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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Friday, March 19, 2021

“What natural right, whether that of smuggling, or of throwing tea overboard?”

The second Boston Tea Party on 7 March 1774 made a smaller splash than the first on the preceding 16 December.

There was much less tea involved—fewer than thirty chests as opposed to more than three hundred.

The tea was much less valuable. It was the Bohea variety, an everyday black tea rather than a more expensive blend or a green tea.

The destroyed tea wasn’t owned by the highly connected East India Company but by the private firm of Davison & Newman, consigned to the Boston merchant Henry Lloyd. It had less financial importance for the Crown.

In response to the first Tea Party, Parliament passed the Boston Port Bill, declaring it illegal for Boston to receive goods (with a few exceptions, like firewood) from any other colony. It took only a few days in mid-March for that bill to become law. News of the second action was still making its away across the Atlantic.

Once news of the second Tea Party arrived in London in April, Davison & Newman and their insurers sent a petition to Parliament, reproduced on this website and on tins of “Boston Harbour Tea,” asking that they, too, be compensated for their lost property just as the East India Company would be. (Of course, Boston never paid back the East India Company.)

But the second Boston Tea Party still had an impact in London. On 28 March, prime minister Lord North (shown above) opened formal discussion in Parliament about a plan to change the constitution of the Massachusetts province. He advocated three changes:
  • giving the governor more power so he didn’t depend so much on support from the Council.
  • limiting town meetings to once each year to elect town officials unless the governor allowed otherwise.
  • an unspecified way of regulating the choice of jurymen.
Some Members of Parliament advocated stronger measures. Lord George Germain immediately raised the idea of making the Massachusetts Council an appointed body, as in most other North American colonies, rather than elected.

A smaller number of M.P.’s argued to preserve Massachusetts’s system. Former governor John Pownall described Americans as “a conscientious, good, religious, peaceable set of people.”

Lord North brought in his bill on 15 April, now including the appointed or “mandamus” Council. Soon he added the Administration of Justice Act, empowering the governor to send people charged for actions they had taken to enforce the laws away to another colony or Britain if he felt they couldn’t receive a fair trial in Massachusetts.

Strong Whigs like Isaac Barré and Charles Fox spoke against those bills. They complained about Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, who was being replaced (he didn’t know it yet). They moved to repeal the entire Tea Act. Edmund Burke made a very long speech that went all the way back to the first Navigation Acts and the Stamp Tax. Generally these members argued that while the destruction of the tea in December was wrong, the Crown had to give time for the Boston Port Bill to work before making permanent changes to the Massachusetts government.

On 21 April, Lord North opened another day of debate with a speech that included:
Sir, there is a ship arrived, I think her name is the Fortune, captain Goreham; she arrived in Boston harbour the latter end of February, or beginning of March 1774, I cannot say which; she was loaded with tea; the inhabitants came immediately and unloaded her, and emptied the contents of her cargo into the sea.

Is this, Sir, seeing their error? Is this, Sir, reforming? Is this making restitution to the East India Company?
Sir Thomas Frankland rose to confirm Lord North’s news based on a letter from Boston. Word of the second Boston Tea Party thus arrived just in time to confirm the worst impressions of the first.

Debate continued, but Massachusetts looked harder to defend. On 2 May, Lord North declared:
I am sorry to hear a charge thrown out, that these proceedings are to deprive persons of their natural right. Let me ask, of what natural right, whether that of smuggling, or of throwing tea overboard? Or of another natural right, which is not paying their debts?
He lamented the province “being in a distempered state of disturbance and opposition to the laws of the mother country.”

The Massachusetts Government Act went to a vote that day. The Commons divided 239 in favor of the law, only 64 against. Four days later, there was a vote on the Administration of Justice Act: 127 for, 24 against.

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