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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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Why All the Fuss Over Tea?

One basic question about the Boston Tea Party for modern Americans is:


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.
The Stamp Act protests worked; Parliament repealed that law in 1766 before it could be put into practice. Then in 1767, London instituted the Townshend duties. Once again, the colonies responded with nonimportation, and those taxes were repealed in 1770—except for the one on tea. Thus, by 1773, a wide swath of Americans were steeped in the beliefs that any tax levied by Parliament without local approval was despotic, and that the Tea Act was just the latest step in an attempt to oppress them.

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.


Anonymous said...

For those interested in the Boston Tea Party's complicated global context, Marc Aronson's book THE REAL REVOLUTION: THE GLOBAL STORY OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE, though written for younger readers,shifts the emphasis nicely to take in not merely the Bostonian and Parliamentary history, but also the Indian history that brought this crisis to pass. Half the book is concerned with the English struggle for domination of India -- and the juxtaposition of that with the more familiar American Revolutionary history reinforces a lot of connections which are typically not stressed or as thoroughly investigated.

And, as a side-note, the oddly tragic Burgoyne makes a sweet little cameo in the midst of the tea debate as a fierce proponent of global corporate reform, something that is mentioned in British discussions of his career but tends to be overlooked in American sources.

Anyway -- don't let the fact that the Aronson book sits on the juvenile shelves put you off! It's an hour or two well spent for fans of the Tea Party.

- mta

J. L. Bell said...

See this posting for more on Aronson's The Real Revolution. The fact that it was written and published for young readers (high school students, mostly) offers one great advantage: since publishers of juvenile nonfiction are used to including art to keep the kids interested, The Real Revolution has a terrific art program: period images from all over the Empire with insightful captions. Historians writing for adults should envy Aronson's overall package.

rotterdarned said...

Congratulations on a lovely and informative blog! Two not insignificant corrections - the tea was not "processed" in any way shape or form in UK pre-shipment to the US. This particular parcel of Chinas reached UK travelling westbound and was merely transhipped "as is" from London to Boston (consigned to Salada Tea of Boston, in fact). What was resented by the tea-loving colonists was not only the commonly discussed UK tax due to the "tea sourcing monopoly" then in effect, moreover, the colonists had long lobbied to commence taking in their Chinas on the far more efficient eastbound direct route from China to the North American east coast. Besides evading the British tea monopoly import duty (a relatively insignificant added cost), the freight on the direct route was less half that of transhipment 3/4 around the world (a significant cost savings). In any event, all's well that ends well. The American people, contrary to your article's assertion, continued to be the world's most enthusiastic tea drinkers for the coming century right up til the time of the food import ban imposed in WW1. We simply began buying our teas direct ly from the Asian producing countries for shipment on the direct and far more efficient eastbound route. WW1 put an interruption in that trade flow of Chinese tea which was later exacerbated by the Chinese revolution. Again, we had our largest source for tea cut off 20th century style. Taking tea out of the picture on American palettes for a few decades forced the south american coffee growers to be considered as an alternative beverage. These coffee growers did an excellent export marketing job and the US was won for coffee. That was less than a century ago. The "American tea interruption" - as we will see - will prove to be a momentary "blip" on the radar in history and tea will resume its rightful place back as #1 on the american palette just as it is on the rest of the world's palettes. Give it a decade or two more and you have my word you will see tea sales far exceed coffee in our country once again - just as it's been throughout most of our country's history.

J. L. Bell said...

"Salada Tea of Boston"? That firm wasn't founded until the late 1800s and didn't touch these shores until 1917, according to the company history. We know the identities of the Boston tea consignees of 1773; I expect to write about them sometime in the next week.

An "eastbound direct route from China to the North American east coast"? Isn't there a continent in the way? Or a difficult trip 'round the tip of South America? America's China Trade didn't start until after the Revolution as Boston and Salem merchants looked for markets to replace the British Empire.

J. L. Bell said...

In 1900, Americans consumed 9.8 pounds of coffee per capita per annum and 1.1 pounds of tea. In contrast, Canadians, with their longer link to the British Empire, consumed 1.1 pounds of coffee and 3.6 pounds of tea.

By 1960, American coffee consumption has risen to 15.9 pounds, and tea consumption had fallen to .6 pounds. In Canada, tea consumption had also fallen, to 2.4 pounds, while coffee consumption rose dramatically to 9.0 pounds.

These figures come from a letter to the editor published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Nov 1966, available for downloading here.

Josiah Coffey said...

I couln't agree more that the mood of the town was a prime mover in the Boston Tea Party and would add that Samuel Adams was the leading voice in it. It would have been interesting if the fourth ship, which ran aground on the outer banks of Cape Cod. Do you know, if this ship would have arrived, when it would have arrived in comparison to when the Tea Party took place. I would find it hard to believe they would have pulled the same stunt again if the ship had arrived after their Party and would be really fascinated by a speculation on what Gov. Hutchinson would have done the second time around.

J. L. Bell said...

In fact, there was an encore performance of the Boston Tea Party of 16 Dec 1773. At the end of that winter, another ship carrying tea came into Boston harbor. The Whig press openly asked where were the “Mohawks” now. And on 7 Mar 1774 that cargo was destroyed, just like the earlier ones.

The news of that second destruction reached London as Parliament was debating the Coercive Acts, and squelched any attempt to make them less harsh.