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Tea: The Drink That Set The Stage For War

No event in the annals of United States history is better known than the Boston Tea Party. The grassroots political movement even derives its name from it. But how much do we really know about it? As Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story.

The Tea Act of 1773 actually lowered the price of tea to the colonists. However, the effect of the act was unexpected. The act set in motion a chain of events which would soon lead open revolt. When the Townshend Acts were repealed in 1770, an import tax was kept on tea as a way to remind colonists that Parliament continued to believe in its authority to make laws affecting the Colonies, and specifically to tax them. As King George put it, there must “always [be] the one tax to keep up the right.” What he meant was that without some form of taxation, the British would lose control forever.

By 1773, the British East India Company was nearly bankrupt. That company had been started in order to grow and export tea from another British colony, India. But they had been much more successful growing tea than selling it. By 1773, the company had over 18,000,000 pounds of tea on their hands, looking for a place to get rid of it.

Parliament thought that if it made East Indian tea less expensive, it would sell more of it. Therefore, the Tea Act changed the tax laws by letting the East India Company ship its tea directly to the colonies through its own agents, bypassing American distributors. The British hoped the cost of tea to the average American would go down and consumption would go up.

This act angered colonial merchants who could make a good living from importing tea, either legally or about smuggling it past British customs officials. Other merchants joined the protests. If Britain could grant a monopoly on all tea sold in America to the East India Company, it could grant others. As one American merchant wrote:

Would not opening of an East India House in America encourage all the great companies in Great Britain to do the same?

Merchants stirred up colonial radicals by claiming the Tea Act of 1773 was just another sneaky way for the British to tax tea. But the common man needed little prompting to distrust the British.

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Crowds rioted in colonial streets. In Annapolis, a tea ship was burned. Other tea ships arriving New York and Philadelphia were turned around without even being in the unloaded. In Boston, the royal governor was determined to have the ships unloaded and would not let them leave. The colonists refused to unload the tea. On the night of December 16, 1773, a group of colonists disguised as Indians boarded the two ships in Boston Harbor and dumped their cargoes overboard, destroying 10,000 pounds of tea.

British reaction to what colonists called the Boston Tea Party was swift and cruel. In 1774, Parliament quickly passed a series of laws that Americans called the Intolerable Acts. The new laws required the Port of Boston to be closed until the city paid the East India Company for the lost tea. This was a tremendous hardship for a colony that was dependent upon foreign trade and fishing for its economic well-being.

In addition, the colonial government was restructured. The colonists were granted even less say in how they were governed. One half of the Massachusetts assembly, the upper house, was no longer to be elected by the people but was to be appointed by the king. Only one town meeting would be allowed each year. Royal officials charged with offenses could be tried in Britain, where they were likely to be found innocent. Finally the British commander in Boston was allowed to house his troops where ever he saw fit. This new quartering act was far worse than the old one. Troops could be housed in private residences against the will of their owners.

In September 1774, delegates from across the colonies met in Philadelphia to decide on a common course of action. This gathering would later be called the First Continental Congress. Every colony except Georgia was represented, and her legislature sent word that it would support whatever action was taken. Among the delegates were George Washington, Samuel Adams, John Adams, and Patrick Henry. Some delegates, like Samuel Adams, ready to break away from Great Britain immediately. But many of the delegates remain completely loyal to the king. They believe the colonies should obey the laws without protesting. Still others try to think of ways to persuade the British government compromise. They still hoped that the king would listen to their pleas, even if Parliament would not. But they were soon to be greatly disappointed.

The delegates to the First Continental Congress sent a petition to King George asking him to intervene on their behalf. In the petition, they asserted their rights to “life, liberty and property.” Although they rejected Parliament’s authority over them, they still vowed loyalty to the King.

In spite of this temporary reprieve to war, the die had been cast. After being elected as one of the seven delegates from Virginia, forty-two-year-old George Washington wrote, “Shall we sit and see one province after another fall prey to despotism?”

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