The Tea Tax of 1770

On the evening when the Boston massacre occurred in 1770, Lord North asked leave of the British House of Commons to bring in a bill for repealing the duties on certain articles mentioned in Hillsborough's circular, but retaining a duty of three per cent on tea. This was a small tax--a very small burden--a mere "pepper-corn rent," avowedly to save the national honor. The proposition found very little favor from either party. The friends of the Americans demanded a repeal of the whole revenue act; the friends of the crown regarded a partial repeal as utterly useless, for they began to comprehend the deep-seated principle on which the Americans had planted themselves. Lord North, in his heart, wished to have a full repeal, and thereby insure a full reconciliation; but the stubborn king would not relinquish an iota of his prerogative on compulsion, and the duty on tea was retained by the votes of a small majority in Parliament. The bill received the royal assent on the 12th of April. The monarch had already received intelligence of the massacre. When it was revealed to Parliament, it created a very great sensation. Had that body received the news sooner, the duty on tea would not have been retained.

When intelligence of this act reached America, the colonists saw that the contest was not quite over. In the three per cent duty on tea lay the kernel of future oppressions--materials for chains of slavery. But the people, late in 1770, began to relax their loyalty to the nonimportation leagues. The merchants of New York proposed to import everything but tea. "Send us your Liberty-Pole, as you can have no further use for it," wrote the Philadelphians. The letter of the New York merchants was burnt by the students at Princeton, with james Madison at their head. In Boston it was torn in pieces, and in other colonies it was read with indignation. But Philadelphia and Boston merchants soon acquiesced; and before the close of 1770, the colonists were importing everything from Great Britain excepting tea. The associations had exerted salutary influence on society in America. Many extravagant customs had been abolished; personal expenses had been curtailed, and some manufactures had been encouraged. Home-made articles were fashionable. The graduating class at Cambridge took their degrees in home-spun clothes in 1770.

The spinning-wheel, which had been introduced into the colonies by the Scotch-Irish early in the last century, played an important part in the politics of the time. It had been introduced into England from India in the reign of Henry the Eighth, and it was such an improvement upon the ancient distaff in the process of spinning, that, according to a legend that prevailed in Great Britain and Ireland, it was a special gift from heaven. This gift the patriotic women of America used most effectually in helping their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons in successful resistance to oppression. How much the hearts, heads and busy fingers of the women of the Revolution contributed to the achievement of the great result may never be known. The service was very great.

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