Truth v. Myth: What caused the Boston Tea Party?

Posted on November 14, 2011. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Revolutionary War | Tags: |

Hello and welcome to our series on the Boston Tea Party. This event, like Washington crossing the Delaware or the winter at Valley Forge, is familiar to all Americans—or at least the name is. Most people are hard-pressed to come up with any details on what happened and why. Here we’ll go beyond the men dressed as Indians and the tea dumped in the harbor and the refusal to pay taxes to explain how events unfolded and we’ll start by showing that one of those three details is all wrong.

Throughout, we’ll be hugely indebted to Benjamin Carp’s fantastic, must-read for all Americans Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America. If you are left wanting more after this series, buy that book and enjoy.

Let’s start, as we must, with taxes. We have all been told that British taxes on everyday American goods like paper, sugar, and tea were bitterly resented by colonists, who refused to pay them. This is an oversimplification and so, inevitably, it’s inaccurate. The issue was more complicated: after the huge expense of fighting the French and Indian War (aka the Seven Years’ War) against France both in Europe and in North America, Britain’s people were taxed to the hilt. They had helped pay for three wars against the Dutch from 1652-1674, as well as several wars with France, including the War of the Spanish Succession (Queen Anne’s War) and King George’s War between 1689 and 1748. By the end of the French and Indian War, Britons living in the British Isles could pay no more without wrecking the economic revolution developing in England at the time (the foundation of modern capitalism).

So the British turned to the Americans for help. The Americans had been the ones clamoring for Britain to put an end to the French and Indian threat on their doorstep, and they had made a lot of money selling supplies at hugely inflated prices to the British Army. Now Britain asked them to help pay up.

Most Americans supported this, with one caveat: they wished that they could have a say in how they were taxed—how much, and on what goods. But since they did not have representatives in Parliament, they could not have a say. American leaders had been petitioning formally and informally for reprentatives to Parliament for years to no avail. So after 1763, when the French and Indian War ended, Britain alone decided the tax rate and the goods to be taxed.

Most Americans would have gone along with this, at least for a while. But the real problem with the new taxation was this: the tax money went, in large part, to pay the salaries of British officials in America. That is, the tax money Americans paid did not a) get directly applied to the war debt; b) did not go to provide any services for Americans, but c) was used to pay the salaries of the royal governors, customs officials, and others.

Think of it this way: today we pay taxes to get services. Our taxes fund social programs like Medicare, Head Start, and others. We may not always like our tax rate, but at least we can say the money is coming back to the people in some important way. But in America in the 1760s, tax money just went to pay politicians. It would be like state taxes going to pay the governor’s salary, the salaries of state representatives, and city mayors, and nothing else—no services.

Worse, in colonial America a large portion of the new taxes went to pay one royal official in particular: the tax collector. So American tax money went to the tax collector who then had every incentive to demand strict enforcement of every tax, and to welcome new taxes.

This was the problem with taxes in post-war America. Americans had no say in how they were taxed, and their money went to enrich the government officials who collected taxes basically as salary.

In Massachusetts, there was a way to fight back. Massachusetts, unlike most of the other English colonies, was founded as an independent colony. It was not under the control of King or Parliament. It elected its own officials, from governor to colonial legislature. In the other colonies, the governor was appointed by the king and and people had no say. This royal governor often appointed members to the colonial legislature. This way, the governor could prevent the legislature from pursuing policies that negatively impacted the crown financially or politically. When Massachusetts was at last brought under direct royal control in 1691, it struck a unique deal: its governor would be appointed by the king, with no input from the people of the colony, but its legislature would remain popularly elected. And in Massachusetts, “popular” had real meaning. Almost every white male was a freeman, with voting rights. Property ownership was not a requirement. So the colony had a truly popular legislature, which took its responsibility of representing the interests of the people seriously. The Massachusetts legislature, called the General Court, would fight the royal governor and tax officials when they attempted to enforce the new tax on tea.

Thus, Massachusetts was particularly able to mount a defense against the post-war taxation, because its legislature actually represented the people. But they were not the only colonies to do so. New York and Pennsylvania launched vigorous anti-tax protests as well, as we’ll see, and criticized Massachusetts for not being radical enough—at least until the night of the Tea Party.

In the next post, we’ll look at the reasons why tea, of all the commodities that were taxed, became the hottest issue, and we’ll explain the customs rules that led Massachusetts men to decide that dumping the tea was necessary.

Next time: why tea?

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