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Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Boston Tea Party, December 16, 1773

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Today in 1773, the Boston Tea Party took place aboard three ships in port at Boston, Massachusetts. The actions that night were felt in all thirteen of the American colonies and triggered a series of events which lead directly to the beginning of the Revolutionary War less than two years later. It remains today one of the most notable acts of protest in American history.

At the beginning of the 1770’s, relations between England and her colonies in North America were difficult at best. While few called for open revolution, more and more colonists began to see Great Britain as less a mother country than an oppressive overseer. One fact, more than any other, was the cause of this feeling: taxation without representation.

Taxes had always been a part of life in the British Empire, but Parliament levied several taxes against the American colonies during the decade of the 1760’s that were, to the average colonist, unfair. Whether these taxes were fair or not has been a subject of debate for more than two centuries, but the bigger issue was the principle at hand. In short, the American colonies had no direct representation in Parliament, the body which levied the taxes. With no one to speak for them, many colonists believed that taxes would grow more and more confiscatory as the government in London needed more and more money in its coffers.

The lawmakers in England had a different view. To them, taxes levied against the colonies were no more restrictive than those placed on British subjects living elsewhere. In addition, the recently concluded French and Indian War (called the Seven Years’ War in Europe) had been incredibly expensive; it seemed reasonable that the colonies defended by His Majesty’s troops should help pay some of the cost of their defense. While the colonists had supporters in Parliament, they also had detractors who considered them disloyal. But it was events far from colonial shores that would push each side to the breaking point.

The East India Company, a huge conglomerate that exported goods from India and China with benefit of a royal charter, was being hit hard by weakening markets in Europe. The company's directors went to Parliament for relief, which led to passage of the Tea Act in May, 1773. Prior to the Act, the East India Company was required to sell all its tea in London and pay a steep duty to do so. This tea was then exported to the colonies by third parties and, as a result, was expensive. Smuggling tea into the Americas became a huge business, so big that it is estimated that in the early 1770's, Americans bought twice as much smuggled tea as that sold by the East India Company through intermediaries. The Tea Act allowed the company to sell tea directly to the colonies with only a small import duty attached.

Many American colonists resented the Tea Act despite the fact it meant their tea was about to become much cheaper. The Act represented the power of a monopoly with a huge lobby in Parliament, a body that contained no colonial representative. Protests against the Act occurred in Philadelphia, New York and Boston, causing many of the agents who would represent the East India Company to abandon their jobs. Those who were more steadfast were influenced by less than subtle means, such as attacks on their homes and businesses.

The first cargo ships bearing East India Company tea began arriving in Boston Harbor in November, 1773, with a ship named Dartmouth leading the way. The Sons of Liberty, a secret organization of Americans who were the strongest proponents of anti-government actions, confronted Boston port authorities and demanded that the tea not be unloaded from Dartmouth or from two other ships which arrived in the harbor, Eleanor and Beaver. The three ships' captains, mindful of what awaited them on shore should they unload their cargo, agreed to leave the tea on board their ships and return to England. However, Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson intervened, ordering the harbor blocked and the three ships held in port. Large crowds numbering in the thousands began to appear on the docks, some demanding a series of meetings with representatives of the East India Company and Governor Hutchinson. The meetings accomplished little beyond showing how many people in the Boston area were fed up with Parliament and the Crown.

On the evening of December 16th, after the Governor once again refused to allow the three ships to leave without unloading their tea, Son of Liberty Samuel Adams declared, “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country.” This declaration ended the meeting but it also served as a signal that the protest was being taken to the next level.

Shortly thereafter, a strange group of people appeared, dressed as Native Americans and carrying axes, saws and clubs. They walked straight to Griffin's Wharf, where the three tea-laden ships were docked. These Native Americans knew their way around a cargo ship, so much so that onlookers were convinced that many of them were local longshoremen. Cask after cask of tea was raised from the holds, opened up, and dumped into the harbor. When all was done, around 45 tons of tea was in the harbor. It was worth nearly two million dollars in today's currency. Tea washed up on shore for days afterward.

The Boston Tea Party, as the event came to be called, caused an uproar in Parliament. An example had to be set, lest such events happen in other colonies. Thus, the Intolerable Acts came into existence, a series of laws passed in 1774 to punish the American colonies in general and Boston specifically. These laws only served to strengthen the resolve of those colonists who opposed the actions of Parliament and the Crown. In 1774, the colonies sent representatives to meet and coordinate a protest; this meeting was called the First Continental Congress.

The largest result to come from the Boston Tea Party and Parliament's reaction to it was the change of perspective for so many American patriots. When the Sons of Liberty and other groups were in their infancy, the general feeling among members was that while they considered some laws passed by Parliament to be biased and punitive, they still considered themselves loyal subjects who merely wanted a change in government policy toward the colonies. After the Boston Tea Party, more and more colonists began to believe that a new nation, separate from the British Empire, needed to be formed. Once that belief began to spread, it was only a matter of time until the colonies were in a state of open rebellion.

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