Thursday, December 16, 2010

on this day in 1773...

...the protest and event that became known as The Boston Tea Party occurred. Perhaps many may think the event is now insignificant, and you might be surprised by how many people know very little about it and the story behind it, if they recognize it at all. A quick overview is in order.

In the 17th century, the European market for Tea had increased greatly and in 1698 English Parliament gave a commercial Tea importer, the East India Company, a monopoly on the importation of tea. Commerce to the Colonies was also popular, but had to legally be done through middlemen. British law required that colonists buy their tea only from the Mother country. Wholesale buyers in London purchased the tea from East India Company, and then sold it to British merchants and companies who sold to merchants in the colonies.

However several circumstances caused a shift and financial problems. Dutch tea merchants could afford to undercut prices, because of no such restrictions in their country. Therefore the smuggling of Dutch tea to the colonies became a growing venture. Also the East India Company was paying a large scale import duty to the crown on its tea, which was further taxed all along the process down to selling it to consumers. East India Company was losing a lot of money. Efforts to eliminate the duty on the East India Company and some of the other "tea taxes" along the way in England ratcheted up. Then, the perfect storm occurred. The financial difficulties due to the recent Seven Years War, as well as monies owed in the colonies, caused Parliament to take harder measures to shore up the financial situation. Parliament, for the first time, had begun to levy direct taxes on the colonies to raise and stabilize revenue. In the effort to shore up the East India Company and the tea trade, Parliament refunded the Import Duty to the East India Company and repealed the taxes on Teas in England. In order to help make up for this lost revenue, a tax on Tea in the colonies was included in a series of Acts, known as the Townsend Acts, and directly levied against the colonies in 1767.

The Acts lead to many protests and boycotts in the colonies, and colonial officials sending agents to officially protest in front of Parliament (one such agent was Benjamin Franklin), arguing that the lack of direct representation of the colonies in Parliament made the "taxes enacted without consent of those taxed", a violation of British constitutional law (all the way back to the Magna Carta). Eventually the Townsend Acts were all repealed, except for the tax on Tea. This was a principle of Parliament to not completely concede the taxation argument. The boycotts and protests subsided for the most part in the colonies.

Several years later, the refund and tax relief enacted by Parliament in 1767 expired and the tax and import burden renewed. The price of tea began to skyrocket to make up for this renewed expense, and consequently sales began to sink. Complete elimination of the tax by Parliament was sought by East India representatives. Eventually Parliament did so and further eliminated the middlemen in an effort to change the process and make it more financially sound. The price of tea was then lowered in the colonies as well, because Parliament allowed the bypassing of London auction buyers, allowing instead the East India Co. to deal directly with colonial agents (called consignees) who then sold to merchants for a commission. The big mistake Lord North and Parliament made was continuing to allow and try and enforce the Townsend Duty on the tea (the lone holdover from the otherwise repealed Townsend Acts). Despite the streamlining and trimming of the overall tax burden in England on the Tea market, the Tax was still imposed as this money went mostly to paying government officials and agents, including Royal officals in the colonies. The East India Co and several members of Parliament argued for a final repeal of the Tea Tax and argued it was unnecessarily provocative.

The East India Co. and the government agents tried to conceal the tax within the price or through charges to merchants, but they were unsuccessful. The four consignees were based in Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Charleston. None of the four ports ever accepted shipment. The Consignees were forced or compelled to resign in Philly, NY and eventually in Charleston, where the tea either was sent back or seized by customs officals. Acceptance of the Tea shipments would necessarily provided legal precedence and possible legal acceptance of the tax itself. By outright forbidding the agents of the East India Company and the crown from accepting shipment- the colonies refused the authority of the Parliament from further encroachment into the commerce of the colonies.

In Boston, the Sons of Liberty tried to do the same and organized a protest. The situation was more fluid there, than in the other 3 ports. Governor Hutchinson's two sons were the consignees and he was determined to get the tea in the harbor, unloaded and the duty paid. British law required the ships to unload and pay the duties within 20 days or the cargo could be confiscated by customs (which is what happened in Charleston). While the Sons of Liberty and local officials prevented the tea from being unloaded, the Royal Governor prevented the three ships from leaving the harbor without paying the duty. It was rather a stalemate.The last night of the deadline Samuel Adams, the Sons of Liberty and supporters held a meeting where they learned that the Gov issued one final refusal for the ships to leave. The group left the meeting, and later that evening a group of people, some vaguely disguised as Indians, came to the wharf and dumped all of the shipment into the water. In his book, "The Shoemaker and the Tea Party", author Alfred Young details the first hand account of George Hewes, a Boston shoemaker, which was recorded some 60 years after the event:

"It was now evening, and I immediately dressed myself in the costume of an Indian, equipped with a small hatchet, which I and my associates denominated the tomahawk, with which, and a club, after having painted my face and hands with coal dust in the shop of a blacksmith, I repaired to Griffin's wharf, where the ships lay that contained the tea. When I first appeared in the street after being thus disguised, I fell in with many who were dressed, equipped and painted as I was, and who fell in with me and marched in order to the place of our destination. When we arrived at the wharf, there were three of our number who assumed an authority to direct our operations, to which we readily submitted. They divided us into three parties, for the purpose of boarding the three ships which contained the tea at the same time. The name of him who commanded the division to which I was assigned was Leonard Pitt. The names of the other commanders I never knew.
We were immediately ordered by the respective commanders to board all the ships at the same time, which we promptly obeyed. The commander of the division to which I belonged, as soon as we were on board the ship appointed me boatswain, and ordered me to go to the captain and demand of him the keys to the hatches and a dozen candles. I made the demand accordingly, and the captain promptly replied, and delivered the articles; but requested me at the same time to do no damage to the ship or rigging. We then were ordered by our commander to open the hatches and take out all the chests of tea and throw them overboard, and we immediately proceeded to execute his orders, first cutting and splitting the chests with our tomahawks, so as thoroughly to expose them to the effects of the water.
In about three hours from the time we went on board, we had thus broken and thrown overboard every tea chest to be found in the ship, while those in the other ships were disposing of the tea in the same way, at the same time. We were surrounded by British armed ships, but no attempt was made to resist us.

We then quietly retired to our several places of residence, without having any conversation with each other, or taking any measures to discover who were our associates; nor do I recollect of our having had the knowledge of the name of a single individual concerned in that affair, except that of Leonard Pitt, the commander of my division, whom I have mentioned. There appeared to be an understanding that each individual should volunteer his services, keep his own secret, and risk the consequence for himself. No disorder took place during that transaction, and it was observed at that time that the stillest night ensued that Boston had enjoyed for many months.
During the time we were throwing the tea overboard, there were several attempts made by some of the citizens of Boston and its vicinity to carry off small quantities of it for their family use. To effect that object, they would watch their opportunity to snatch up a handful from the deck, where it became plentifully scattered, and put it into their pockets.
One Captain O'Connor, whom I well knew, came on board for that purpose, and when he supposed he was not noticed, filled his pockets, and also the lining of his coat. But I had detected him and gave information to the captain of what he was doing. We were ordered to take him into custody, and just as he was stepping from the vessel, I seized him by the skirt of his coat, and in attempting to pull him back, I tore it off; but, springing forward, by a rapid effort he made his escape. He had, however, to run a gauntlet through the crowd upon the wharf nine each one, as he passed, giving him a kick or a stroke.
Another attempt was made to save a little tea from the ruins of the cargo by a tall, aged man who wore a large cocked hat and white wig, which was fashionable at that time. He had sleightly slipped a little into his pocket, but being detected, they seized him and, taking his hat and wig from his head, threw them, together with the tea, of which they had emptied his pockets, into the water. In consideration of his advanced age, he was permitted to escape, with now and then a slight kick.
The next morning, after we had cleared the ships of the tea, it was discovered that very considerable quantities of it were floating upon the surface of the water; and to prevent the possibility of any of its being saved for use, a number of small boats were manned by sailors and citizens, who rowed them into those parts of the harbor wherever the tea was visible, and by beating it with oars and paddles so thoroughly drenched it as to render its entire destruction inevitable."

George Hewes as quoted in Alfred Young, "The Shoemaker and the Tea Party")

Reaction in government and commercial circles back in London was fierce. Repayment for the lost shipment was demanded and members of Parliament began to urge punishment. The Coercive Acts were thusly born and Boston Harbor was closed for a time. Aside from further uniting the Colonies together, the Coercive Acts was one of the reasons for the convening of the First Continental Congress; to official and unitedly petition the King to redress the Acts and other grievous acts by Parliament. The protest, which only later came to be known by its now popular nickname, was one of the incendiary events on the road to Revolution.

The Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum in (where else?) Boston has a very nice website with good information, although they are closed for renovation until Summer of 2011. Maybe by then, the Loophole family will be able to take a long desired trip to visit many of the history and museum spots in New England.

Oh, I know it's a penny here and a penny there, but look at me. I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.

A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue then will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.

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