This week in history: The Boston Tea Party made revolution inevitable
On Dec. 16, 1773, 240 years ago this week, angry Boston citizens boarded British ships and dumped 90,000 pounds of tea into Boston Harbor. The Boston Tea Party, as it came to be known, proved one of the defining events on the road to the American Revolution.
The French and Indian War (known as the Seven Years' War in Europe), had left Great Britain with considerable debt. Prior to the war, the British Parliament had been content to let the American colonies govern themselves with a minimum of interference. The colonies, in particular the colonies of the Chesapeake and Carolinas, had proved themselves to be vast producers of wealth for the empire. The slave plantations of the South ensured that in-demand products like sugar and tobacco arrived in European markets, making British merchants quite wealthy.
The war changed that. Britain had had to invest considerable wealth and resources into waging war against the French and their native allies in North America, and after the conflict Britain searched for a way to make the empire solvent once again. The answer, it seemed to Parliament, was simple: levy new taxes upon the colonies.
Two years after the conclusion of the war in 1763, Parliament created the Stamp Act, which taxed legal documents, newspapers and even playing cards. The tax proved wildly unpopular in the colonies and met with public protests. The colonies were experiencing a post-war economic lull, and it was a bad time for Parliament to tell the colonists that they needed to pay hard cash for a tax on things that had never been taxed before.
More importantly, however, the colonists objected to being taxed without their consent. The popular phrase “No Taxation without Representation” began about this time, and soon became a rallying cry for those opposed to the tax. Essentially, the colonists felt that it was unjust to levy such a tax while no colonist sat in Parliament and could speak for his constituency.
British merchants, fearing a loss of trade revenue, prevailed upon Parliament to repeal the tax, which it soon did. Along with the repeal, however, Parliament also issued the Declaratory Act, which stated that though Parliament backed down on this one issue, it had the legal right to issue similar taxes in the future.
Benjamin Franklin, then living in London, was invited to address Parliament in order to explain why colonists disliked the Stamp Act so much. Speaking extemporaneously, Franklin suggested that Parliament had taxed the colonists on things they required for day-to-day business. If Parliament taxed imported luxury items, however, they might find the colonists more amenable.
The 1767 Townshend Acts were crafted with this in mind. The new taxes covered things like glass, lead, tea and alcohol. Despite Franklin's advice, the new taxes met with colonial derision. John Dickinson began writing his famous “Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer” at this time, which attacked the new taxes and characterized Parliament in dark and conspiratorial tones.
Boston, which had been occupied by British troops for several years and had seen several of its citizens killed by Redcoats during the 1770 Boston Massacre, was especially angry over the new duties. Many in Parliament feared another incident in Boston could lead to an open break between that colony and Britain.
As events were playing out in North America, another important development was taking place halfway around the world. The British East India Company was on the verge of insolvency. The law stated that the company must ship its tea from India directly to London, where it could be purchased by merchants for transport around the world, notably to the American colonies. The fact that the tea could not be shipped directly to markets meant much higher operating costs for the company.
Additionally, though the British theoretically held a monopoly on the tea trade in the colonies, many colonists preferred to drink less expensive Dutch tea, which had to be smuggled into the colonies, and therefore was not taxed.
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