The Boston Tea Party of 1773 is one of the most important protests in American history. It began ironically over a British statute which sought to lower the cost of tea to American consumers. The origins of the crisis stretched back six years to 1767 when the British government passed a 3d per pound tax upon tea. The measure was originally one of the famous Townshend Duties. Despite an embargo upon the commodity by the continental colonies in protest, the crown maintained the tea tax, even after it repealed the other Townshend Duties in 1770.
The situation became explosive three years later when Parliament passed the Tea Act. The statute was designed to assist the politically-powerful yet nearly bankrupt East India Company. Since the late-1760s, the American embargo on tea had significantly hurt the company’s profits. To boost sales, the Tea Act created a system whereby specially-selected merchants who exported tea to the colonies would be refunded the 3d duty. The rebate would allow these merchants to lower the price of tea they sold to the colonists. Crown officials assumed that Americans would buy the lower-priced tea while simultaneously paying the royal tax.
Deeply suspicious, most Patriot leaders viewed the Tea Act as a trick designed to fool Americans into admitting Parliament’s sovereign right to tax them. In the summer of 1773, the East India Company sent four shipments of tea to America, including one to Boston. The Massachusetts port city had been the site of political unrest for nearly a decade and the tea crisis proved to be no exception.
When the tea arrived aboard three East India Company ships in mid-November, a standoff immediately developed. Colonial Governor Thomas Hutchinson, who adamantly believed in the supremacy of Parliament’s sovereign power to tax, refused to let the vessels leave the harbor without unloading. On the other hands, the Boston Town Meeting led by such Patriots as Samuel Adams and Paul Revere refused to allow the tea to be brought ashore.
The stalemate continued until the early evening of December 16th when 60 members of the Sons of Liberty, disguised as Mohawk Indians, rowed out into Boston harbor. Boarding the three ships, the Patriots broke open the cargo hatches and tossed 342 chests of tea into the water. Crowds of Bostonians lining the docks and wharves cheered the destruction of £10,000 worth of tea.
When news of the “tea party” reached London in the spring of 1774, members of Parliament were outraged. Desiring revenge and viewing the transgression as an opportunity to reassert royal authority, Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts (also known as the Coercive Acts). These four statutes were designed to punish Massachusetts as well as intimidate Patriots everywhere. Among other things, the edicts closed Boston Harbor, abrogated the colony’s decades-old royal charter, and appointed Gen. Thomas Gage as military governor of Massachusetts.
A political miscalculation of monumental proportions, the Intolerable Acts convinced Americans up and down the eastern seaboard that the British government had indeed become tyrannical. Thus, Patriot leaders called for a “Grand Congress” to be held in Philadelphia to discuss a collective response to British actions. In September 1774, the delegates of the First Continental Congress met and called upon their fellow Americans to begin preparing for war.