J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Follow the Tea Money, part 1

Who had an economic interest in opposing Parliament's Tea Act of 1773?

Proponents of the new law argued that it would lower the consumer price of tea in North America, below even the price of illegally imported Dutch tea that had no tax at all. Indeed, on 28 Oct 1773 someone in New York distributed a satirical pamphlet written in the voice of the Dutch East India Company agents on St. Eustatius lamenting that

the people here will have an opportunity of buying good English Tea, for half the price we expected to extort from them for the trash lodged in your hands from Holland.
Benjamin Labaree's The Boston Tea Party (1966), in which that quote appears, argues that the price of tea in Holland was low enough that its sellers still had room to cut their prices and undersell the importers of British tea. Nevertheless, those businessmen would have faced lower profits.

John Tyler's Smugglers and Patriots (1986) argues that smugglers of Dutch tea attacked the Tea Act to protect their usual profits. And since they couldn't whip up opposition to lower prices, they attacked the monopolistic pricing arrangements that the new law established. On 14 October 1773, the Massachusetts Spy carried this argument:
The very establishment of exclusive trading companies is an infringement of that distinguished petition of the free Briton which from time immemorial he had forced his sovereign to recognize [—] his right to a FREE TRADE.
However, I don't think the opposition of Dutch tea smugglers can account for the Boston Tea Party.

To begin with, as observers on both sides stated at the time, the trade in Dutch tea was much smaller in Boston than it was in New York and Philadelphia. Customs records show much more legal British tea coming into Boston in 1771-73 than into either of the southern cities, though they had larger populations. Fewer Dutch tea smugglers in Boston logically meant far less political influence.

Furthermore, when evidence lets us infer who in Boston was selling Dutch tea, it rarely points to the most politically active merchants. Some were simply wealthy opportunists like Solomon Davis and John Rowe. Others were friends of the royal government, such as Henry Lloyd, who had family ties to New York. There was little overlap between this group and Boston's Whig leaders. The popular protests against the dutied tea from Britain also gave rise to calls for a general boycott on all tea, which could hardly have benefited men who had invested in Dutch tea.

As I wrote last week, I think the opposition to the East India Company tea, cheaper though it was, derived from the popular perception that the Tea Act was just the latest in a series of oppressive measures constraining the local economy. And I think it's more enlightening to consider who had an economic interest in enforcing the Tea Act.


c jeanne jordan said...

Not so much a comment as a question, found an extremely old teapot with 'Ezra J. Smith Tea Importers, Boston 1852' but could not find any information in your blog. Found mention of an Ezra Booth and a John Smith who were proprietors of a tea importing business in that time period on a different website. Am interested if such a company existed in the mid-19th century. Thank you.

J. L. Bell said...

No, my research doesn’t extend to the Boston business community of 1852. Businesses of that period are much better documented than those of 1773, however, so you may be able to find a business directory for Boston around that year.