The Tea Act of 1773: Catalyst for the Boston Tea Party

The Tea Act, passed by Parliament on May 10, 1773, granted the British East India Company Tea a monopoly on tea sales in the American colonies. This was what ultimately compelled a group of Sons of Liberty members on the night of December 16, 1773 to disguise themselves as Mohawk Indians, board three ships moored in Boston Harbor, and destroy over 92,000 pounds of tea. The Tea Act was the final straw in a series of unpopular policies and taxes imposed by Britain on her American colonies. The policy ignited a “powder keg” of opposition and resentment among American colonists and was the catalyst of the Boston Tea Party.

The passing of the Tea Act imposed no new taxes on the American colonies. The tax on tea had existed since the passing of the 1767 Townshend Revenue Act. Along with tea, the Townshend Revenue Act also taxed glass, lead, oil, paint, and paper. Due to boycotts and protests, the Townshend Revenue Act’s taxes were repealed on all commodities except tea in 1770. The tea tax was kept in order to maintain Parliament’s right to tax the colonies. Not surprisingly, the American colonists continued to boycott tea. As a result of the boycotts, the East India Company had literally tons of tea in its London warehouses and was on the verge of bankruptcy. By 1772 the East India Company had 18 million pounds of unsold tea in warehouses and 1.3 million pounds of debt.

The Tea Act was not intended to anger American colonists, instead it was meant to be a bailout policy to get the British East India Company out of debt. The British East India Company was suffering from massive amounts of debts incurred primarily from annual contractual payments due to the British government totaling £400,000 per year. Additionally, the British East India Company was suffering financially as a result of unstable political and economic issues in India, and European markets were weak due to debts from the French and Indian War among other things. Besides the tax on tea which had been in place since 1767, what fundamentally angered the American colonists about the Tea Act was the British East India Company’s government sanctioned monopoly on tea. (Source)

Playing Monopoly

Prior to the Tea Act, the British East India Company Tea was required to exclusively sell its tea at auction in London. This required the British East India Company to pay a tax per pound of tea sold which added to the company’s financial burdens. The Tea Act aborted this restriction and granted the British East India Company license to export their tea to the American colonies. This opened up the British East India Company’s markets to the lucrative American colonies. Additionally, under the Tea Act, duties Britain charged on tea shipped to the American colonies would be waived or refunded upon sale.

The BRITISH EAST INDIA COMPANY was on the brink of financial collapse. LORD NORTH hatched a scheme to deal simultaneously with the ailing corporation and the problem of taxing the colonies. He decided to grant the British East India Company a trading monopoly with the American colonies.

A tax on tea would be maintained, but the company would actually be able to sell its tea for a price that was lower than before. A MONOPOLY doesn’t allow for competition. As such the British East India Company could lower its prices. The colonists, Lord North hoped, would be happy to receive cheaper tea and willing to pay the tax. This would have the dual result of saving the tea company and securing compliance from Americans on the tax issue. It was a brilliant plan. There was, of course, one major flaw in his thinking.

The colonists saw through this thinly veiled plot to encourage tax payment. Furthermore, they wondered how long the monopoly would keep prices low. As Americans were well aware, the East India Company had turned itself into the actual government of east India, and there, the Company‘s irresponsible, ruthless, and inhumane greed had been directly responsible for millions of deaths in the Bengal famine of 1770.

So, to many Americans, the issues were simple: Would the Americans surrender their natural right of self-government—a right guaranteed by the colonial charters? Would they submit to the tea tax—the tip of the spear for the principle that Parliament could tax, govern, and impose its rule without American consent? Would they allow England to press down upon America the corrupt class of royal toadies who would rule America by force, as they did east India? Would they allow England to siphon off the productive wealth of Americans and gladly watch Americans die in order to enhance their own corrupt profits? (Source, p. 287)

The direct sale of tea by agents of the British East India Company to the American colonies also undercut the business of colonial merchants. Prior to the Tea Act, colonial merchants purchased tea directly from British markets or smuggled from illegal markets. They then shipped it back to the colonies for resale. Outraged that American merchants were undercut, colonists initially in Philadelphia and New York refused the British East India Company tea to be offloaded and sent the ships back to England. In many colonial ports to protest the Tea Act, the shipment of British East India Company tea was unloaded and left untouched on the docks to rot. The Beaver, Dartmouth, and Eleanor arrived in Boston in late November to the middle of December 1773. The colonists, led by the Sons of Liberty, wanted the ships to return to England, and refused the unloading of the ships’ cargo of tea. Lieutenant Governor and Chief Justice of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, refused to let the ships return to England and held the Beaver, Dartmouth, and Eleanor in Boston Harbor until matters could be resolved and the tea offloaded. The framework for the Boston Tea Party was set, and on December 16, 1773, the evening before Governor Hutchinson had deemed the ships must be unloaded, 340 chests of British East India Company Tea were dumped into Boston Harbor by the Sons of Liberty while thousands of patriots guarded the harbor.

Activists were busy again, advocating boycott. Many went further. British ships carrying the controversial cargo were met with threats of violence in virtually all colonial ports. This was usually sufficient to convince the ships to turn around. In Annapolis, citizens burned a ship and the tea it carried.

Boston, of course, reacted in a similarly extreme fashion.

The provisions of the Tea Act of 1773 were as follows:

  • The new provisions in the Tea Act allowed tea to be shipped in East India Company ships directly from China to the American colonies, thus avoiding the tax on goods first sent to England, as required by previous legislation
  • The Tea Act also made the provision for a duty (tax) of 3 pence per pound to be collected on tea delivered to America
  • This new import tax of 3 pence was considerably less than the previous one in which 12 pence (1 shilling) per pound on tea sent via Britain
    • The American colonists would therefore get their tea cheaper than the people of Britain
  • The tea was to be marketed in America by special consignees (receivers of shipments) who were to be selected by the East India Company
  • The tea consignees were to be based in four centers in the colonies (all 4 had their own tea parties according to Marissa Moss in her well-researched book America’s Tea Parties: Not One, But Four! :
    • Boston
    • New York
    • Philadelphia
    • Charleston

The effect of the Tea Act on the American colonists would be as follows:

  • Merchants who had been acting as the middlemen in legally importing tea stood to lose their business to the the East India Company agents
  • Merchants dealing with the illegal Dutch tea trade would be undercut by the Company’s lowered prices and also stood to lose their business
  • The Tea Act directly impacted shop keepers who would only be allowed to purchase tea from merchants selected by the East India Company and their monopoly
  • Only ships owned by the East India Company could carry tea, the American ships engaging in the tea trade would be redundant
  • Favoritism – Consignees who were to receive the tea and arrange for its local resale were generally favorites of the local governor. The Governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, was a part-owner of the business hired by the East India Company to receive tea shipped to Boston. He was disliked by the Boston patriots with whom he had clashed during the Boston Massacre of 1770

The reaction of the American colonists to the Tea Act came as a shock to the British. Buying the tea would mean that the colonists had accepted paying the British import tax. The American colonists had not forgotten their outrage at the Stamp Act of 1765 and the efforts made to gain the political victory in having the hated act repealed.

  • Since the Colonies were not represented in Parliament, they saw the Tea Act as unconstitutional
  • Their cry of “No taxation without representation!” had not been forgotten.
  • The seeds of revolution had been sewn in the minds of many of the American colonists. The Sons of Liberty, and the Daughters of Liberty, had experienced a relatively calm period since the repeal of the Stamp Act and the Boston Massacre of 1770. The Tea Act stirred up all of the old feelings of resentment towards the British

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Beginning with the Boston Tea Party, this teaching text goes on to describe events leading up to that act of destruction and the consequences that sparked battles in Lexington and Concord. The history is presented chronologically, answering the title question and five others, including the welcome “How do we know so much about the Boston Tea party?” On deep-gold pages with darkened edges, smoothly written text is enlivened with portraits of leading figures, prints and documents from the time, maps, and, temptingly, pictures from today shown on modern handheld devices. Sidebars appear as additional questions in a notebook; some unfamiliar words or phrases are glossed in the margins. The designer’s hand is heavy in this entry in the Six Questions of American History series, but the content is solid (save for misleading boundaries on a map of the original 13 colonies). A student writing activity is suggested, and the back matter includes a time line, source notes, bibliography, further research sources, and an index. Grades 4-6. –Kathleen Isaacs


“America s Tea Parties: Not One But Four!” is the first nonfiction picture book to ever share that New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston each had their own tea party that took place around the same time as Boston’s.
“America s Tea Parties” provides background on the English taxation on the colonies, with emphasis on the people who stood up for their rights against the tyranny of the British as ships from the East India Company pulled into their harbors. It explains the Stamp and Tea Acts, the larger social and political issues that the colonies were having with England, why it was crucial that these tea parties happened, and the revolution that the tea demonstrations led to.
This well-researched, eye-catching, entertaining, and informative volume is filled with archival illustrations and is great for primary research and as a read-aloud. It will surprise social studies classrooms, shake up US history curriculum, and delight American studies fans as New York, Boston, and Charleston finally join Boston in tea party fame. Award-winning and bestselling author Marissa Moss describes in detail the resilience and determination of the peoples of all four colonies. “America s Tea Parties” comes complete with a timeline, a bibliography, a fully searchable index, and an author s note that explains exactly how the author found this incredible little-told story of the tea parties that changed American history forever.”

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