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.
The unpopularity of the Townshend Acts led to the repeal of most of the taxes. In 1770, the new British prime minister, Lord North, believed that reconciliation with the colonists was the best policy, and therefore supported the move. He did, however, see an opportunity with the tax on tea. If his government allowed the East India Company to ship its tea directly to the colonies, it could in effect cut out the middlemen, thus lowering the company's costs and saving it from ruin.
Additionally, directly imported tea could be sold to the colonists at a reduced price, meaning that even with the tax, the colonists would most likely pay less for legal British tea than for smuggled Dutch tea. This move, North believed, would be a masterstroke. Theoretically it would save the East India Company, allow colonists to pay less for tea and legitimize Parliament's power to tax the colonists. The Tea Act was passed in May 1773.
Few times in history did a policy that seemed so brilliant fail so miserably in execution.
In his book “The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin,” historian H.W. Brands wrote: “Once Boston mobilized, it soon seized the lead against what the Bostonians accounted this latest manifestation of a British conspiracy upon American liberty. Sam Adams and allies insisted that the agents, or consignees, of the East India Company abandon their positions; when the consignees hesitated, the Sons of Liberty attacked the warehouse and home of one of them.”
The colonists were committed to see North's plan fail. The last thing they wanted was to legitimize the hated taxes. Agitators like Adams, Paul Revere and the patriot group the Sons of Liberty continued to harass the East India Company agents. It further inflamed public opinion in Boston that the agents worked for a company owned in part by Thomas Hutchinson, Massachusetts colony's royal governor.
Late November 1773 saw the arrival in Boston Harbor of the Dartmouth, the first ship to carry tea imported directly from India. The Dartmouth was followed in the next few weeks by the Eleanor and the Beaver. According to the harbor rules, if the ships did not pay the harbor tax within a set amount of time, the tea would be confiscated by the city. The Sons of Liberty, however, stood angrily at the dockside, preventing the cargo from being delivered to Hutchinson's agents. If the tea wasn't sold, the ship's captains could not pay the harbor tax.
The night of Dec. 16, the night before Dartmouth's harbor tax was due, saw a huge meeting at Boston's Old South Church, which included perhaps as many as 8,000 attendees. There they laid their plan to deal with the crisis.
In his book “The American Revolution,” historian Bruce Lancaster wrote: “A number of Bostonians in Indian garb, their faces blackened, had boarded those ships and, with the surprising assistance of their crews, had spilled overboard a grand total of 342 chests of tea. There had been no violence of any sort, but rather a firm answer had been made to Lord North and Governor Hutchinson.”
All told, about 90,000 pounds of tea was cast into the harbor, amounting to around £10,000. The colonists had not disturbed the private property, or indeed anything of value on board the ships, save only the tea. The next few weeks saw tea leaves washing up along the banks of the harbor and floating upon its surface.
As expected, Parliament was not at all happy with the events of Dec. 16 and soon moved to punish the colonies. In early 1774, Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, or the Intolerable Acts, as they came to be called. These laws closed the port of Boston until the tea was paid for and forbade public meetings in the city, among other things.
Parliament's heavy-handedness only served to drive the wedge further between Britain and the colonies. The Boston Tea Party had begun a series of reactions and counter-reactions that escalated the crisis to an unrecoverable level and made a final break inevitable. Less than a year and a half after the Tea Party, Britain and the colonies were in a shooting war in Massachusetts, the opening act of the American Revolution.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. He has also appeared on many local stages, including Hale Centre Theatre and Off Broadway Theatre. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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