December 16, 1773: Boston Tea Party

What caused the colonists to dump tea into Boston Harbor in 1773? Were they just paving the way for Starbucks to take over, or was there more to it?

In the late 1700’s, Britain made the ultimately fatal mistake of not only trying to police the American colonists against their worser angels, but also assessing them taxes for the effort. The fact was that Britain had a lot of expenses and irritations associated with her American colonies.

To secure the northern border of America, Britain, joined by colonials, had fought the French and Indian War and procured Canada from the French, but it was a costly campaign. Moreover, after the war, the British permitted the French “Papists” to retain their property, thus “cheating” the Americans of the rich plunder anticipated at war’s end.

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To secure the colonies’ western border, Britain attempted to enforce compliance with treaties made with Native Americans, and forbade colonists from moving west of the Appalachians. This latter policy in particular was anathema to the Americans, who, long before their vision was articulated by the phrase “manifest destiny” decided that they, not the Indians, were the superior race and therefore deserved the riches that lay to the west.

As Walter McDougall related it in Freedom Just Around the Corner:

…Americans were shocked when the crown turned apostate by proposing to choke colonists’ pursuit of new land and markets, tolerate Catholicism in Canada, make lasting peace with France and Spain, and forbid removal of Indians. The English became heretics in their own church.”

Certainly Enlightenment ideas then roiling in Europe played a role in providing Americans with an intellectual justification for their greed; they had not given “consent.” The Founders had been educated in the tenets of Hobbes, Locke, and Adam Smith, among others, to believe that “all men [sic] were created equal”, that legitimate state authority must derive from the consent of the governed, and that abusive governments could and should be overthrown.

John Locke

John Locke

In sum, the American colonists, who paid less taxes overall than did citizens in the British homeland, objected mightily to the uses to which the taxes were put, and thought they had found adequate philosophical support for their position.

Tensions increased on both sides with a series of insults in the form of boycotts on the American side and taxes on the side of the British. Parliament repealed the Stamp Act Tax, unpopular on both sides of the Atlantic, but followed up by passing the Townshend Acts, placing import duties on commonly used commodities, including tea.

Provocations and skirmishes marked the next three years, and once again Parliament repealed most of the taxes except the tea tax (for reasons having more to do with the needs of the colonies in India than in America). John Hancock organized a boycott of tea that came from the British East India Company, and its sales fell precipitously, while Hancock got wealthy smuggling in tea from elsewhere. By 1773, British East India Tea had large debts, huge stocks of tea in its warehouses, and no prospect of selling it because smugglers, such as Hancock, were importing tea from the Netherlands without paying import taxes.

John Hancock

John Hancock

To resolve these problems the British government passed the Tea Act, which allowed the East India Company to sell tea to the colonies directly and without “payment of any customs or duties whatsoever” in Britain, paying the much lower American duty instead. This in fact made tea cheaper than ever in America, but angered smugglers who were making lots of money, and who stood to see their profits undercut by the newly cheaper British tea.

A rebel group, the Sons of Liberty, interpreted this (i.e., selling them cheaper goods!) as a hostile act by Britain. They resented the power of the tea company’s lobbyists and influence in London and, most importantly, stood to lose a lot of money. Thus the American rebels decided they must take action. On December 16, 1773, the Sons of Liberty, dressed as Native Americans, boarded three ships carrying East India Company tea and dumped 342 chests of it into Boston Harbor.

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Britain’s retaliatory punitive measures galvanized other colonies to come to the aid of Massachusetts, and the American Revolution was on its way.

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