In May 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act. This legislation was designed to assist the financially troubled East India Company, a monopoly corporation with vast commercial interests.
The East India Company enjoyed the exclusive legal right – a privilege granted by the British government – to import products from the Far East into Britain. Chinese tea, which was said to be more valuable than gold, was the company’s most lucrative commodity, accounting for over 90 percent of its commercial profits.
After importing tea into Britain, the East India Company was required to auction it off to other merchants, some of whom then exported the tea to the American colonies. By law, this was virtually the only tea permitted in the colonies.
Of course, to pass a law is one thing, but to enforce it is another. Americans found duty-free Dutch tea – otherwise known as smuggled tea – to be considerably cheaper than the lawful tea offered by British merchants. Widespread smuggling made it difficult for the East India Company to sell its tea at monopoly prices. The company’s problems were further aggravated by the American boycott of British tea after passage of the Townshend duties. By late 1772, the company had seventeen-million pounds of surplus tea sitting in warehouses.
The East India Company went to the government for help, and Parliament responded with the Tea Act. This act allowed the company to bypass middlemen and export its tea directly to the American colonies. The Tea Act also provided for a drawback, or refund, of duties previously paid in England – a provision designed to make East India company tea competitive with smuggled Dutch tea.
But the Tea Act contained a glitch. The East India Company was still required to pay the Townshend duty on all tea entering the colonies, and there was no doubt that this monopoly company – a creation of “crony capitalism,” to use a modern expression — would willingly comply. This prospect would soon precipitate the Boston Tea Party.
In the summer of 1773, the East India Company shipped nearly 600,000 pounds of tea to the colonies. Four ships were sent to Boston, one to New York, one to Philadelphia, and one to Charleston. When Americans learned that East India Company tea was en route, they feared that a dangerous precedent was about to be established, and they suspected that this was a major motive behind passage of the Tea Act. A Londoner sympathetic to America wrote to a friend in New York:
Being a great schemer, Lord North struck out the plan of the East India Company’s sending tea to America, hoping thereby to outwit us, and to establish the Townshend Act effectually, which will forever after be pleaded as precedent for every imposition the Parliament of Great Britain shall think proper to saddle us with. It is much to be wished that the Americans will convince Lord North that they are not yet ready to have the yoke of slavery riveted about their necks, and send back the tea whence it came.
This letter, which was reprinted in newspapers throughout America, articulated the chief objection to East India Company tea, but Americans feared the company for another reason. It ruled parts of India with a cruel hand, causing widespread famine and death. In a widely circulated pamphlet, John Dickinson recounted the crimes of this monopoly company:
Their conduct in Asia, for some years past, has given ample proof, how little they regard the law of nations, the rights, liberties, or lives of men. They have levied war, excited rebellions, dethroned princes, and sacrificed millions for the sake of gain. The revenue of mighty kingdoms have centered in their coffers. And these not being sufficient to glut their avarice, they have, by the most unparalleled barbarities, extortions and monopolies, stripped the miserable inhabitants of their property and reduced whole provinces to indigence and ruin. Fifteen hundred thousand perished by famine in one year, not because the earth denied its fruits, but this company and its servants engrossed all the necessities of life, and set them at so high a rate, that the poor could not purchase them. Thus having drained the sources of that immense wealth, they now, it seems, cast their eyes to America, as a new threat, whereupon to exercise their talents of rapine, oppression and cruelty. The monopoly of tea is, I dare say, but a small part of the plan they have formed to strip us of our property.
What tactic could prevent the sale of East India Company tea in America? Perhaps Americans could refuse to purchase the tea – but this option promised little success. Officially, Americans had been boycotting English tea for years, but in fact many Americans had resumed drinking English tea after the partial repeal of the Townshend duties in 1770.
Resistance leaders decided on another tactic, one based on their successful opposition to the Stamp Act in 1765. That act had been effectively nullified by forcing stamp distributors to resign. The East India Company had consigned thirteen American firms to receive and sell its tea. If the agents of these firms could be persuaded to resign, no one would be left to accept the tea when it arrived in America.
The New York Sons of Liberty blazed the trail by publishing this ominous resolution:
Whoever shall aid, or abet, or in any manner assist, in the introduction of tea, from any place whatsoever, into this country, while it is subject, by a British act of parliament, to the payment of a duty for the purpose of raising revenue in America, he shall be deemed an enemy to the liberties of America.
The New York consignees were subjected to threats and intimidation. A letter published in the New York Journal did not pull any punches. It warned the consignees:
It will be impossible to shield or screen yourselves from the many darts that will incessantly be leveled against your persons. A thousand avenues to death would be perpetually open to receive and swallow you, and ten thousand uplifted shafts, ready to strike the fatal stroke when a favorable opportunity is offered for the purpose.
Understandably, the New York consignees resigned.
Opposition in Philadelphia followed the same pattern and yielded the same results. Threats of violence did not work in Boston, however, where two of the consignees were sons of Governor Hutchinson. For years Hutchinson had been at loggerheads with Boston radicals; indeed, his house had been destroyed during resistance to the Stamp Act. Hutchinson was determined to see law and order prevail.
On Sunday, November 26, a ship anchored in Boston harbor. It was the Dartmouth, one of four ships transporting East India Company tea to Boson. The day after the Dartmouth’s arrival, this broadside was posted throughout Boston.
Friends! Brethren! The hour of destruction or manly opposition to the machinations of tyranny stares you in the face.
Church bells rang as thousands of Bostonians crowded into the Old South Meeting House. This meeting called for the tea to be returned to England without payment of duties. Governor Hutchinson refused, and the law was on his side. The Dartmouth had officially docked and so was legally required to pay duties on its cargo.
Meanwhile, twenty-five militiamen were posted on Griffen’s Wharf to prevent the tea from being unloaded, but Hutchinson figured he would win this standoff. If the Dartmouth’s cargo was not unloaded within twenty days, the government would seize it. This meant that, on December 17, the tea would be unloaded by customs officers supported by the British army and navy.
Before long two more tea-laden ships, the Eleanor and the Beaver, docked at Griffin’s Wharf. Armed guards prevented the unloading of tea from these ships as well.
On the morning of December 16, 5,000 people crowded into the Old South Meeting House. Only one day was left until customs officers, with the backing of the British military, would forcibly unload the Dartmouth’s tea. Bostonians sent a final request to Governor Hutchinson. Would he permit the Dartmouth to return to England? It was nearly dark when a messenger returned with Hutchinson’s answer: No.
Sam Adams rose and announced that nothing more could be done. This was a signal. Cries echoed throughout the hall: Boston harbor a tea-pot tonight! Hurray for Griffin’s Wharf! The Mohawks are come! Every man to his tent!
A war-whoop came from the gallery, followed by war-whoops from men at the doorway who were disguised as Mohawks. Then more men in Indian garb swept down Milk Street into Hutchinson Street, and from there to Griffin’s Wharf. The Boston Tea Party was underway.
Contemporary accounts of this event vary in details. Here is one report from a Boston newspaper:
The Indians immediately repaired on board Captain Hall’s ship, where they hoisted out the chests of tea, and when upon deck strove the chests and emptied the tea overboard. Having cleared this ship, they proceeded to Captain Bruce’s and then to Captain Coffin’s brig. They applied themselves so dexterously to the destruction of this commodity that in the space of three hours they broke up 342 chests, which was the whole number in those vessels, and discharged their contents onto the dock. When the tide rose it floated the broken chests and the tea insomuch that the surface of the water was filled therewith a considerable way from the south part of the town to Dorchester Neck and lodged on the shores. There was the greatest care taken to prevent the tea from being purloined by the populace. One or two, being detected in endeavoring to pocket a small quantity, were stripped of their acquisitions and very roughly handled.
According to this account, Bostonians were careful not to damage property other than tea.
It is worthy of remark that although a considerable quantity of goods were still remaining on board the vessels, no injury was sustained. Such attention to private property was observed that a small padlock belonging to the captain of one of the ships being broke, another was procured and sent to him.
Bostonians had destroyed tea worth around 9000 pounds sterling. John Adams was overjoyed:
This is the most significant movement of all. There is a dignity, a majesty, a sublimity, in this last effort of the patriots that I greatly admire This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have important consequences, and so lasting that I cannot but consider it as an epoch in history.
Many Englishmen, in contrast, boiled with indignation. Benjamin Franklin was in London at the time, and he remarked:
I suppose we never had since we were a people, so few friends in Britain. The violent destruction of the tea seems to have united all the parties against us.
Prime Minister North appeared before Parliament and demanded retaliation:
The Americans have tarred and feathered your subjects, plundered your merchants, burnt your ships, denied all obedience to your laws and authority; yet so clement and so long forbearing has our conduct been that it is incumbent on us now to take a different course. Whatever may the consequences, we must risk something; if we do not, all is over.
British retaliation came in the form of four acts, known collectively as the Coercive Acts. (Americans called them the Intolerable Acts.) In substituting naked force for conciliation and compromise, the British hoped to use Bostonians as an example and thereby cow other colonies into submission. But the Coercive Acts had precisely the opposite effect. They stiffened American resolve, inflamed passions even more, and instigated the crucial transition from resistance to revolution.
George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith's fourth book, The System of Liberty, was recently published by Cambridge University Press.