If the American Revolution had a sponsor, it would have been Madeira (a fortified and intentionally oxidized wine from the Portuguese island of Madeira).
Today’s words don’t have anything to do with wine per se, but I’m about to connect the dots, so stay with me.
For the past three nights, my teenagers and I have been watching a fascinating three-part miniseries on the History Channel called, The Sons of Liberty. Back when I was teaching high school history (waaaay back, before cell phones), I always found it particularly impossible to make the American Revolution relevant and interesting to teenagers. Mention Sam Adams and John Hancock and all you got was a room full of glazed eyes. Until now. Forgiving the historical liberties, the American Revolution just got interesting. (Disclaimer: The Sons of Liberty is billed as historical fiction, but the historical scaffolding is brilliant.)
Meet the fully patched members of the Sons of
Anarchy Liberty: Dr. Joseph Warren (my small-town of Warrenton, Virginia is named after him, btw), Paul Revere, Sam Adams, John Hancock, and John Adams.
So what does this gang of patriots have to do with Madeira wine?
During the years leading up to the American Revolution, colonial Boston was subject to a series of pesky English rules called the Navigation Laws. In a nutshell, all goods coming into the colonies could only come via British ships, and they had to originate in British ports of call. So said The King. But, because of a holdover from the 1661 marriage of Portuguese princess, Catherine of Bragança to King Charles II, Madeira was allowed to sell its wine directly to any British colonies. Hello, loophole!
Madeira became the wine of choice in the American colonies . . . and the colonists were thirsty!
Now, John Hancock was a notorious smuggler (yep, smuggler) of many things, but especially of Madeira wine. He built a massive fortune by circumventing the Navigation Laws in colonial Boston (there was a lot of looking the other way, winking and bribing going on). Everyone was happy. That is, until 1768, when one of Hancock’s ships, The Liberty, was seized by customs officials in Boston for discrepancies in its customs logs (England still wanted a customs tax regardless of the ship’s origin). The Liberty recorded and paid customs taxes on 25 pipes (barrels) of Madeira, but sometime between docking and inspection, about 2/3 of The Liberty’s cargo hold vanished.
Someone’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.
On-board disagreements between customs officials and crew led to riots on the docks. Boston was tense. Hancock would eventually be charged with violating Britain’s Acts of Trade, but the charges were later dropped for insufficient evidence. After the Liberty incident, Hancock jumped squarely onto Team Patriot. (And, according to The Sons of Liberty, started running all over the colonies with his new BFF, Sam Adams).
On last night’s final episode, when it came time for the first signature on the Declaration of Independence, Sam Adams handed the quill to John Hancock and said, “you’ve earned the honor.” Hancock then signed the Declaration in gigantic style, prompting Sam Adams to ask, “Sure you made it big enough?” I laughed, out loud. (Like I said, the historical scaffolding is brilliant).
Right after he signed, Hancock is reported (by legend and rumor) to have said,
Did he really say that? Probably . . . not. But unless a YouTube video of the signing of the Declaration of Independence surfaces, we’ll never know for sure. And I’m OK with that.
After all 56 delegates signed the Declaration of Independence, a huge celebration was in order. Care to guess what they opened to toast America’s new independence?
Perhaps the Madeira came from Hancock’s personal cellar — there is still the matter of those missing pipes. I’m inventing, of course . . . but isn’t it fun to wonder?
P.S. I’m feeling like a study of the different styles of Madeira is in order. You’ve been warned.