Boston Tea Party

This Content was compiled by Ciara Devery

In Brief:* The Boston Tea Party followed on from the British passing the Tea Act of 1773. This give the British East India company the opportunity to sell teas in the American colonies without paying any import tax which allowed them to sell their tea at a cheaper price to everybody else. After much protest in the colonies, an angry group of colonists dressed as American Indians boarded an East India Company ship full of tea in Boston Harbour and proceeded to dump all its cargo (45 tonnes) into the water. This protest became known  as the Boston Tea Party and led to the the British shutting down the bustling Boston Harbour until compensation was paid to the British East India Company. Martial Law, where the army were on the streets, was also introduced at this time. The Boston Tea Party brought the colonists and the British ever closer to war.

Background

The Boston Tea Party arose from two issues confronting the British Empire in 1773: the financial problems of the British East India Company, and an ongoing dispute about the extent of Parliament’s authority, if any, over the British American colonies without seating any elected representation. The North ministry’s attempt to resolve these issues produced a showdown that would eventually result in a revolution.

Tea trade to 1767

As Europeans developed a taste for tea in the 17th century, rival companies were formed to import the product from the East Indies. When tea became popular in the British colonies, Parliament sought to eliminate foreign competition by passing an act in 1721 that required colonists to import their tea only from Great Britain. The East India Company did not export tea to the colonies; by law, the company was required to sell its tea wholesale at auctions in England. British firms bought this tea and exported it to the colonies, where they resold it to merchants in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston.

Parliament  passed the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767, which levied new taxes, including one on tea, in the colonies. Instead of solving a smuggling problem that was prevalent and raising revenue for the Crown, however, the Townshend duties renewed a controversy about Parliament’s right to tax the colonies.

The Townshend Act was a set of taxes – replacing the Stamp Act – which placed duties on things like glass, paper, paint and tea.

Townshend duty crisis

Controversy between Great Britain and the colonies arose in the 1760s when Parliament sought, for the first time, to directly tax the colonies for the purpose of raising revenue. Some colonists, known in the colonies as Whigs, objected to the new tax program, arguing that it was a violation of the British Constitution. Britons and British Americans agreed that, according to the constitution, British subjects could not be taxed without the consent of their elected representatives. In Great Britain, this meant that taxes could only be levied by Parliament. Colonists, however, did not elect members of Parliament, and so American Whigs argued that the colonies could not be taxed by that body. According to Whigs, colonists could only be taxed by their own colonial assemblies. Colonial protests resulted in the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1765, but in the 1766 Declaratory Act, Parliament continued to insist that it had the right to legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever”.

When new taxes were levied in the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767, Whig colonists again responded with protests and boycotts. Merchants organized a non-importation agreement, and many colonists pledged to abstain from drinking British tea, with activists in New England promoting alternatives, such as domestic Labrador tea. Smuggling continued apace, especially in New York and Philadelphia, where tea smuggling had always been more extensive than in Boston. Dutied British tea continued to be imported into Boston, however, especially byRichard Clarke and the sons of Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson, until pressure from Massachusetts Whigs compelled them to abide by the non-importation agreement.

Parliament finally responded to the protests by repealing the Townshend taxes in 1770, except for the tea duty, which Prime Minister Lord North kept to assert “the right of taxing the Americans”. This partial repeal of the taxes was enough to bring an end to the non-importation movement by October 1770. From 1771 to 1773, British tea was once again imported into the colonies in significant amounts, with merchants paying the Townshend duty of three pence per pound. Boston was the largest colonial importer of legal tea; smugglers still dominated the market in New York and Philadelphia.

Resisting The Tea Act

In September and October 1773, seven ships carrying East India Company tea were sent to the colonies: four were bound for Boston, and one each for New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. In the ships were more than 2,000 chests containing nearly 600,000 pounds of tea. Americans learned the details of the Tea Act while the ships were en route, and opposition began to mount. Whigs, sometimes calling themselves Sons of Liberty, began a campaign to raise awareness and to convince or compel the consignees to resign, in the same way that stamp distributors had been forced to resign in the 1765 Stamp Act crisis.

The protest movement that culminated with the Boston Tea Party was not a dispute about high taxes. The price of legally imported tea was actually reduced by the Tea Act of 1773. Protestors were instead concerned with a variety of other issues. The familiar “no taxation without representation” argument, along with the question of the extent of Parliament’s authority in the colonies, remained prominent.

Colonial merchants, some of them smugglers, played a significant role in the protests. Because the Tea Act made legally imported tea cheaper, it threatened to put smugglers of Dutch tea out of business. Legitimate tea importers who had not been named as consignees by the East India Company were also threatened with financial ruin by the Tea Act. Another major concern for merchants was that the Tea Act gave the East India Company a monopoly on the tea trade, and it was feared that this government-created monopoly might be extended in the future to include other goods.

South of Boston, protestors successfully compelled the tea consignees to resign. In Charleston, the consignees had been forced to resign by early December, and the unclaimed tea was seized by customs officials. There were mass protest meetings in Philadelphia. Benjamin Rush urged his fellow countrymen to oppose the landing of the tea, because the cargo contained “the seeds of slavery”. By early December, the Philadelphia consignees had resigned and the tea ship returned to England with its cargo following a confrontation with the ship’s captain.]The tea ship bound for New York City was delayed by bad weather; by the time it arrived, the consignees had resigned, and the ship returned to England with the tea.

Standoff In Boston

In every colony except Massachusetts, protestors were able to force the tea consignees to resign or to return the tea to England. In Boston, however, Governor Hutchinson was determined to hold his ground. He convinced the tea consignees, two of whom were his sons, not to back down.

When the tea ship Dartmouth arrived in the Boston Harbor in late November, Whig leader Samuel Adams called for a mass meeting to be held at Faneuil Hall on November 29, 1773. Thousands of people arrived, so many that the meeting was moved to the larger Old South Meeting House. British law required the Dartmouth to unload and pay the duties within twenty days or customs officials could confiscate the cargo. The mass meeting passed a resolution, introduced by Adams and based on a similar set of resolutions promulgated earlier in Philadelphia, urging the captain of the Dartmouth to send the ship back without paying the import duty. Meanwhile, the meeting assigned twenty-five men to watch the ship and prevent the tea from being unloaded.

Governor Hutchinson refused to grant permission for the Dartmouth to leave without paying the duty. Two more tea ships, the Eleanor and the Beaver, arrived in Boston Harbor.

On December 16—the last day of the Dartmouth‘s deadline—about 7,000 people had gathered around the Old South Meeting House. After receiving a report that Governor Hutchinson had again refused to let the ships leave, Adams announced that “This meeting can do nothing further to save the country.” According to a popular story, Adams’s statement was a prearranged signal for the “tea party” to begin. However, this claim did not appear in print until nearly a century after the event, in a biography of Adams written by his great-grandson, who apparently misinterpreted the evidence. According to eyewitness accounts, people did not leave the meeting until ten or fifteen minutes after Adams’s alleged “signal”, and Adams in fact tried to stop people from leaving because the meeting was not yet over.

Destruction of the tea

While Samuel Adams tried to reassert control of the meeting, people poured out of the Old South Meeting House and headed to Boston Harbor. That evening, a group of 30 to 130 men, some of them thinly disguised as American Indians, boarded the three vessels and, over the course of three hours, dumped all 342 chests of tea into the water. The precise location of the Griffin’s Wharf site of the Tea Party has been subject to prolonged uncertainty; a comprehensive study places it near the foot of Hutchinson Street (today’s Pearl Street).

Reaction

Whether or not Samuel Adams helped plan the Boston Tea Party is unknown, but he immediately worked to publicize and defend it. He argued that the Tea Party was not the act of a lawless mob, but was instead a principled protest and the only remaining option the people had to defend their constitutional rights.

Governor Thomas Hutchinson had been urging London to take a hard line with the Sons of Liberty. If he had done what the other royal governors had done and let the ship owners and captains resolve the issue with the colonists, the DartmouthEleanor and the Beaver would have left without unloading any tea.

In Britain, even those politicians considered friends of the colonies were appalled and this act united all parties there against the colonies. The Prime Minister Lord North said, “Whatever may be the consequence, we must risk something; if we do not, all is over”. The British government felt this action could not remain unpunished, and responded by closing the port of Boston and putting in place other laws known as the “Coercive Acts”.

In the colonies, Benjamin Franklin stated that the destroyed tea must be repaid, all 90,000 pounds. Robert Murray, a New York merchant went to Lord North with three other merchants and offered to pay for the losses, but the offer was turned down. A number of colonists were inspired to carry out similar acts, such as the burning of the Peggy Stewart. The Boston Tea Party eventually proved to be one of the many reactions that led to the American Revolutionary War.

In February, 1775, Britain passed the Conciliatory Resolution, which ended taxation for any colony that satisfactorily provided for the imperial defense and the upkeep of imperial officers. The Tea Act was repealed with the Taxation of Colonies Act 1778.

At the very least, the Boston Tea Party and the reaction that followed served to rally support for revolutionaries in the thirteen colonies who were eventually successful in their fight for independence.

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History@Banagher College, Coláiste na Sionna.

Published on April 21, 2010 at 8:08 pm Comments (2)
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2 Comments Leave a comment.

  1. on May 23, 2010 at 10:35 pm barry egan Said:

    great work!!!!!!
    i dint know the colonists dressed as indian americans when they boarded the ships in boston harbour!!!!!!!!

  2. on May 25, 2010 at 9:49 pm Eoin Egan Said:

    i cant belive they actually killed someone by burning them!

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