The Points Interview: Jane T. Merritt

Dr. Jane T. Merritt is an associate professor of history at Old Dominion University and author of the new book, The Trouble with Tea: The Politics of Consumption in the Eighteenth-Century Global Economy (Johns Hopkins, 2016).

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Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

The Trouble with Tea explores 18th century consumer culture, market economies, and their political use and meaning.  The core of the book’s argument questions the old adage among economic historians that consumer demand drove merchants to provide an ever-increasing supply of goods, thus sparking a Consumer Revolution in the early eighteenth century.  Tea presents a different picture.  Instead, political concerns about the domination of Britain in a global economy and the corporate machinations of the English East India Company (EIC) in the 1720s and 1730s produced an over-supply of Chinese tea that the Company then funneled to North America, hoping to find a market.  American consumers only slowly habituated themselves to the beverage, aided by the availability of Caribbean sugar.  Still, American merchants and consumers took to tea by mid-century, even as colonial activists called for a boycott of British goods.  Boston wasn’t the only place that held a “Tea Party” to protest imperial tax policy in late 1773.  Citizens of Philadelphia, New York, Edenton, North Carolina, and Charleston also destroyed or forcibly returned the EIC tea commissioned for sale in North America.  In truth, however, Americans did not reject luxury consumption or tea; they simply wanted quicker, easier access to foreign commercial markets, which they returned to soon after the American Revolution.  Ironically, individual states and the new federal government established under the 1787 constitution revived taxes and tariffs on tea as a key source of revenue.  Creating, then fulfilling consumer desires, has always been a driving force in the American economy.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

The Trouble with Tea, in part, examines the early 18th century “luxury debates” and their social and political consequences.  Although the supply of tea from China into the British empire proceeded consumer demand, the EIC and tea merchants lowered the price so that English consumers and American colonists could slowly habituate themselves to the taste of tea – especially with the help of more affordable Caribbean sugar.  No longer an elite beverage, by the mid-eighteenth century even the “lower sorts” exchanged labor and produce for new consumables like tea.  Sometimes they would forego more substantial foodstuff to partake in the presumed “luxuries” of sugar, tea, chocolate, and alcohol.  Perhaps because of its proliferation across class lines, tea became a favorite target of those who moralized about luxury consumption.  Early modern “scientists,” experimenting on frogs and cattle, called tea a narcotic, like opium, and warned against its addictive qualities.  Referring to tea as “this Chinese drug” Jonas Hanway, merchant and philanthropist, worried that the proliferation of tea among the laboring classes would make them impoverished beggars.  Tea and its use not only symbolized the blurred lines between laborers and their “betters”, it was often gender-coded.  Popular and literary works depicted tea-drinkers as idle, elite, or social-climbing women, who gossiped and incited scandal.  Poet Allan Ramsay lamented the rise of “A Tea-fac’d Generation” pleased by “Av’rice, Luxury and Ease.”  Still, moralizing about the physical effects of caffeinated tea soon gave way to criticizing the political impact of its proliferation and sale.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

We often forget that the EIC and the Bank of England (the financial arm of the British government) were interdependent in ways that appear quite modern.  When the British crown granted the EIC monopoly rights on trade with China and South Asia, and helped to fund that trade through loans and tax rebates, they created a company too big to fail, tying the economic stability of Great Britain to the financial health of the company.  By the 1760s, the EIC dominated foreign trade in India and, with the help of its private army, conquered Bengal, insinuating itself deeply into local politics.  But, its role as the public face and administrator of the British empire in India was expensive; the EIC needed tea from China to fund activities in Bengal.  Thus, to avoid bankruptcy, the Company demanded direct access to markets in the American colonies with the 1773 Tea Act.  And therein lies the trouble.  Indeed, American activists, like John Dickinson, warned that the Company aimed “to repair their broken Fortunes by the Ruin of American Freedom and Liberty!”  Rather than British tax policy, he blamed the EIC’s monopoly and acquisition of sovereign territory in Bengal as the true source of America’s fear.  “Their conduct in Asia, for some Years past,” he chided, “has given ample Proof, how little they regard the Laws of Nations, the Rights, Liberties, or Lives of Men.  They have levied War, excited Rebellions, dethroned lawful Princes, and sacrificed Millions for the Sake of Gain.”  Dickinson recognized that in a global economy, an individual’s purchase in Boston or Philadelphia could affect the lives of those far beyond the shores of America.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

The research that is emerging on the Post-Revolutionary American commercial empire is tremendous.  Scholars are pushing beyond the Atlantic World paradigm to globalize American history, noting the interconnected 18th century past of Britain and its American colonies, the United States, and Asia.  Jonathan Eacott, Selling Empire: India and the Making of Britain and America, 1600-1830 (2016) and James Fichter, So Great a Proffit: How the East Indies Trade Transformed Anglo-American Capitalism (2010) have built on work that P.J. Marshall began with The Making and Unmaking of Empires (2005).

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

Will Arnett as Lego Batman.

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