The Boston Tea Party of 16 December 1773 famously saw 92,000 pounds of British tea, worth $1.7m today, hurled overboard into the Boston harbour. It was not the first outbreak of tensions between the British and the American colonists but an event long in the making due to gradual escalation. Its power as a symbol of democracy, freedom and resistance against tyranny, represented by the associated slogan, “no taxation without representation”, is matched by its real influence on the eventual road to American independence from Britain.
The Seven Years’ War (1756 – 1763) had left the British government deeply in debt. Continuous wartime deficits had to be paid down, and administration had to be established for the new territory gained in the war, including Canada and eastern French Louisiana. Having successfully defended the colonists from the French in their North American campaign, Britain felt they were owed by their colonial subjects for their defence.
The first of the taxes implemented by the British government were through the Sugar and Stamp Acts of 1764 and 1765 respectively. While the tax on sugar was not new, and was in fact cut, its collection now had to be enforced. The Stamp Act in particular created a great wave of protests and led to the formation of the Sons of Liberty, an organisation that aimed to advance the rights of colonists and fight the oppression of the British government. They were particularly effective fighting the Stamp Act, as Hutchinson, the Governor of Massachusetts, wrote in March 1766, “the authority of every colony is in the hands of the Sons of Liberty,” and public sentiment turned decisively against Parliament.
The Stamp Act was eventually repealed in March 1766. This was hailed as a victory for the rights of colonists within the British Empire, not a victory over it, and John Adams, a prominent opponent of the Stamp Act, remarked that everything had returned “to a smooth and peaceful calm.” George III’s birthday on 4 June was still celebrated in Philadelphia. While there had been a shift in attitude and increased wariness of Parliament and Britain, at this time relations were still friendly.
Yet while the British government repealed the Stamp Act, they had replaced it with the Declaratory Act, which gave them the right to control the colonies. While obviously concerning, most had concluded this would be merely symbolic and never exercised, given the results of their last attempt to control and tax the colonies.
However, Britain’s financial difficulties, desire to raise colonial revenue and assert their authority had not dwindled. The British government therefore designed the Townshend Acts of 1767-8 to fund their administration of the colonies. They included import duties on various goods, such as glass, lead, paint, paper and tea. While these taxes were nominally indirect, all these goods had to be imported from Britain, having first come from around the empire, and so they were effectively taxes imposed by Britain on the colonies.
The American colonists immediately resisted the imposition of these taxes too, drawing on the now-famous principle of ‘no taxation without representation’. This idea was not novel but rather an old precedent enshrined in the English constitution by the 1689 Bill of Rights, which said taxes could only be levied with the consent of Parliament. Implicit in the authority of Parliament to raise taxes, as opposed to the King, is that they represent the people who will have to pay these taxes. Since the House of Commons did not represent the people of the American colonies (there was no ‘Honourable Member for New York’), only the colonial assemblies could impose taxes, and Parliament could not.
The proposal favoured by Adam Smith, the famed economist, was for “fifty or sixty new representatives to Parliament” from the American colonies, on the basis of the amount of tax they would contribute to Britain. This seemed a simple solution: if the problem was a lack of representation, then representation should be given.
Benjamin Franklin was opposed to this, and believed that there should be no taxation, rather than more representation. From his observations in London as the delegate for Pennsylvania, he concluded that a seat in the House of Commons would be of no use to a representative of a colony. Very few of the questions raised in the House of Commons would be relevant to the colonies, and on the few occasions where the topic was pertinent, Franklin thought it probable the opinion of such MPs would be disrespected and disregarded.
The resolution to the Townshend Acts came as ports in America refused to import the goods which had duties placed upon them. In 1770, rather than suffer the consequences of these lost exports, the duties were repealed on all these goods except for tea and the colonists, mostly satisfied, resumed imports. The British wanted to uphold the precedent that they could, and did, raise revenue from their colonies. They retreated because of the financial realities, but did not concede the principle. Tea continued to be taxed at 3 pence per pound in America. However, the market for tea was dominated by Dutch smugglers in New York, Philadelphia and Charleston able to undercut the prices of British tea, with only Boston’s tea being mostly from colonial trade.
The system of exporting tea was a strange and contrived one. Britain mandated that goods from around the empire first be imported to Britain before then being exported again, rather than the goods going directly to market. This was so the goods could be subject to British import duties as well as any later colonial import duties.
From 1767 to 1772, Britain had reimbursed the import duty on tea when it was then re-exported. This allowed the East India Company to keep tea prices down and remain price-competitive with the smugglers. In 1772, this act expired, and the replacement act left a 10% import duty on tea. In America, prices of the legally imported tea skyrocketed, and, with the option of cheap Dutch-smuggled tea, there was no market.
As a result of this, and the Bengal Famine of 1769 – 1773, the British East India Company was in dire straits financially. As one of Britain’s foremost institutions, a solution had to be found to help keep the company afloat. They lobbied the government to eliminate the 3 pence import duty on tea to America established by the Townshend Acts; while a simple solution, as a matter of principle the government did not want to retreat from the last remaining tax on the American colonies, and the tax was used to pay the salaries of colonial officials, judges and governors to keep them loyal to Britain instead of the colonial assemblies.
Therefore, the British government instead passed the Tea Act on 10 May 1773, which reinstated the British import duty refund and gave the East India Company a monopoly on all tea exported to the American colonies. The monopoly was not only legal but, by eliminating the import duties to Britain, it was effective, as they sold tea at by far the lowest prices.
The Sons of Liberty, previously established to fight the Stamp Act, found themselves allied with the colonial merchants who had their right to sell tea stripped by the monopoly. The price of tea had in fact been reduced by the Tea Act, as had the effective tax burden on each pound of tea, but the protesters considered the monopoly to be a form of taxation as they had no choice but to pay money to a company backed by the British government. Thus, the same issue of taxation without representation applied.
The protests were fierce. The merchants named as consignees to sell the tea were hounded, and many eventually resigned their positions. Across the major ports on the eastern coast of New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, the merchant ships of tea were turned back by the protests without unloading.
Despite protests, Hutchinson ordered that the shipments arriving in Boston be unloaded and the taxes honoured. The Sons of Liberty however guarded the ships once they arrived in the harbour so that they could not be unloaded nor taxed.
A ship could only remain in harbour for 20 days before its contents were taxed. On the evening of 16 December 1773, the day the tax was due, the Sons of Liberty disguised themselves as Native Americans with headdresses and blankets, snuck onto the Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver, and dumped all the tea on the three ships into the Boston harbour. This amounted to 92,000 pounds, or 42 tonnes, of tea, worth £9,659 (about $1.7 million today).
The British government swiftly retaliated with the Intolerable Acts, closing the port of Boston and suspending the governmental rights of Massachusetts’s colonial assembly, granting the governor near-dictatorial power. In response, the First Continental Congress was called with every state but Georgia attending in September 1774, unanimously supporting Boston and proposing an embargo on British goods. Relations were now hostile, and the American Revolution had begun in earnest.
In the modern day, there is a humorous irony when reflecting on the ultimate protest to the British being throwing their tea overboard, but the ramifications were enormous. The Boston Tea Party was an inflection point in the relationship between Britain and the American colonies. Whereas before tensions had existed but the status quo was friendly, after the Tea Party, a crystallisation of anti-British sentiment occurred throughout the Thirteen Colonies and hostility became the default position, and not even three years later, they would formally declare their independence on 4 July 1776.
Allison, R.J., 2015. The American Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.