The practice of tea drinking arrived with colonists from both England and the Netherlands and was already established by the mid-seventeenth century, evidenced by the number of tea wares recorded in household inventories.
When he visited Boston in 1740, Joseph Bennett observed that “the ladies here visit, drink tea and indulge every little piece of gentility to the height of the mode and neglect the affairs of their families with as good grace as the finest ladies in London.”
At another time, Kalm stated: “With the tea was eaten bread and butter or buttered bread toasted over the coals so that the butter penetrated the whole slice of bread. In the afternoon about three o’clock tea was drunk again in the same fashion, except that bread and butter was not served with it.”
This tea-drinking schedule was followed throughout the colonies. In Boston the people “take a great deal of tea in the morning,” have dinner at two o’clock, and “about five o’clock they take more tea, some wine, madeira [and] punch.” (Baron Cromot du Bourg) The Marquis de Chastellux confirms his countryman’s statement about teatime, mentioning that the Americans take “tea and punch in the afternoon.”
During the first half of the 18th century the limited amount of tea available at prohibitively high prices restricted its use to a proportionately small segment of the total population of the colonies. About mid-century, however, tea was beginning to be drunk by more and more people, as supplies increased and costs decreased.
America was becoming a country of tea drinkers.
However, due to debt due to the costs associated with the French and Indian Wars, Parliament imposed new taxes. In the 1760s, the British government began to impose a tax on tea, first through the Stamp Act of 1765 and later with the Townshend Acts of 1767.
Dissatisfied colonists took to smuggling tea or drinking herbal infusions. Outraged merchants, shippers, and colonists staged a number of demonstrations.
Then, the Tea Act of 1773 was imposed.
It was an “act to allow a drawback of the duties of customs on the exportation of tea to any of his Majesty’s colonies or plantations in America; to increase the deposit on bohea tea to be sold at the India Company’s sales; and to impower the commissioners of the treasury to grant licenses to the East India Company to export tea duty-free.” (Tea Act)
The act contained a number of provisions:
- The East India Company was granted a license to export tea to North America.
- They were no longer required to sell their tea at the London Tea Market.
- The duties on tea shipped to North America and other foreign parts were not imposed nor refunded when the tea was exported.
- Anybody receiving tea from the East India Company was required to pay a deposit upon receipt.
The Tea Act was intended to bail out the struggling East India Company, which was very important for the British economy, and the Tea Act would raise revenue from the 13 colonies.
The Tea Act allowed the East India Company to directly ship tea to the colonies without passing England. This way, duties were reduced and resulted in the cheaper price of English tea in the colonies. The Tea Act received royal assent on May 10, 1773.
By reducing the tax on imported British tea, this act gave British merchants an unfair advantage in selling their tea in America. American colonists condemned the act, and many planned to boycott tea.
Boston Tea Party
The colonists resisted the Tea Act more because it violated the constitutional principle of self-government by consent than because they could not afford the tax, which had existed since the passage of the 1767 Townshend Revenue Act.
As George Washington explained, “What is it we are contending against? Is it against paying the duty of [three pence per pound] on tea because [it is] burdensome? No, it is the right only … that, as Englishmen, we could not be deprived of this essential and valuable part of our constitution.”
In the ports of New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, citizens prevented British tea from being unloaded, threatened tax collectors into resigning, and protested taxation without representation. In Boston, political organizer Samuel Adams oversaw the adoption of resolutions calling on the tea agents to resign, but they refused.
On November 28, 1773, however, the Dartmouth dropped anchor in Boston Harbor loaded with 114 crates of British tea. Its colonial owner, Francis Rotch of Nantucket Island, had a great deal of money invested in the cargo and wanted it unloaded, but Patriot leaders wanted to use the landing of the tea to galvanize the people against the British. They also feared that if the tea were landed and sold at cheaper prices, people would continue buying it and ruin the boycott.
The following day, a crowd of five or six thousand people warned Rotch that landing the tea would be at his “peril,” posted a guard around the ship, and demanded that it return to England.
But Thomas Hutchinson, a staunch Loyalist who now served as royal governor, refused to allow the Dartmouth‘s departure. With twenty days to either unload the cargo and pay taxes or forfeit both the tea and the ship, Rotch found himself in a terrible position.
Over the next week, two more ships laden with tea berthed beside the Dartmouth at Griffin’s Wharf. Many people predicted imminent violence. As Abigail Adams wrote, “The flame is kindled … Great will be the devastation if not timely quenched or allayed by some more lenient measures.”
On December 14, thousands again demanded that Rotch seek clearance for a return voyage to England, but Hutchinson again refused the request. Three British warships now stood in the harbor ready to enforce his order. Matters were coming to a head.
On December 16, 1773, one day before the deadline for the landing of the tea, more than seven thousand gathered in the Old South Meeting House, Boston’s largest building.
When Samuel Adams announced that nothing more could be done to save their country, dozens of colonists, dressed like Indians as a symbol of American freedom and to disguise their identities from British authorities, entered the assembly with piercing war whoops.
The crowd went into a frenzy, screaming, “The Mohawks are come!”
John Hancock called on his countrymen to do their patriotic duty: “Let every man do what is right in his own eyes.”
Thousands of citizens spilled into the streets and watched as the band of Mohawk impersonators boarded the three ships and dumped into the harbor 342 chests of tea belonging to the British East India Company. The crowd then slowly dispersed into the night while the disguised participants went home with their identities still concealed.
Although some colonists saw the Boston Tea Party as a destructive mob action, most praised the protest. John Adams rejoiced, “This is the most magnificent Movement of all. There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity, in this last Effort of the Patriots, that I greatly admire.”
“The People should never rise, without doing something to be remembered – something notable And striking. This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences, and so lasting, that I cant but consider it as an Epocha in History.” (Adams, National Archives)
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