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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Revolutionary Myth #3: the Revolution happened quickly

Posted on June 4, 2009. Filed under: Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , , , |

We look back and tend to see a constant boil of activity in the 1770s that led to revolution. But here in part 3 of my series of 5 Myths about the Revolutionary War, we will see this is not really so.

When you study colonial town or precinct records, you see that towns, villages, and precincts met once a year (“town meeting”) to set policy, settle debates, take actions, and elect officers. Reading the record books, it seems like discussions took years–meet in April 1737 to debate the town border, meet in April 1738 to debate the town border, April 1739, etc.  While discussions must have taken place between meetings, official actions, committees, and decisions took place only at town meeting. Sometimes an emergency meeting was called to expedite things, but not always.

So with the Revolution. While history books and narratives compress events, leading you to feel like the timespan between the first punitive Act (the Sugar Act) and Lexington and Concord was about 1-2 years, it all unfolded much more slowly. The Sugar Act was imposed in April 1764. The Stamp Act was imposed in March 1765. Patrick Henry gave his famous “if this be treason” speech about the Stamp Act that same year. The Townshend Act came two years later, in 1767. The Boston Massacre was three years later, in 1770.

Usually the Boston Massacre is presented as the tipping point, after which Revolution happened with lightning speed. Many people, if quizzed, think the Boston Massacre must have been in 1775. But it was a good five years before the fighting began. Between the Massacre and Lexington and Concord was the Boston Tea Party, in December 1773. The “Intolerable Acts” were put in place the next year, 1774.  The first Continental Congress met in fall 1774, issuing a declaration of principles…

…but still it was not until April 1775 that the war began. Why did things move so slowly?

First, of course, was communications. It took weeks to months for the Sugar Act or Townshend Acts to take full effect throughout the colonies. Thus it took that long for indignation to build amongst Americans. South Carolina would have heard about the March 1770 Boston Massacre in the spring of 1771. And they only heard about it through the determined letter writing of men like Samuel Adams; newspapers from Boston that published the story would have had it picked up by newspapers in neighboring colonies, like Connecticut and New York, and from there it might have been picked up in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, but beyond that point the story as a newspaper story would have died. It had to be disseminated by individuals’ letters, whether private or public.

There was also the winter. Winter made travel much more slow—sometimes impossible—and this meant not only that newspapers and letters traveled far more slowly, but also that all actions were on hold until the spring. Just as armies made winter camp in December and did not fight at all until April or May, so protests and meetings were on hiatus over the snowy months.

Finally, of course, there was peoples’ reluctance to go to war. Each event—Act, riot, shooting, speech—was endured or taken in and then made sense of in a way that would allow people to avoid the terror of war. Each time something happened, Americans hoped it was the last time something dangerous would happen, and that the troubles would die down and life could go back to normal. No people want to endure a war. So there was a great deal of effort expended on diplomacy and peaceful efforts to turn things around.

So really, there was no sustained fever of revolutionary activity in the 1770s, not even in Boston. Events hit people in the spring and summer, went into hibernation through the winter, and were superseded by less inflammatory, daily events the next spring—for which people were understandably grateful. It was really not until March 1774, when the Port Act went into effect against Boston, that events hit rapidly, and even then the winter of 1774-5 was quiet, with Paul Revere’s ride coming the following April 1775.

It is only when we look back and compress events from the Sugar Act to the North Bridge that it seems like a frenzy of revolution. In reality, it took 11 years, from the 1764 Sugar Act to the 1775 shootouts in Lexington, Concord, and especially Menotomy, for the Revolution to begin.

Next: Myth 4: All was well before the war

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