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Mike Duncan (00:00):
Hello, and welcome to Revolutions. Episode 20. The Boston Tea Party In the seven years since the end of the French and Indian War, relations between Britain and her colonies had gone through a few cycles of depressing antagonism, neither side really understanding what the other was up to or why.
But now that the fervor over the Townsend Acts was subsiding, both Britain and America looked forward to the return of productive and profitable normalcy. And for almost two years it looked like the chaotic hostility of the 1760s would be contained to the 1760s. Parliament made no further provocative moves, the radical colonial leaders went into political eclipse, and British goods started flowing back into the colonies in larger quantities than ever. But the peace and prosperity would not last.
The first clue that neither side was done antagonizing the other came in June 1772 when a custom ship called the Gatsby ran aground while chasing suspected smugglers off the coast of Rhode Island. A local mob quickly descended on the beached ship, took it over by force, and burned it. Parliament was of course outraged and formed a commission to investigate the affair, but this commission was stonewalled and blame never could be properly assessed.
But in forming the commission, Parliament revealed that it still had a tin ear when it came to colonial politics because had anyone in Rhode Island been found culpable, the commissioners were empowered to drag them back to Britain for trial, which to the colonists made a mockery of the whole right to be tried by a jury of your peers thing, you know, one of the bedrocks of English liberty. Then over the summer, tensions in neighboring Massachusetts started to rise again over the lingering issue of how to pay for the royal administration.
Though the Townsend duties had been mostly repealed, the right to pay the governor had not been returned to the Massachusetts assembly, and the remaining duty on tea now paid Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s salary. In mid-1772, the ministry started making noises that they wanted to extend this policy to include all the judges as well. Swallowing the governor’s salary had been tough, but the thought of the judiciary becoming a mere tool of the crown was too much to bear, and committees of correspondence began to reappear.
In January 1773, Governor Hutchinson then added fuel to the fire when he bluntly announced that the committees were way out of line, Parliament’s authority was supreme, always had been, and always would be, and then he said, no line can be drawn between the supreme authority of Parliament and the total independence of the colonies. His assumption here was that independence was so unthinkable that the answer must be Parliament is in charge, but unfortunately that did not turn out to be an assumption that everyone shared. But the real end to the uneasy calm that had prevailed in the colonies since 1770 came in May 1773 when Parliament passed the Tea Act.
The Tea Act has nothing to do with the duty on tea left over from the Townsend Acts. No, this is a whole new piece of tea-based obnoxiousness. The issue Parliament was trying to address is one I briefly mentioned last week. The East India Company was in a deplorable state of financial disrepair and needed a bailout.
Now put simply, the East India Company was a private corporation that held a legal monopoly on trade with India and China. It had been chartered back in 1600, was owned by a collection of rich traders and well-connected aristocrats, and was at this point in history so corrupt and mismanaged that it was about to implode. Now I’m going to oversimplify all of this so we don’t have to talk about the crushingly boring details of how tea auctions work in London, but the upshot of it all was that the Tea Act allowed the company to start importing its tea directly into the colonies. The point was to both find an outlet for the huge stockpiles of tea the company had accidentally built up and plug them into a stable new revenue stream.
Now the Tea Act looked like a pretty good deal to Parliament, one that they hoped would go over well in the colonies where retail customers would now be able to buy tea at cut-rate prices. The only pushback was supposed to come from the few colonial middlemen who made a living importing tea from London, and of course the smugglers who made a living sneaking in duty-free tea from the Netherlands, but who cares about them? As it turned out though, rage over the Tea Act was as usual far more widespread than anyone in Parliament anticipated. Things got off on the wrong foot right away when it was mistakenly rumored that the company tea would be exempt from Townsend’s tea duty, which had it been true would have been quite a poke in the eye to the colonists. But the real fear was that the company tea was just the beginning, and that if it all worked out that soon other British companies would be allowed to sell directly into the colonies too. This might temporarily be good for the consumer, but it would be devastating to the independent colonial economy, and in effect reduce them all to a bunch of manual laborers producing raw materials for the home country and nothing more.
Into this, Governor Hutchinson once again added fuel to the fire, though in his defense these letters were supposed to have been secret. Back in the late 1760s, Hutchinson and a few Conservative allies in Boston had written a series of letters to a sub-minister back in Britain. 1772, these letters were passed by some anonymous agent to Benjamin Franklin, who sent them along to a friend back home. They were supposed to remain under wraps, but after Franklin’s friend sat on them for six months, he agreed with Samuel Adams that it was too good of a hand not to play. Because when published, these letters confirm the most paranoid radical fantasies about a conspiracy to extinguish English liberty in the colonies, because Hutchinson explicitly recommends that the ministry suspend certain liberties in the colonies.
As the autumn of 1773 approached, opposition to the Tea Act spread up and down the colonies, though this time the merchants of Philadelphia, far from dragging their feet, led the way. They were led by the credible voice of John Dickinson, who remained, for now, on the leading edge of radical resistance. With seven tea-carrying ships bound for Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston already launched, the resurgent radical swore to stop the tea from being off-loaded.
This is probably a good time to point out that though there was a healthy public consensus about this, there were definitely men and women who wanted nothing to do with all of these non-importation schemes. Some because it hurt their bottom line, some because they were politically sympathetic to Parliament’s claim of authority, and some because they, no less than the radicals, just didn’t like being told what to do. So when it came to making sure these various non-importation and non-consumption agreements worked, enforcement mechanisms were required.
The most basic tool of enforcement was social and economic isolation. Names of merchants who defied the import bans were published in the papers, and boycotts of their businesses encouraged. The incident just before the Boston Massacre, for example, the one when the kid got killed, was started when enforcers hung an importer sign above a man’s house and a sympathetic neighbor tried to take it down. But if social and economic coercion weren’t enough, physical coercion was next up, up to and including the old tar and feathering routine, which was quite a bit more vicious a practice than you might think.
And to the more conservative merchants, the ones who will wind up loyalists when the war breaks out, the hypocrisy of all this was galling. I mean, how can you claim to be a defender of liberty when you won’t even let me conduct my business as I see fit?
But of course, there was a bigger picture to consider. And since we’re already wandering away from the story, this seems like a pretty good time to peel off and consider the psychological framework within which the colonists were operating to try to understand why the ministry’s policies—the Stamp Act and the Townsend Acts and now the Tea Act—were provoking so much resistance. Resistance that you might think is just a wee bit out of proportion to the relatively light tax increases they represented. So for this, I’ll be drawing from an absolute must-read if you’re into the Revolution. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn.
I can only give you a superficial sketch of his argument here, so if you’re interested, I would encourage you to pick it up, because as it turns out, the colonists were drawing from a very specific set of principles to help them interpret the ministry’s actions in the worst possible light.
After reviewing the contemporary political literature—that is, all the pamphlets that were flying off the presses—Bailyn identified five basic foundations for the American argument against Parliament. First, there was antiquity—mostly the example of Republican Rome and the fight against the tyranny of the Caesars. But Bailyn argues that while references to the ancient world are uniformly present, they are also uniformly superficial and act more as rhetorical window dressing than anything else.
Second, were the Enlightenment philosophers, most especially John Locke. But those references are similarly superficial, with Locke in particular appealed to as a universal authority, trotted out to lend credibility to arguments that he never actually made. Third, were appeals to English common law, which had more weight and force behind them and did solidly root the revolution in the British tradition. Fourth, was a dose of Puritan theology, which infused the movement with a providential sense of destiny that America truly had a special role to play in God’s grand design.
But the fifth foundation, the one that tied the rest of it together, turns out to be a collection of fringe politicians from the early 1700s who represented the quote country party that was opposed to the quote court party. These guys believed that history was little more than a running battle between power and liberty, and they deployed this theory, most especially against their great enemy Sir Robert Walpole, who as I mentioned is regarded as the first prime minister and who utterly dominated the British government from the 1720s to the 1740s.
The specific way Walpole consolidated powers through a patronage network that bound men politically and financially to the crown, which our fringe theorists saw as the utter debasement and corruption of English liberty and which our colonists kind of see happening in their backyard. But though these country party ideas never caught on at home, their tracks were widely printed in the colonies and wound up taking deep root in the American political psyche, which was from then on always on guard against power’s endless attempt to subvert liberty.
So all the recent moves by parliament, taxis levied without representation, the influx of new customs agents, the push to free colonial governors from the local assemblies, the standing armies out on the western frontier and in the streets of Boston, an attempt to set up a government backed trade monopoly. This did not look to the colonists like a government honestly trying to deal with the intricate problems of empire. It looked like a genuine conspiracy to secure the final triumph of power over liberty in the colonies and turn Americans into slaves.
Going back to our story, Massachusetts was actually lagging a bit behind on the issue of the Tea Tax because Samuel Adams was too busy trying to destroy Thomas Hutchinson to notice what was going on in the rest of the world. But that said, when it came down to it, Boston once again took center stage in the dramatic confrontations that accompanied the arrival of Company T in the colonies.
On November 28, 1773, a merchant ship called the Dartmouth arrived in Boston carrying, among other things, tea from the East India Company. The Dartmouth was supposed to offload its cargo, take on some whale oil, and then sail away. But the Sons of Liberty were not going to let the tea off the ship. Over the next two days, there were huge public meetings in Boston with upwards of 5,000 in attendance.
Under no circumstances was the Dartmouth to do anything but turn around and take the tea back to Britain. The ship was put under constant surveillance to make sure that happened. Now you’ve got a feel for the poor owner of the ship, an American by the way, because he had loaded the tea long before Boston decided they weren’t going to take it.
Anxious to not have his cargo, or god forbid his ship, destroyed, the owner requested permission from Hutchinson to leave. But Hutchinson refused the request, saying the Dartmouth hadn’t cleared customs yet. And of course the only way to clear customs is offload the cargo. So yeah, you gotta feel bad for this guy because the poor dude is just stuck. I mean he’s perfectly willing to do anything anybody wants not to be caught in the middle of all this. And both sides are telling him, no, we’ve decided you are the middle of this.
From the minute the Dartmouth docked, the clock was ticking because the law further stipulated that if a ship remained in port for 20 days without paying customs that it would be seized by the customs agents and, you guessed it, have their cargo offloaded. So everyone knew that when the 20 days wound up, something was going to happen. Then just to make things more interesting in the meantime, two additional ships carrying company tea arrived. When December the 16th, 1773 rolled around and the Dartmouth still hadn’t offloaded her cargo, another public meeting was convened.
During this meeting, Samuel Adams delivered his famous line about there being nothing more they could do to save their country, which was supposed to be the signal for pre-selected members of the Sons of Liberty to go dump the tea, but it appears that that story, while not exactly apocryphal, is a little too neat and tidy. Regardless, the assembled crowd was soon marching down to the docks where they cheered on the somewhere between 50 and 100 men, a handful of whom had donned Indian dress, who boarded all three tea-bearing ships and methodically dumped 90,000 pounds of tea into the harbor.
As usual, this was a disciplined operation. No other cargo was damaged, and in a civilized touch, when a padlock belonging to one of the captains was broken, he found a new one delivered to him a few days later. When word of the incident, now charmingly known as the Boston Tea Party, reached Britain in January, the ministry went into apoplectic convulsions, with Lord North announcing that this was no longer a fight about taxes, but, quote, whether we have or not any authority in that country.
They called Benjamin Franklin to appear before the Privy Council two days later to explain the actions of the men he officially represented. Franklin, as always, was prepared to do so, but his interview with the Privy Council turned out to be a rage-fueled ambush. Franklin, as I mentioned, was easily the most respected and influential American, and with the ministry preparing to lay heavy reprisals on Massachusetts, they thought it would be a good idea to demolish the credibility of Franklin so he would be neutralized politically if he tried to rally support for his countrymen.
For an hour, Franklin was berated in terms so severe that much of what was said was not even written down. Most of this berating was over his dishonorable conduct in the scandal over Hutchinson’s letters. Franklin, recognizing that he couldn’t win, remained silent and simply left when the ministers had blown all their gas.
Up until now, Franklin had been a proud and longstanding defender of the British Empire even if he disagreed with this or that policy. From here on out, though, he will join Hutchinson in the belief that there was no longer any middle ground, either Parliament was supreme or the colonies must be independent. And you can guess which one he now thought preferable. The heavy reprisals the ministry had planned were delivered between March and May 1774 in a set of four or five related bills that were called the Coercive Acts in Britain but which were quickly dubbed in America the Intolerable Acts.
The first was the Boston Port Bill which closed the city to all trade but for a few tightly controlled essentials. The blockade would start June 15th and continue until the East India Company was reimbursed for the dump T which was valued at about 10,000 pounds. The second was the Massachusetts Regulatory Act which more or less abolished self-government in Massachusetts making all offices governor appointed and severely limiting legislative assemblies. This was coupled with the Administration of Justice Act which removed from local jurisdiction any crimes committed by royal officials who would now be tried either in another colony or better yet back in Britain.
The last of the strictly punitive measures was the Quartering Act which gave far greater power to the army when it came to securing lodgings, a problem, as we saw, they ran into during the fight over the Townsend Acts. And last, we have a bill that was passed at the same time and often gets lumped in with the Intolerable Acts but was disconnected from the rest and this was the Quebec Act which extended the territory of the province of Quebec on a line running southwest effectively cutting off any claims the colonies had to land west of the proclamation line which was offensive both for obvious economic reasons and for more emotional religious reasons because Quebec was Catholic.
If anyone still felt like missing the point about what was going on in Massachusetts on May the 13th a new governor showed up to replace Hutchinson, General Thomas Gage who had served since 1763 as Commander in Chief of all British forces in North America. Massachusetts was now, for all intents and purposes, under military occupation.
News of the Intolerable Acts hit the rest of the colonies as a divisive bombshell with radicals demanding solidarity with their oppressed brothers and conservatives refusing to get dragged down by the lunatics up in Boston. But as the various colonies hashed out how best to respond to the crisis in Massachusetts they all started coming to the same conclusion that the colonies ought to get together and talk about it collectively. Radicals believed such an assembly would allow them to forge a powerful and united front to oppose Parliament’s tyranny while conservatives believed that by elevating the debate to a higher plane that cooler heads would prevail.
Over the summer of 1774 the colonies, each in their own way, selected delegates to meet in Philadelphia in September. The only colony not to send a delegation was Georgia who, reeling from an uprising of Creek Indians would have gladly accepted all the troops Boston was trying to get rid of. On September 5, 1774, 56 men representing 12 colonies met in Carpenters Hall in Philadelphia and convened the First Continental Congress.
As they began their session the Massachusetts delegation, which included both Sam and John Adams, made a concerted effort to hold back. They understood that it was kind of their fault everyone was in this mess and knew that if the other delegates thought they were being bullied or manipulated by the Boston radicals that Massachusetts might find itself cut loose. But luckily for them it quickly became clear that the radicals outnumbered the conservatives and the list of delegates is just a list of Revolutionary War leaders. The Adamses, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, John Dickinson, Thomas Mifflin, Silas Deane. These guys were ready to act.
As the Continental Congress convened though, up in Massachusetts a meeting of the various committees of correspondence would help define what action the Congress ultimately decided to take. Because the result of this meeting was the Suffolk Resolves, Suffolk being the county within which Boston was located. Written by Dr. Joseph Warren, who had taken control of the radicals with the Adamses in Philadelphia, the Suffolk Resolves unequivocally moved the colony towards war.
Beyond the obvious economic boycotts, citizens were encouraged to simply ignore the Coercive Acts, stop paying their taxes, and most importantly, to take control of the local militias and quote, “…do use their utmost diligence to acquaint themselves with the art of war as soon as possible, and do, for that purpose, appear under arms at least once every week.” The Resolves were passed on September 9th, and a draft was sent down to Philadelphia by a guy who next week is going to make an even more famous ride, Boston silversmith Paul Revere. The Suffolk Resolves were not just accepted by the Congress, they were endorsed and destroyed whatever hope the conservatives had of controlling the debate.
With the Resolves in hand, the delegates turned to what the colonies collectively ought to do about the Intolerable Acts. Richard Henry Lee moved that a national militia be formed, but this was going too far too fast, and they settled on merely alerting the various colonies to take steps to make sure that their local militias were trained. Less controversial was agreeing not to import or consume British goods. But now on sure footing, the Massachusetts delegation decided to push for a further step, one that would hurt the colonies, but would hopefully hurt Britain even more. Non-exportation.
Now this was no small thing, and even in this assembly of patriots it stirred heated debate. The Massachusetts delegation was talking about severing all trade with Britain, which everyone knew would be an economic disaster. The Virginia delegation, for example, would only agree to non-exportation if it did not take effect until August 1775. The wheels of the tobacco economy were already in motion, and trying to stop it before the next shipment, in August 1775, would simply be asking too much. After that they could make plans to deal with the repercussions, but before that, no, we would all be destroyed.
Then the South Carolina delegation spoke up and said, well, we’ll get on board with this, but we’ll need an exemption for rice and indigo. Now they took a beating for this and were accused of trying to sell their vote, but the men of South Carolina did have a point. The other colonies could find foreign ports to dump their stuff, but South Carolina rice and indigo was shipped exclusively to British ports. Shutting down exports to Britain meant basically shutting down South Carolina completely, something none of the other colonies faced. After a great deal of wrangling, the two sides wound up splitting the difference. Rice would be exempted, indigo would not.
Then, surprisingly, the delegates managed to avoid any further special deals, and by early October the plan was struck. Non-consumption would begin immediately, non-importation would begin December 1st to allow for orders already on the way, and non-exportation would begin September 10th, 1775, if, you know, nothing happened in the meantime. To enforce these boycotts, the Congress created what is known as the Continental Association, or more often simply, The Association. Local committees would be formed to police their neighbors and make sure that no one cheated.
And though they did not know it at the time, by creating the Association, Congress had actually just created the skeleton of the Revolutionary War effort. Because when the fighting breaks out come the spring of 1775, the committees that formed the Association seamlessly transitioned from their original purpose of enforcing a boycott to running all necessary wartime logistics at the local level. Fundraising, troop raising, requisitioning supplies, intelligence gathering, these committees soon became the backbone of the Revolution.
After formally signing the Association on October 20th, the First Continental Congress disbanded on October 26th and sent their delegates home to gear up for the boycotts, agreeing to reconvene for a Second Continental Congress on May 10th, 1775. As soon as the delegates arrived home, the various colonies got to work setting up local branches of the Association, and come December 1st, enforcing the non-importation part of the plan. In this, the Association was an unqualified success. Governor of Virginia, for example, complained that the citizens paid more heed to the directives of the Association than they did to the colonial government.
The response to all this back in Britain was harsh. Lord North declared that if the colonies wouldn’t trade with Britain then they sure as hell weren’t going to trade with anyone else, and he laid out a plan for a Continental blockade. Meanwhile, General Gage sent repeated warnings that the Intolerable Acts were doing exactly the opposite of what they were supposed to be doing. They were supposed to be isolating Massachusetts and scaring everyone else into submission. Instead, they were cementing colonial solidarity and intensifying resistance. He asked for the ministry to withdraw the Intolerable Acts and, if not, then please send 20,000 troops, because maybe then I’ll be able to get a handle on things.
All this did was convince the ministry that General Gage probably wasn’t the man for the job, and they dispatched three generals to act as military advisors, William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne. Next week, everything will break down once and for all. General Gage’s attempt to lock up all the guns and powder in Massachusetts will lead to armed confrontations with local militias in Lexington and Concord where someone, somewhere, fired the shot heard round the world.
- Bernard Bailyn
- Thomas Hutchinson (governor)
- Benjamin Franklin
- Samuel Adams
- John Dickinson
- John Locke
- Robert Walpole
- Thomas Gage
- John Adams
- Patrick Henry
- Richard Henry Lee
- George Washington
- Thomas Mifflin
- Joseph Warren
- Paul Revere
- John Burgoyne
- Silas Deane
- Henry Clinton (British Army officer, born 1730)
- William Howe, 5th Viscount Howe
- The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition by Bernard Bailyn: https://amzn.to/3hrsxjU
The Boston Tea Party led Parliament to pass the Intolerable Acts in 1774. The colonists were really super not amused.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
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