Forget the Boston Tea Party, the rebellion started with beer in Philly

THE MAKERS of Samuel Adams beer came to town last week to kick off the Fourth of July weekend with the introduction of their so-called Beer Drinker’s Bill of Rights.

It’s a frothy little P.R. document that declares the “self-evident” truth that, among other things, beer should be served in brown bottles.

I have to give brewery chief Jim Koch some credit. Just five months after the Patriots abused the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX, it took a lot of nerve for a Bostonian to show his face in Philadelphia, much less teach us about liberty and beer.

(Believe me, I had already consulted the Tar and Feathering Committee about Koch’s appearance.)

But the fact is, it’s not the first time Samuel Adams led Philadelphia on a revolutionary course toward liberty – a course that was fueled by beer.

I refer to the Charming Polly boycott of 1769, a mostly forgotten but important act of rebellion that pre-dated the Boston Tea Party by four years and helped lay the groundwork for the American Revolution – all thanks to the original Samuel Adams and Philadelphia’s Colonial brewers.

They don’t teach this story in school (or the corner bar, for that matter), so in the spirit of the recent holiday, I thought I’d share it here.

By the mid-18th century, Philadelphia – with a population of more than 25,000 – was the most prosperous port in the Colonies. Even in the face of heavy British taxes that upset other cities like Boston, its merchants remained neutral, making a nice living off imports. The city was so reluctant to protest the crown, New Yorkers referred to Philadelphia traders as “selfish, dastardly merchants.”

It was a Boston brewer named Samuel Adams who gave Philadelphia a boot toward independence, in 1768.

It came in the form of a so-called circular letter – a protest of the Townsend duties written by Adams and circulated through the Colonies from Boston to New York; Princeton, N.J.; Philadelphia; Baltimore; and south.

Its theme was elegant: No Taxation without Representation.

Prompted by Adams, merchants formed committees and took oaths swearing to boycott British goods. The protest spread to Philadelphia where, in February and March of 1769, merchants signed two non-importation resolutions. Those who violated the ban were embarrassed in print.

The first test of the Colonies’ resolve came on July 17, 1769.

That Monday, according to a report in the Pennsylvania Gazette, a vessel from Yarmouth, England, anchored on the Delaware.

The Charming Polly.

Its cargo: tons of malted barley, for brewing beer, addressed to a well-known merchant named Amos Strettell.

Enraged, a committee of merchants convened and sent for Strettell, who a ran a store at Front and Chestnut. At 4 p.m. the next day, Strettell and the Charming Polly’s master, Capt. James Henderson, were hauled before a meeting at the State House.

We may never know Strettell’s true role in this episode, but – faced with a group of angry citizens – he quickly denied any knowledge of the shipment. The shipper, named Christopher Eaton, was a stranger to him, he said.

Then a committee of the city’s brewers showed up at the State House, triumphantly waving a signed agreement promising that “they will not purchase any Part of it; nor will they brew the Same, or any Part thereof, for any Person whatever… ”

We can imagine this group – men like Joseph Potts, who ran a malt house at 5th and Market – swearing that they’d go broke before brewing a drop of British ale. These brewers didn’t know it at the time, but their protest would be a fundamental step – a personal sacrifice – toward building a new nation.

“This Agreement being read,” the Gazette continued, “was received with universal Applause.”

The merchants issued another proclamation warning that anyone who tried to buy or sell the malt would be considered “as a person who has not a just Sense of Liberty, and as an Enemy to his Country.”

They gave Capt. Henderson a week to leave town.

Word of the city’s non-importation vow spread. George Washington is said to have received a copy of the resolutions and forwarded them to George Mason, urging the formation of a similar protest in Virginia.

Over the coming months, trade between England and the Colonies was cut in half. In Philadelphia alone, it dropped 70 percent.

The anti-British protests grew. In 1770 came the Boston Massacre. The British backed down on some taxes and the Philadelphia boycott ended, but the course was set. In 1773, Adams took things a step further as three British ships – the Dartmouth, the Eleanor and the Beaver – sat in Boston Harbor, laden with British tea.

You know the rest of the story.

It makes you wonder. Maybe, if our Colonial brewers had dumped the Charming Polly’scargo into the Delaware in 1769, this month we’d be toasting the 236th anniversary of the Philadelphia Beer Party.

And the words of Samuel Adams would ring forever:

No Fermentation without Representation!

Sources: The Pennsylvania Gazette; Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography; the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser; “Brewed in America,” (Baron); the papers of George Washington (University of Virginia). Special thanks to Charles B. Greifenstein, manuscripts librarian, American Philosophical Society, and Rich Wagner, Pennsylvania brewery historian.

 Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Thomas Jefferson Tavern Ale.


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