On This Day: The Boston Tea Party

I was trying to do a cover render yesterday which tied up my computer (and ultimately failed) so no post yesterday.  Sorry.

Some years ago when A Certain Politician said “It’s not time to party like it’s 1773” media pundits laughed saying This Politician did not know when the revolution started.  However, That Politician did know when the Boston Tea Party occurred–something those media pundits apparently did not.

The road to to the Boston Tea Party began with The Townshend Acts of 1767 which established, among other things, a tax on tea imported to the American Colonies.  These acts were eventually repealed, but the tax on tea remained.  Fast forward to May 10, 1773.  The Tea Act permitted the British East India Company to sell tea without paying those taxes, giving it a competitive advantage over other merchants.  This was essentially a “bailout” of the British East India Company which was struggling, partly because of competition from tea smuggled from the Netherlands where taxes were much lower.  Rather than accept that this import tariff idea of 25% was just bad economics, they instead simply relieved the British East India company from the burden of the tax. (well, Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations was still a few years in the future and Mercantilism was in full swing.  Rather than counting the wealth of the nation as the sum total of goods and services available to its people it counted it as gold in the treasury and only counted the upper classes rather than the population as a whole.  So perhaps they could be forgiven for not understanding economics that had not yet been developed.)

In essence, what the Tea Act did was allow the British East India company to ignore the import duty in England, and to deal directly with the colonies.  The duties collected in the colonies, imposed by the Townshend acts, were retained.  Still, by reducing one level of taxation it reduced the overall cost allowing the British East India Company to sell its tea more cheaply, both in England and in the colonies, than competitors.

In the American Colonies there were two primary complaints about the Tea Act.  The first was the belief that the tax violated their rights as Englishmen to “no taxation without representation.” The taxes were passed by the British Parliament in which the colonies were not represented. The second problem was more practical:  the British East India Company was being given a special advantage over domestic colonial importers.

When the Tea Act was passed, retaining the tax on tea imported into the colonies, there were warnings that this might lead to another colonial controversy (said colonies already proving restive under what they considered rather high-handed British rule).  Former Chancellor of the Exchequer William Dowdeswell, for example, warned that the Americans would not accept the tea if the Townshend duty remained.

The warnings were not heeded.  The Tea Act went into force.

But notice something there.  The Tea Act did not increase the taxes paid by the American Colonists.  The tax on tea was simply retained.  Indeed, colonists could pay less if they simply bought the tea imported by the British East India company.  They were being given lower taxes…if they bought tea from that one company.

If.

So it wasn’t paying taxes the colonists objected to.  It was that dual pair of issues:  no taxation without representation and the bailout of the “official” corporation at the expense of others. (I guess Parliament thought the British East India Company was “too big to fail”. History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.)

Protests continued from the passing of the Tea Act in May into the fall.  In late November, the tea ship Dartmouth arrived in Boston Harbor.  American Patriots, including Whig leader Sam Adams, met and organized essentially a boycott of the tea, watching to block any attempt to unload the cargo.  They argued to have the ship depart, with its tea, without paying the duty.  Loyalist governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, however, refused to allow them to depart.  Two more ships arrived.  They, too, were prevented from unloading or from leaving.  December 16th arrived, the last day before which the Dartmouth must either pay the duty or have its cargo confiscated, Governor Hutchinson again refused to allow the ships to depart.

A meeting of patriots led by Sam Adams broke up.  Contemporary reports indicate that he tried to stop people from leaving as the meeting was not yet over.  Claims that his statement “This meeting can do nothing further to save the country” being a signal to start the Tea Party appears to be something invented nearly a century later.  Many of those leaving donned costumes, dressing as Mohawk warriors.  This accomplished two things:  one is that it disguised the individual features of the protesters, the other was that by choosing Native American regalia instead of simple masks, they identified with the Americas and the country then undergoing its birthing throes.

Over the course of the evening, somewhere between 30 and 130 men boarded the three vessels and dumped every chest of tea into the water.  They were very careful not to damage anything else and indeed, in one case where they broke a lock to get access to the tea they replaced the lock afterward.

Sam Adams may or may not have actively planned the Tea Party.  He certainly did take a hand in publicizing and defending it afterward.  And as a result, the Boston Tea Party became one of the major stepping stones in the rising tide of discontent in the American Colonies that led to their eventual separation from Britain.

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