The First (Boston) Tea Party

As most students know, the “Boston Tea Party,” which occurred this week (Dec. 16) in 1773, was a direct response to the Tea Act that the British Parliament had passed earlier that year.   But it was also in response to the series of revenue acts — Sugar Act, Stamp Act, Townshend Acts — that Britain had imposed on its American colonies since the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, a war that had cost Britain dearly. Indeed, Britain had imposed the revenue acts to help pay for that war.

That said, the Tea Act was different because its chief purpose was not to gain revenue, but to rescue the British East India Company from bankruptcy.  Parliament worried that if the East India Company failed, it might drag down the entire British economy, but many members of Parliament wanted to prevent the company’s bankruptcy also because they had personal fortunes invested in it.

Thus did the Tea Act expand the East India Company’s monopoly on selling tea to the British colonies — and at a very cheap price because the company had tons of tea sitting in its warehouses that it needed to sell.  In fact, the price was so cheap that even though Parliament imposed a small tax on the tea, it still undercut the price the American colonies currently were paying for tea, including smuggled tea, which made up the bulk of the tea they consumed.  What’s more, the East India tea was of higher quality than the smuggled tea.

As Parliament saw it the Tea Act was an all-around winner.  The colonies got high-quality, cheap tea.  The East India Company got an expanded market for its product that would rescue it from insolvency.  And Parliament not only got new tax revenue, but also — and here is the important part — Parliament would finally get colonial acquiescence that it had the right to tax the colonies, a right that the colonies had virulently objected to in the previous revenue acts.

But to Parliament’s chagrin, it was that taxation right that soured the deal.  In Boston in particular, the radical Sons of Liberty prevented East India Tea from being unloaded on Boston’s docks, and when the hard-line colonial governor of Boston, Thomas Hutchison, vowed to fight back and unload the tea, the stage was set for the Boston Tea Party.

And so, on that December evening, approximately 125 men, most thinly disguised as Mohawk Indians, boarded three of the East India Company’s ships and dumped all 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor.

The result was an increasingly hard line on both sides.   More than any other event, the Boston Tea Party put America on the path to revolution.