Home  |  About  |  Contact  |  Site Map

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Boston Tea Party Myth

The Boston Tea Party was not a protest against high taxes, but a protest of several things. Mostly it was an anti-monopoly protest. And it demonstrated colonial resistance to British interference in the American economy.

A popular understanding of the Boston Tea Party is that the colonial Americans were protesting against high taxes on imported British tea. However, this is not the truth. This is a popular myth that this article clearly debunks. The truth is that the price of tea was actually lowered by the British. The lowering of the price was an attempt to give a monopoly to the East India Trading company. There were many reasons for the colonists to be angered by British manipulation and interference.

Myths of the Boston Tea Party
The Boston Tea Party, of course wasn't an actual party, but was a famous incident in American history in which some American colonists in Boston disguised themselves as Indians and dumped chests of tea into Boston Harbor as a protest. This protest by American colonists arose from two issues confronting the British Empire in 1773: the financial problems of the British East India Company, and an ongoing dispute about the extent of Parliament's sovereignty over the British American colonies.

◊ ◊ ◊

American colonists resented this favored treatment of a major company, (East India Company) which employed lobbyists and wielded great influence in Parliament. At this stage in American history rebellion was brewing beneath the surface of society. Colonial protests resulted in both Philadelphia and New York, but it was those at the Boston Tea Party that made their mark on American history. John Hancock organized a boycott of tea from China sold by the British East India Company, whose sales in the colonies then fell dramatically. By 1773, the company had large debts, huge stocks of tea in its warehouses and no prospect of selling it because smugglers, such as Hancock, were importing tea from Holland without paying import taxes.

The British government passed the Tea Act, which allowed the East India Company to sell tea to the colonies directly and without "payment of any customs or duties whatsoever" in Britain, instead paying the much lower American duty. This tax break allowed the East India Company to sell tea for half the old price and cheaper than the price of tea in England, enabling them to undercut the prices offered by the colonial merchants and smugglers.

Bostonians suspected the removal of the Tea Tax was simply another attempt by the British parliament to squash American freedom. Samuel Adams, wealthy smugglers, and others who had profited from the smuggled tea called for agents and consignees of the East India Company tea to abandon their positions; consignees who hesitated were terrorized through attacks on their warehouses and even their homes.

The Truth Behind the Boston Tea Party: The Tea Act Actually Lowered Taxes
Many people today think the Tea Act—which led to the Boston Tea Party—was simply an increase in the taxes on tea paid by American colonists. Instead, the purpose of the Tea Act was to give the East India Company full and unlimited access to the American tea trade, and exempt the company from having to pay taxes to Britain on tea exported to the American colonies. It even gave the company a tax refund on millions of pounds of tea they were unable to sell and holding in inventory.

One purpose of the Tea Act was to increase the profitability of the East India Company to its stockholders (which included the King), and to help the company drive its colonial small business competitors out of business. Because the company no longer had to pay high taxes to England and held a monopoly on the tea it sold in the American colonies, it was able to lower its tea prices to undercut the prices of the local importers and the mom-and-pop tea merchants and tea houses, not only in Boston, but in every town in America.

This meddling infuriated the independence-minded colonists, who were, by and large, unappreciative of their colonies being used as a profit center for the multinational East India Company corporation. One historical interpretation is that the truth of the Boston Tea Party is that it was a protest against this meddling. The American colonists resented their small businesses still having to pay the higher, pre-Tea Act taxes without having any say or vote in the matter. (Thus, the cry of "no taxation without representation!") Even in the official British version of the history, the 1773 Tea Act was a "legislative maneuver by the British ministry of Lord North to make English tea marketable in America," with a goal of helping the East India Company quickly "sell 17 million pounds of tea stored in England ..."

"Taxation Without Representation" had a Populist Context which plays a large role in the Boston Tea Party
"Taxation without representation" also meant hitting the average person and small business with taxes while letting the richest and most powerful corporation in the world off the hook for its taxes. It was government sponsorship of one corporation over all competitors.

The Boston Tea Party Was Similar to Modern Day Anti-globalization Protests
The Boston Tea Party resembled in many ways the growing modern-day protests against transnational corporations and small-town efforts to protect themselves from chain-store retailers or agricultural corporations. With few exceptions, the Tea Party's participants thought of themselves as protesters against the actions of the multinational East India Company and the government that "unfairly" represented, supported, and served the company while not representing or serving the residents.

◊ ◊ ◊

In England, Parliament gave the East India Company what amounted to a monopoly on the importation of tea in 1698. When tea became popular in the British colonies, Parliament sought to eliminate foreign competition by passing an act in 1721 that required colonists to import their tea only from Great Britain. But many Americans purchased the less expensive, smuggled Dutch tea.

The East India Company did not export tea to the colonies; by law, the company was required to sell its tea wholesale at auctions in England. British firms bought this tea and exported it to the colonies, where they resold it to merchants in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston.

In order to help the East India Company compete with smuggled Dutch tea, in 1767 Parliament passed the Indemnity Act, which lowered the tax on tea consumed in Great Britain, and gave the East India Company a partial refund of the duty on tea that was re-exported to the colonies. To help offset this loss of government revenue, Parliament also passed the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767, which levied new taxes, including one on tea, in the colonies. Instead of solving the smuggling problem, however, the Townshend duties renewed a controversy about Parliament's right to tax the colonies.

To fully understand the resentment of the colonies to Great Britain and King George III, one must understand that there were a series of events in which the colonists were treated unfairly. In previous years, the 13 colonies saw a number of commercial tariffs including the Sugar Act of 1764, which taxed sugar, coffee, and wine, the Stamp Act of 1765, which put a tax on all printed matter, such as newspapers and playing cards, and the Townshend Acts of 1767 which placed taxes on items like glass, paints, paper, and tea. The Tea Act of 1773 was the last straw.

"If our trade be taxed, why not our lands, in short, everything we posses? They tax us without having legal representation." —Samuel Adams

In an attempt to transfer part of the cost of colonial administration to the American colonies, the British Parliament had enacted the Stamp Act in 1765 and the Townshend Acts in 1767. Colonial political opposition and economic boycotts eventually forced repeal of these acts, but Parliament left the import duty on tea as a symbol of its authority. Under the Townshend Act, many goods brought into the colonies were heavily taxed by the British. To attempt to appease the disgruntled Americans, these tariffs were repealed, except for tea, and they remained upset since the tax on tea remained in effect.

In an atmosphere of continuing suspicion and distrust, the British and Americans each looked for the worst from the other. In 1772 the crown, having earlier declared its right to dismiss colonial judges at its pleasure, stated its intention to pay directly the salaries of governors and judges in Massachusetts.

The situation remained comparatively quiet until May 1773, when the faltering East India Company persuaded Parliament that the company's future and the empire's prosperity depended on the disposal of its tea surplus. At this point, the East India Company was facing bankruptcy due to corruption, mismanagement, and competition.

The plan was to export a half a million pounds of tea to the American colonies for the purpose of selling it without imposing upon the company the usual duties and tariffs. With these privileges, the company could undersell American merchants and monopolize the colonial tea trade. Not only did this action create unfair commerce for the merchants of the colonies but it also proved to be the spark that revived American passions about the issue of taxation without representation.

Because the American tea market had nearly been captured by tea smuggled from Holland, Parliament gave the company a drawback (refund) of the entire shilling-per-pound duty, enabling the company to undersell the smugglers. It was expected that the American colonists, faced with a choice between the cheaper company tea and the higher-priced smuggled tea, would buy the cheaper tea, despite the tax. The company would then be saved from bankruptcy, the smugglers would be ruined, and the principle of parliamentary taxation would be upheld.

Resisting the Tea Act
Due to the popularity of inexpensive tea smuggled from Holland, British tea manufacturers were accumulating a large surplus of unsold tea, about 17 million pounds.

Instead of rescinding the remaining Townshend tax and exploring inoffensive methods of aiding the financially troubled British East India Company, Parliament enacted the Tea Act of 1773, designed to allow the company to bypass middlemen and sell directly to American retailers.

In September and October 1773, seven ships carrying East India Company tea were sent to the colonies: four were bound for Boston, and one each for New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Americans learned the details of the Tea Act while the ships were en route, and opposition began to mount. Whigs, sometimes calling themselves Sons of Liberty, began a campaign to raise awareness and to convince or compel the consignees to resign, in the same way that stamp distributors had been forced to resign in the 1765 Stamp Act crisis.

The truth is that the protest movement that culminated with the Boston Tea Party was not a dispute about high taxes. The price of legally imported tea was actually reduced by the Tea Act of 1773. Protestors were instead concerned with a variety of other issues. Several myths are wrapped up in the story of the Boston Tea Party. The familiar "no taxation without representation" argument, along with the question of the extent of Parliament's authority in the colonies, remained prominent. Some regarded the purpose of the tax program—to make leading officials independent of colonial influence—as a dangerous infringement of colonial rights. This was especially true in Massachusetts, the only colony where the Townshend program had been fully implemented.

Colonial merchants, some of them smugglers, played a significant role in the protests. Because the Tea Act made legally imported tea cheaper, it threatened to put smugglers of Dutch tea out of business. Other, legal tea importers who had not been named as consignees by the East India Company were also threatened with financial ruin by the Tea Act. Another major concern for merchants was since the Tea Act gave the East India Company a monopoly on the tea trade, it was feared that this government-created monopoly might be extended in the future to include other goods. And this served to alarm the conservative colonial mercantile elements into uniting with the more radical patriots.

South of Boston, protestors successfully compelled the tea consignees to resign. Merchants agreed not to sell the tea, and the designated tea agents in New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston canceled their orders or resigned their commissions.

In Charleston, the consignees had been forced to resign, and the unclaimed tea was seized by customs officials. There were mass protest meetings in Philadelphia, and eventually the Philadelphia consignees had resigned and the tea ship returned to England with its cargo. The tea ship bound for New York City was delayed by bad weather; by the time it arrived, the consignees had resigned, and the ship returned to England with the tea.

Revolutionary sentiment mounted . . .
In Boston, however, the tea consignees were friends or relatives of Governor Hutchinson, who was determined to uphold the law. The opposition, led by Samuel and John Adams, Josiah Quincy, and John Hancock, was determined to resist Parliamentary supremacy over colonial legislatures.

Three ships from London, the Dartmouth, the Eleanor and the Beaver, sailed into Boston Harbor from November 28th to December 8, 1773. Loaded with tea from the East India Company, they were all anchored at Griffin’s Wharf but were prevented from unloading their cargo.

When the first ship, the Dartmouth, reached Boston with the cargo of tea, the Sons of Liberty prevented owner Francis Rotch from unloading the tea, but they could not force the consignees to reject it. Rotch and the captains of two newly arrived ships, the Eleanor and the Beaver, agreed to leave without unloading the tea, but they were denied clearance by Governor Hutchinson.

According to the law, if the tea was not unloaded within 20 days (by December 17), it was to be seized and sold to pay custom duties. Convinced that this procedure would still be payment of unconstitutional taxes, the radical patriots resolved to break the deadlock. On December 14, Rotch was called before a mass meeting and ordered to seek clearance again to sail from Boston. But neither the customs collector nor the governor would grant it.

Fearing that the tea would be seized for failure to pay customs duties, and eventually become available for sale, something had to be done. Demanding that the tea be returned to where it came from or face retribution, the Sons of Liberty, led by Samuel Adams began to meet to determine the fate of the three cargo ships in the Boston harbor.

On the cold evening of December 16, 1773, a crowd of several thousand spectators gathered and shouted encouragement to about 60 men disguised as Mohawk Indians. The band of patriots in Boston burst from the South Meeting House with the spirit of freedom burning in their eyes. The patriots headed towards Griffin's Wharf and the three ships. Quickly, quietly, and in an orderly manner, they boarded each of the tea ships. Once on board, the patriots went to work striking the chests with axes and hatchets.

Only the sounds of axe blades splitting wood rang out from Boston Harbor. Once the crates were open, the patriots dumped the tea into the sea. By nine o'clock p.m., the Sons of Liberty, with the aid of the ships' crew, had emptied a total of 342 crates of tea into Boston Harbor. Fearing any connection to their treasonous deed, the patriots took off their shoes and they swept the ships' decks, and made each ship's first mate attest that only the tea was damaged.

The furious royal government responded to this "Boston Tea Party" by the so-called Intolerable Acts of 1774, practically eliminating self-government in Massachusetts and closing Boston's port.

The news of the destruction of the tea raised the spirit of resistance in the colonies. On April 22, 1774, the London attempted to land tea at New York. It was boarded by a mob, and the tea was destroyed. Similar incidents occurred at Annapolis, Md., on October 19 and at Greenwich, N.J., on December 22, and the tea was boycotted throughout the colonies.