “that the Christian character, particularly the self-denial of the gospel, should extend to your whole deportment.” He compared the kind of frugality required of Presbyterians to an ancient Christian baptism where adult converts renounced “the world, its shews, its pomp, and its vanities.” For Witherspoon, the undisciplined colonist was a “riotous and wasteful liver, who’s craving appetites make him constantly needy” and unfit to sacrifice for the public good during a time of revolution. Witherspoon’s lectures on moral philosophy merged this Christian motivation for political action with enlightened ideas such as political jealousy.
Cohansey’s Presbyterian culture, and the reach of Witherspoon’s Princeton into the southern New Jersey hinterland, provide the religious and intellectual context for understanding the so-called “Greenwich Tea Burning.” On December 22, 1774, a group of young Greenwich men seized the Greyhound’s cargo from the home of a local Tory where it was stored and burned it in the town square. It was unclear whether Fithian was involved in the burning of the tea, but he did take the time to record the event in his diary: “Last night the Tea was, by a number of persons in disguise, taken out of the House & consumed with fire.”
The Greenwich Tea Burning Monument, Greenwich, NJ
The Greenwich Tea Burning was a radical act. It created quite a stir in this quiet corner of the British Atlantic world. Almost all of the tea-burners— twenty-three names appear on a monument built in 1908 on Greenwich’s “Ye Greate Street”—were young Presbyterians who were most likely driven by their duty to exercise the “laudable passion” of political jealousy. The group included a future governor of New Jersey (Richard Howell), a future member of the United States House of Representatives (Ebenezer Elmer), a future mayor of Trenton, New Jersey (James Ewing), and a future chaplain of the United States Navy (Andrew Hunter). At least sixteen of those involved would serve in some military capacity during the American War for Independence. In the end, the story of the Greenwich Tea Burning provides a revealing window into the confluence of Whig political thought, Presbyterian public theology, and local resistance in revolutionary era.
Note: This post draws heavily from my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 143-147.
John Fea is Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College. He blogs regularly at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and hosts a podcast of the same name.