While we’re building monuments to those who made the American Revolution possible (not to say necessary!), we should include Lord North, still remembered in England as the man who lost America. And let’s not forget that much-abused Loyalist, Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson. Between them, North and Hutchinson lit the fuse, and Samuel Adams and others blew on it as hard as they could, to keep it burning, and Boston Harbor, December 16, 1773, is where and when it blew.
You know the bare bones of what happened. The government tried to make colonists pay tax on imported tea. The colonists refused, the government insisted, and a suspiciously organized mob fed the tea to the fishes. Then followed the Intolerable Acts, and revolution.
The story behind the story reads differently to us than it did to the patriots of the day. It has a strangely modern ring:
- the company with special access to government;
- the quasi-official position that made it “too big to fail”;
- the arrogant, insulated bureaucracy that proposed to solve a problem by taking new injudicious action rather than by undoing what it had previously done to cause it;
- the conspiracy theorists who found dark plots in every official action;
- the rabble-rousers who poured unmeasured abuse on whatever official made their blacklist; and
- the “show of government resolution” that unerringly made a bad situation worse.
The background on tea is complicated but can be simplified to this.
In 1698 – three-quarters of a century before the events we’re looking at — Parliament conferred on the East India Company a monopoly on the importation of tea, but required it by law to sell its tea only at auction in England, wholesale, and assessed it a 25% ad valorum tax on every pound imported. Tea imported into Holland was not taxed by the Dutch government, which of course made Dutch tea much cheaper. Big surprise, and who would have guessed it, suddenly there was this huge market for smuggled tea in England and in British America.
It took a while, but in 1767, Parliament decided to refund to the East India Company the tax on any tea re-exported to the colonies. Then, to recover the income, it imposed various taxes on the colonies (as well as in the home islands). That didn’t work spectacularly well. The result, throughout the colonies, was political protest, non-importation agreements, and vigorous smuggling.
The taxes were repealed in 1770. Two years later, Parliament restored the tea taxes within Britain that had been repealed in 1767, which once again drove up the price of British tea, and of course sales dropped. By late 1772, the East India Company had imported a huge surplus of tea that it couldn’t sell, and was in serious financial trouble.
The tea couldn’t be sold cheaply in Europe, because it would be smuggled right back into the islands. The best market for the surplus tea was the American colonies, if it could be made cheaper than smuggled Dutch tea. So, the Tea Act of 1773 not only restored the refund on the duty for importing tea into Britain, it permitted the company to export tea to the colonies without a middleman. The East India Company could now sell its tea slightly cheaper than what smugglers were charging, so, once again, happy ending – except that there was still that Townshend tax. The Tea Act retained the three pence duty that Townshend had imposed on tea imported to the colonies, and North refused to repeal it.
Of course the company knew that the tax was a sore point with the colonials, and if it had had its way, the government would have removed it. All it wanted to do was unload that mountain of unsold tea. The company appointed colonial merchants in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Charleston as consignees for the tea, and tried to have the tax paid in London, or have the consignees quietly pay the duties after the tea was sold. But, no such luck. Although the people by and large just wanted to go about their business, and although the merchants were willing to pay three pence per pound, and although most of the tea that came into American ports was smuggled anyway, the political activists saw that if you once admitted Parliament’s right to tax the colonies, the camel’s nose was under the tent. So now it wasn’t about the tea, it was about the principle of the thing.
In September and October 1773, the company sent four shiploads of tea to Boston (one of which was destroyed by a storm en route), and one each to New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. In all, nearly 300 tons of tea. Faster ships gave America the details of the Tea Act while the ships were on their way, and in Boston, particularly, the Sons of Liberty set out to terrorize the consignees in the way they had terrorized the stamp distributors. In New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, tea consignees were forced to resign or to return the tea. But in Boston, Governor Hutchinson convinced the tea consignees not to back down. A show of resolution, you know.
Opposition centered around three issues:
- Taxation without representation.
- Independence of the judiciary and elected officials. The revenue to be derived from the tax was to be used to pay the salary of officials hitherto dependent upon the colonial legislatures, hence responsive to them.
- Official monopolies. Tea importers who had not been named as consignees by the East India Company were threatened with financial ruin. Also, if tea could be made subject to official monopoly, so in principle could other goods, leading to potential economic strangulation.
(A fourth, unacknowledged, concern was that the Tea Act, in making legally imported tea cheaper, threatened the interests of the smugglers of Dutch tea.)
So when the first of the tea ships, the Dartmouth, arrived in Boston Harbor in late November, Samuel Adams convened a mass meeting, attended by thousands, that passed a resolution urging the captain to send the ship back, and assigned twenty-five men to watch the ship and prevent the tea from being unloaded. But Governor Hutchinson refused to grant permission for the Dartmouth to leave without paying the duty. Two more tea ships arrived in Boston Harbor, and sat there too.
British law allowed customs officials to confiscate the cargo of any ship that did not pay duties within twenty days of arrival. On December 16—the deadline for the Dartmouth — Hutchinson again refused to let the ship leave. In response – and it can hardly have been spontaneous, unless some of the men were in the habit of bringing along costumes designed to disguise themselves as Mohawk Indians – a group of men boarded all three ships, and flavored the waters of Boston Harbor with the contents of 342 chests of tea. As usual, nobody saw anything or heard anything or recognized any of the perpetrators.
(Four American merchants offered to pay for the losses, but Lord North turned them down. He thought it important to take a stand.)
The tea party discredited and alienated America’s friends in Britain, at least for the time, and there was little opposition when the government closed the port of Boston. The other American colonies took note, concluded that while today it was Massachusetts, tomorrow it could well be them, and mentally took the next step toward joint action. The fuse had reached the powder keg.