Why tea, instead of any other commodity?
Why throw it into the harbor?
If the local Whigs disliked the tea tax so much, why didn't they just not buy tea?
Why did a new tea-selling system which promised lower prices produce almost immediate opposition?
How did one of the world's biggest and richest empires start to split apart over 342 crates of caffeinated leaves?
The crisis was an artificial one, produced by Boston men at the docks refusing to let three tea ships be unloaded and the strict enforcement of two British Customs regulations. According to one law, ships had to land their cargo within a certain number of days after they arrived. Another law said the ships couldn't just sail away without unloading. The ship owners applied to Gov. Thomas Hutchinson for special exemptions, but he refused.
Hutchinson felt that he had the radicals backed into a corner. The tea and ship owners would either brave the crowds and insist on unloading their property, or the Customs service would confiscate the cargo. Either way, the tea would go onto the local market and London would collect the tea tax. By destroying the tea, Boston's radicals cut that Gordian knot—but made Parliament very, very angry.
The deeper question is why the Whigs were so opposed to anyone paying that tea tax. And it wasn't just Boston's radical organizers—most of the town supported them. The largest mass meetings of the pre-Revolutionary period occurred in November and December 1773 as "the Body of the People" gathered at Old South Meeting-House to discuss the tea. And it wasn't just Bostonians. Up and down the North American coast, colonists insisted that the tea not be allowed into their harbors or officially landed. Boston became the crisis point only because of how Gov. Hutchinson handled the dispute.
A tea tax seems like a very small thing. It was a Customs duty on a single commodity. That substance wasn't truly necessary for life [though some mornings I think otherwise], so no one had to buy it. The tea supply chain clearly depended on the reach of the British Empire: it was grown in China, collected in India, processed in Britain, then shipped to America. What better commodity to tax to support that empire? And the Tea Act of 1773 promised to lower the consumer price of tea. So why did so many Americans complain about it?
I think the answer lies in the Stamp Act of 1765. That was a broad-based tax on all printed documents: ship's papers, legal filings, licenses, newspapers, even playing cards. People did have to buy those things. That tax would have affected everyone in colonial North America. So it got everyone's attention, from Halifax to Savannah.
The North American Whigs responded to the Stamp Act in two ways:
- They amplified the "no taxation without representation" principle that James Otis, Jr., had advanced in his losing argument against earlier, narrower Customs duties.
- They organized boycotts of British imports, thus enlisting the whole adult population to put economic pressure on London. In fact, T. H. Breen's The Marketplace of Revolution argues that this nonimportation movement was what first made the Americans colonists feel a common cause separate from Britain.
Furthermore, in Massachusetts the Whigs suspected (rightly) that the tea tax was being used to pay salaries to various royal appointees, thus insulating them from local pressures. That dispute had been simmering for over a year before the tea crisis. It made what seems like a little issue—a few dried leaves—boil up into a constitutional crisis.
I suspect that if Parliament had instituted a tea tax in 1765 instead of the Stamp Act, the opposition to it would have been less intense, and the Whig movement wouldn't have grown so strong by 1773. Maybe America wouldn't have gotten to the point of demanding independence in that century. Who knows? Tea might have remained our national drink.