The Boston Tea Party–why tea??

Posted on January 5, 2019. Filed under: Colonial America, Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Happy New Year! We start 2019 by continuing with… the past! which is our thing. Moving on to part 2 of our series on the Boston Tea Party in which we ask, why tea? Why was this commodity so symbolic, the one which American patriots chose to make a political stand over?

 

Until the 1700s, tea was a luxury item, very expensive and looked on with a little suspicion. But  by 1765 tea trade represented 70-90% of the imports of the powerful British East India Company. For a very interesting description of the EIC, its role in the British government, and the debt that threatened to destroy it, all of which have a large role to play in the Boston Tea Party, see Benjamin’s Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, an invaluable book to which this Truth v. Myth series is deeply indebted.

Tea came to the Americas legally, through the EIC, and illegally, through American smugglers. By the mid-1700s, the price was low enough to move tea from exotic luxury to daily drink, but it retained its mystique. Tea-drinking was the center of domestic rituals in households high and low, and owning all the accoutrements of tea-making and drinking was to have status—status that was recognized on both sides of the Atlantic. As Carp describes it,

“During the eighteenth century, tea became the drink of respectable British and colonial households everywhere. The wealthiest families adopted tea ceremonies first, giving tea immense cultural cachet. …tea was a regular family event. …The woman of the house oversaw the  making of tea and assigned a series of tasks and errands to other family members, bringing the family together under her direction. …Tea became a ritual of family solidarity, sustenance, and politeness. To master the tea ceremony was to announce your own virtue… The striving ‘middle class’ of tradesmen, professionals, and landowners couldn’t resist the chance to partake in this elite pastime. You didn’t have to have a hereditary title, or even be particularly wealthy, to sip respectably at the tea table. …tea had become a new necessity. Addictive, stimulating, lightweight, and easy to prepare, [tea] could conquer sleep and thereby make a person more productive: in this way tea was contributing to the growing empire’s economy.” [55-6]

We see, then, that tea was many things: it was classy; it was a shared experience; it was family togetherness; it was caffeine addiction; it was a way for people of all economic classes to show their respectability. Poor families drank tea to get them through the long work day and to show they, too, could appreciate the finer things. Middle-class families drank tea to show the rich that they were sophisticated, too. Wealthy families drank tea with expensive porcelain tea services from Europe or China itself (where the tea came from) and silver utensils to show that they were just as good as people in England, too. All this sophistication was important to Americans, who were always self-conscious about looking provincial in front of their cousins back in England. Americans wanted to show that they were just as good as English people, just as trendy, just as well-mannered.

Of course, there were naysayers. Pamphlets were published on the negative effect tea had on people’s morals, as they did whatever they had to do to pay for tea and the sugar that went with it, and basically sold their souls for fancy tea-sets. Doctors deplored spending money on something that had no nutritional value. Tea, like gin, was seen as a gateway drug to a life of laziness, vanity, vice, and immorality. Valuing any material thing so highly was bound to cause trouble.

On the political side, some Americans worried about contributing so much money to the East India Company. They knew about the Company’s track record in India, where the lives and economy of the native people were held in little regard. American suspicions about the EIC were confirmed in 1769, when a famine hit Bengal, India, which was controlled by the Company. Over 1 million Bengalis died of starvation, the EIC  refused to share its stockpiles of food, and actually raised taxes on the survivors to make up for lost revenue. “As Chatterji wrote, ‘People could die of starvation, but the collection of revenue didn’t stop.’ Warren Hastings, the new governor of Bengal in 1772, reported to London in chilling terms that revenue collection had been ‘violently kept up to its former standard.'” [Carp 11-12]

Such was the source of tea in America, and there were Americans who hesitated to put their own country in thrall to the EIC. (News of the famine and the EIC’s response to it would fan the flames of anti-tea rebellion during the 1773 protests against the Tea Act.) What would happen if America, too, became “enslaved” (as they put it at the time) to the Company? It was not as far-fetched a notion as it seemed. To pay off its mounting debts, which threatened the British government itself (because the government was heavily invested in the EIC and depended on its profits for a large part of its operating budget), the Company shipped more and more tea to the colonies. Europe and England had already had their markets saturated. Now tea rolled into America in ever-larger amounts, which brought the price down nicely for consumers, but also threatened American security because the option to purchase tea was seeming more and more like an obligation to do so. Ships that came into port carrying tea were legally required to unload that cargo—it was illegal to ship the tea back to England. It had to be sold. American commissioners, men who had signed contracts with the EIC to sell imported tea in America, were legally obligated to fulfill those contracts. If they failed to do so, the governor himself had to issue a clearance to send the tea back, but the governor would not do this without receiving clearance from the customhouse that said there was something wrong with the tea. If the tea was fine, there was no option but to unload it for the commissioners to sell. If the commissioners would not accept the tea, it was seized, along with the ship it came on—a ship usually owned by the commissioner himself. So men selling tea in America were in a bind: if they did not accept and sell the tea in America, they would lose their commission to sell tea in the future, lose their valuable ship, and lose the money they had spent to get the tea.

This smacked of coercion to many Americans. Did they really have no choice but to buy EIC tea? What would the Company do to them if they refused to buy the tea?

Granted, much, perhaps most tea for sale in America was illegally smuggled by traders unaffiliated with the EIC, men who had no commission from the British government to sell tea (legally, only the EIC was authorized to sell tea to the Americas). You didn’t have to buy Company tea. But as the Company fought for its life financially, a crackdown on smuggling began. Now Americans faced the prospect of being forced to turn in smugglers to the Company or being punished by the British government. They had to help the EIC maintain a monopoly on American tea sales, strengthening a company that had no respect for human life, as Americans saw it, and which would not hesitate to destroy America as it had destroyed Bengal if necessary. If the Company had a complete monopoly, what price might it begin to charge for tea, which was now seen as a necessity? What political power might it be given in America?

So we see why tea became the flashpoint for rebellion in America. When the 1767 Townshend Acts first put a tax on tea, it was seen as outrageous for a few reasons: a) tea was a necessity and raising the price through a tax would put it out of the reach of many; b) the Company was already making a good profit on tea; c) the new tea tax went to pay the customs officials who forced tea to be unloaded and sold in America.

Americans boycotted tea to protest the Townshend Acts. By now you realize what a huge move this was. Giving up tea was very difficult. It threatened the status of the rich and the energy of the poor. On the most basic level, the boycott led to caffeine-withdrawal headaches that confirmed peoples’ notion that tea was medicinal (since drinking tea again would soothe the headache). Given all this, it is telling that although smuggled tea was available, people did not drink it on principle. Violence escalated, and in 1768 Boston was occupied by British troops, whose presence led eventually to the 1770 Boston Massacre (more on violence in Boston in the next post).  The Townshend Acts were partially repealed, but the tax on tea remained because the EIC was sinking further into debt (in part because it had flooded every market for tea). It had 18 million pounds of unsold tea in its warehouses that it could not sell. And so the Tea Act of 1773 was introduced, on top of the existing tea tax, mandating that the surplus tea be shipped to America and sold at a steep discount. Americans who were trying to keep the tea boycott alive, who knew that many Americans were dying for a chance to return to tea-drinking, were furious. They knew that if the American market was flooded with extra-cheap tea Americans would not be able to resist it, the boycott would end, and the tea tax would be entrenched—the first, perhaps, of many harmful taxes that offered no services to the colonies but simply helped the British control them more tightly. America would be enslaved to the EIC after all.

Now it was paramount to overthrow this tea scheme. In the next post, we’ll see how protest began.

The Tea Party and a tradition of violence

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The Boston Tea Party: Why was tea so important?

Posted on November 17, 2011. Filed under: American history, Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , |

In part 2 of our series on the Boston Tea Party, we ask, why tea? Why was this commodity so symbolic, the one which American patriots chose to make a political stand over?

Until the 1700s, tea was a luxury item, very expensive and looked on with a little suspicion. But  by 1765 tea trade represented 70-90% of the imports of the powerful British East India Company. For a very interesting description of the EIC, its role in the British government, and the debt that threatened to destroy it, all of which have a large role to play in the Boston Tea Party, see Benjamin’s Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, an invaluable book to which this Truth v. Myth series is deeply indebted.

Tea came to the Americas legally, through the EIC, and illegally, through American smugglers. By the mid-1700s, the price was low enough to move tea from exotic luxury to daily drink, but it retained its mystique. Tea-drinking was the center of domestic rituals in households high and low, and owning all the accoutrements of tea-making and drinking was to have status—status that was recognized on both sides of the Atlantic. As Carp describes it,

“During the eighteenth century, tea became the drink of respectable British and colonial households everywhere. The wealthiest families adopted tea ceremonies first, giving tea immense cultural cachet. …tea was a regular family event. …The woman of the house oversaw the  making of tea and assigned a series of tasks and errands to other family members, bringing the family together under her direction. …Tea became a ritual of family solidarity, sustenance, and politeness. To master the tea ceremony was to announce your own virtue… The striving ‘middle class’ of tradesmen, professionals, and landowners couldn’t resist the chance to partake in this elite pastime. You didn’t have to have a hereditary title, or even be particularly wealthy, to sip respectably at the tea table. …tea had become a new necessity. Addictive, stimulating, lightweight, and easy to prepare, [tea] could conquer sleep and thereby make a person more productive: in this way tea was contributing to the growing empire’s economy.” [55-6]

We see, then, that tea was many things: it was classy; it was a shared experience; it was family togetherness; it was caffeine addiction; it was a way for people of all economic classes to show their respectability. Poor families drank tea to get them through the long work day and to show they, too, could appreciate the finer things. Middle-class families drank tea to show the rich that they were sophisticated, too. Wealthy families drank tea with expensive porcelain tea services from Europe or China itself (where the tea came from) and silver utensils to show that they were just as good as people in England, too. All this sophistication was important to Americans, who were always self-conscious about looking provincial in front of their cousins back in England. Americans wanted to show that they were just as good as English people, just as trendy, just as well-mannered.

Of course, there were naysayers. Pamphlets were published on the negative effect tea had on people’s morals, as they did whatever they had to do to pay for tea and the sugar that went with it, and basically sold their souls for fancy tea-sets. Doctors deplored spending money on something that had no nutritional value. Tea, like gin, was seen as a gateway drug to a life of laziness, vanity, vice, and immorality. Valuing any material thing so highly was bound to cause trouble.

On the political side, some Americans worried about contributing so much money to the East India Company. They knew about the Company’s track record in India, where the lives and economy of the native people were held in little regard. American suspicions about the EIC were confirmed in 1769, when a famine hit Bengal, India, which was controlled by the Company. Over 1 million Bengalis died of starvation, the EIC  refused to share its stockpiles of food, and actually raised taxes on the survivors to make up for lost revenue. “As Chatterji wrote, ‘People could die of starvation, but the collection of revenue didn’t stop.’ Warren Hastings, the new governor of Bengal in 1772, reported to London in chilling terms that revenue collection had been ‘violently kept up to its former standard.'” [Carp 11-12]

Such was the source of tea in America, and there were Americans who hesitated to put their own country in thrall to the EIC. (News of the famine and the EIC’s response to it would fan the flames of anti-tea rebellion during the 1773 protests against the Tea Act.) What would happen if America, too, became “enslaved” (as they put it at the time) to the Company? It was not as far-fetched a notion as it seemed. To pay off its mounting debts, which threatened the British government itself (because the government was heavily invested in the EIC and depended on its profits for a large part of its operating budget), the Company shipped more and more tea to the colonies. Europe and England had already had their markets saturated. Now tea rolled into America in ever-larger amounts, which brought the price down nicely for consumers, but also threatened American security because the option to purchase tea was seeming more and more like an obligation to do so. Ships that came into port carrying tea were legally required to unload that cargo—it was illegal to ship the tea back to England. It had to be sold. American commissioners, men who had signed contracts with the EIC to sell imported tea in America, were legally obligated to fulfill those contracts. If they failed to do so, the governor himself had to issue a clearance to send the tea back, but the governor would not do this without receiving clearance from the customhouse that said there was something wrong with the tea. If the tea was fine, there was no option but to unload it for the commissioners to sell. If the commissioners would not accept the tea, it was seized, along with the ship it came on—a ship usually owned by the commissioner himself. So men selling tea in America were in a bind: if they did not accept and sell the tea in America, they would lose their commission to sell tea in the future, lose their valuable ship, and lose the money they had spent to get the tea.

This smacked of coercion to many Americans. Did they really have no choice but to buy EIC tea? What would the Company do to them if they refused to buy the tea?

Granted, much, perhaps most tea for sale in America was illegally smuggled by traders unaffiliated with the EIC, men who had no commission from the British government to sell tea (legally, only the EIC was authorized to sell tea to the Americas). You didn’t have to buy Company tea. But as the Company fought for its life financially, a crackdown on smuggling began. Now Americans faced the prospect of being forced to turn in smugglers to the Company or being punished by the British government. They had to help the EIC maintain a monopoly on American tea sales, strengthening a company that had no respect for human life, as Americans saw it, and which would not hesitate to destroy America as it had destroyed Bengal if necessary. If the Company had a complete monopoly, what price might it begin to charge for tea, which was now seen as a necessity? What political power might it be given in America?

So we see why tea became the flashpoint for rebellion in America. When the 1767 Townshend Acts first put a tax on tea, it was seen as outrageous for a few reasons: a) tea was a necessity and raising the price through a tax would put it out of the reach of many; b) the Company was already making a good profit on tea; c) the new tea tax went to pay the customs officials who forced tea to be unloaded and sold in America.

Americans boycotted tea to protest the Townshend Acts. By now you realize what a huge move this was. Giving up tea was very difficult. It threatened the status of the rich and the energy of the poor. On the most basic level, the boycott led to caffeine-withdrawal headaches that confirmed peoples’ notion that tea was medicinal (since drinking tea again would soothe the headache). Given all this, it is telling that although smuggled tea was available, people did not drink it on principle. Violence escalated, and in 1768 Boston was occupied by British troops, whose presence led eventually to the 1770 Boston Massacre (more on violence in Boston in the next post).  The Townshend Acts were partially repealed, but the tax on tea remained because the EIC was sinking further into debt (in part because it had flooded every market for tea). It had 18 million pounds of unsold tea in its warehouses that it could not sell. And so the Tea Act of 1773 was introduced, on top of the existing tea tax, mandating that the surplus tea be shipped to America and sold at a steep discount. Americans who were trying to keep the tea boycott alive, who knew that many Americans were dying for a chance to return to tea-drinking, were furious. They knew that if the American market was flooded with extra-cheap tea Americans would not be able to resist it, the boycott would end, and the tea tax would be entrenched—the first, perhaps, of many harmful taxes that offered no services to the colonies but simply helped the British control them more tightly. America would be enslaved to the EIC after all.

Now it was paramount to overthrow this tea scheme. In the next post, we’ll see how protest began.

Next time: a tradition of violence

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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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