Tea Act

views updated

Tea Act


British Taxes on Tea. In 1721 Parliament had given the East India Company a virtual monopoly on the colonial tea market and had required a tea sold in the colonies to pass through England. The monopoly, however, was a paper one: in the late 1760s the American colonies imported an average of 562,281 pounds of tea each year from the East India Company, but they smuggled 900,000 pounds each year from French or Dutch sources. The Townshend duties had imposed a duty of three pence per pound on tea imported into the American colonies; in 1770 Parliament had repealed all of the Townshend duties except the duty on tea, which was maintained to prove the point that Parliament could tax the colonists.

Relief. In January 1773 the East India Company, heavily in debt from the conquest of Bengal and with more than ten million pounds of tea in its London warehouses, petitioned Parliament to remove the duty on tea, which they hoped would boost sales in America. Prime Minister Lord North was not willing to repeal the remaining duty; instead, Parliament would allow the East India Company to ship tea directly from India to the American colonies and would give the company a rebate on the tariff paid when the tea came to England. Member of Parliament Edmund Burke, colonial agent for New York, wrote to New Yorks Committee of Correspondence, The East India Companys Political and Financial affairs are put into the hands of the Crown, but I am much afraid, with little Benefit either to the Crown or the Publick.

Shipments. In the fall the company sent seven ships, carrying nearly six hundred thousand pounds of tea, to the American colonies. Under terms of the law the company had designated thirteen colonial merchant firms to receive and sell the tea; in Massachusetts, Thomas and Elisha Hutchinson, Gov. Thomas Hutchinsons sons, were among the tea agents assigned to arrange public sales for the tea. For selling the tea and paying the import duty the agents would receive a 6 percent commission. When word of the act, and of the sailing of the tea ships, reached the colonies, the Sons of Liberty prepared to meet the new threat. Not only did the Tea Act give more force to the Townshend duty, but it also gave a monopoly to the British East India Company. On both grounds colonists would resist the importation of tea.

Pressuring the Tea Merchants. The first tactic, drawn from the colonists experience with the Stamp Act, was to pressure the tea agents to resign their commissions. The tea agents in Charleston, South Carolina, and Philadelphia did resign under pressure from the local communities. In Charleston, with no agent to claim the tea or pay the duty, it was put into a warehouse (where it remained for three years, when the revolutionary government sold it). The tea ships that reached Philadelphia and New York never unloaded their cargoes. In Boston the town meeting on November 5 appointed a committee, chaired by John Hancock, to call on the tea merchants and demand their resignations. The merchants refused to resign, but one of them, Jonathan Clarke, promised not to unload the tea before he received orders from the company. On 28 November, when the first of the ships, the Dartmouth, appeared in Boston harbor, the tea merchants, along with the British customs commissioners, fled to the safety of Castle Island, protected there by a British garrison. Members of the North End Caucus, a political group whose members included Paul Revere, guarded the Dartmouth.

Negotiations. The town committee and Governor Hutchinson began negotiations as the Committee of Correspondence called for mass meetings, which were too large to be held in Faneuil Hall, so they were moved to the Old South Meeting House. At the second meeting Francis Rotch, one of the owners of the Dartmouth promised to send the tea back to England, and John Singleton Copley, son-in-law of a tea agent, offered to store the tea on shore until the company sent new orders. The meeting rejected these proposals. In the next week two more ships reached Boston and were ordered docked next to the Dartmouth (a fourth ship wrecked off Cape Cod; its tea was salvaged and stored at Castle Island). Under British customs laws a ship had twenty days from arrival either to leave port or to pay duties on its cargo. The Dartmouth would have to sail by 18 December, or Governor Hutchinson could seize the cargo, which then would be sold to pay the duty. The ships owner and the townspeople wanted the ship to leave, saving the cargo and not paying the tax. Governor Hutchinson, however, refused to allow the tea to leave port. Some townspeople believed Hutchinson and the British fleet would take the tea under their protection, pay the duty on it, and then sell it. Hutchinson instructed the British troops not to allow the vessels to leave port. On 16 December, Rotch met with Hutchinson to ask for a pass. Hutchinson refused, saying he would not allow the ship to leave until its cargo was unloaded. That evening in front of a huge mass meeting at Old South Meeting House, Rotch was questioned about his conversation with Hutchinson. As he finished, Samuel Adams rose and said, This meeting can do nothing more to save the country.

The Tea Party. This was a prearranged signal. From taverns surrounding the docks a thousand people converged on the ship, and between thirty and fifty men disguised as Mohawk Indians boarded the Dartmouth and proceeded to unload the tea. With their hatchets they quickly opened the chests, and by 9 P.M. the entire cargo of tea had been dumped into the harbor. The men did no damage to the ship and did not take anything other than the tea, all of which was destroyed. One man seen with his pockets full of tea had them opened, and all the leaves were thrown into the water. Having destroyed a cargo of tea worth £9,659, the men retreated into the crowd and disappeared. None of the Indians would ever be identified.

Boston Port Act. When news of the tea party reached England on 20 January, the British government did not take the destruction of tea lightly. The solicitor general and attorney general both confirmed that the perpetrators had committed high treason, but since none could be identified, it was recommended that the leaders of the committee that had opposed the landing of the tea be prosecuted and that Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and many others be charged with high misdemeanors. By the end of March, Parliament had closed the port of Boston, and on 2 April four new regiments of British troops were ordered to Boston. Hutchinson was replaced by Gen. Thomas Gage, commander in chief of all British forces in North America. Lord Dartmouth, in his instructions to Gage, told him that the Sovereignty of the King in his Parliament over the Colonies requires a full and absolute submission, and until Boston, where so much anarchy and confusion have prevailed, submitted absolutely, Gage and the government of the colony should move to Salem.

Reforming the Massachusetts Government. Gov. Francis Bernard in the 1760s, and Thomas Hutchinson in the early 1770s, had also proposed reforming the colonys 1691 charter government to give the troublesome colonists less room to make trouble. On 15 April, Lord North introduced a bill to regulate the Massachusetts government, providing that after 1 August 1774 the council, the upper house of the assembly, would no longer be chosen by the lower house but would be appointed by the king. After 1 July provincial judges, county sheriffs, justices of the peace, and the Attorney General, all appointed by the council, would be appointed by the governor, who could also dismiss them. Under the charter, town selectmen could call town meetings whenever the public business warranted it; in Boston the town meeting had been a regular source of opposition to the royal authorities. Under the charter the town meetings also elected grand jurors and drew lots for petit jurors. The new law limited town meetings to one each year and gave the sheriff, rather than the town meeting, the power to name jurors. Some members of Parliament, including Edmund Burke and Rose Fuller, opposed these acts as going too far. But Lord North disagreed. Convince your Colonies that you are able and not afraid to controul them, and, depend upon it, obedience in them will be the result.... Act with firmness and resolution, North said, and peace and quietude will be restored. On 20 May the king approved the Massachusetts Regulating Act. Attempting to control the colonists and restore peace and order, Parliament instead made revolution inevitable.


Bernhard Knollenberg, Growth of the American Revolution 17661775 (New York: Free Press, 1975).