What caused the Boston Tea Party?

At the beginning of 1773, the East India Company found itself greatly embarrassed by the American nonimportation agreements concerning tea. That Company had seventeen million pounds of tea in store unsold. They could not pay dividends nor debts. Bankruptcies were the consequence, and these produced so great a shock to credit that a panic prevailed. The Company implored the ministry to take off the duty on tea. The ministry refused, for the royal prerogative forbade it. Leave was granted to the Company to send tea to America on their own account, without paying an export duty, and so enable the colonists to buy it cheaper from England than from any other market. The king and Lord North, losing sight of the principle involved, foolishly thought this measure would quiet the Americans, "for," North said, "men will always go to the cheapest markets." So another opportunity for reconciliation was lost. In May, Parliament passed an act in accordance with the king's desires, for so favoring the East India Company--a vast monopoly sitting heavily on the commercial enterprise of England--while respectful petitions and remonstrances from his loyal subjects in America, touching the highest interests of the nation, were treated with scorn. The king, in answer to such papers, announced that he considered his "authority to make laws in Parliament of sufficient force and validity to bind his subjects in America in all cases whatsoever, as essential to the dignity of the crown, and a right appertaining to the state, which it was his duty to preserve entire and inviolate;" and he expressed his displeasure because, in their petitions and remonstrances, that right was brought into question.

The East India Company, hoping, yet doubting, accepted the proposed arrangement. In August they received a proper license, and filled ships with cargoes of tea for American ports. Agents were appointed at all the sea-ports to receive the tea, and relief for the embarrassed company seemed to be nigh. They were warned by Franklin and other Americans that they would suffer loss by the operation, for their countrymen would not accept the new arrangement. But Lord North quieted the fears of the Company by saying: "It is no purpose making objections, for the king will have it so. He means to try the question with the Americans."

The colonists accepted the issue. They met the commercial question with one of deeper significance than that of the dearness or cheapness of a commodity. Is there a duty for revenue, imposed on tea? was the true question. It was answered in the affirmative, and it was resolved that tea, whatever its price, should not be landed in America until that duty was taken off. The committees of correspondence soon produced unity of sentiment on that point throughout the colonies. Public meetings were held. Mutual support was pledged; the agents or consignees were requested to resign, and when the tea-ships arrived, they were not allowed in some places to discharge their cargoes. The spirit of the stamp-act days was aroused.

The earliest public meeting to consider the reception that should be given to the tea-ships on their arrival, was held in the city of New York, on the 15th of October, 1773. Intimations had reached the city on the 11th, that a tea-ship had been ordered to that port; and at the meeting held at the coffee-house, in Wall street, grateful thanks were voted to the patriotic American merchants and ship-masters in London who had refused to receive tea as freight from the East India Company. On the following day (October 16) a large meeting was held in the State-house yard, in Philadelphia, for the same purpose. When word reached the city that a tea-ship had been ordered to that port, the newspapers denounced the whole scheme as a ministerial trick to ensnare and enslave the Americans. The people were much excited, and the meeting in the State-house yard was a "monster" gathering for that day. Eight spirited resolutions were adopted, the most vital of which was one that declared "That the resolution lately entered into by the East India Company, to send out their tea to America subject to the payment of duties on its being landed here, is an open attempt to enforce the ministerial plan, and a violent attack upon the liberties of America." They also resolved that it was the duty of every American to oppose the attempt to force the tea and taxes upon them. The consignees of the proscribed herb, in Philadelphia, were, by another resolution, requested, "from a regard to their character and the good order of the city and province, immediately to resign." Already a self-constituted "committee for tarring and feathering" had issued a manifest to the pilots on the Delaware, telling them to do their duty in case they should meet the tea ship Polly, Captain Ayres. They were to warn him not to go to Philadelphia, and to promise him, in case he persisted in doing so, that he would have "a halter around his neck, ten gallons of liquid tar scattered over his pate, with the feathers of a dozen wild geese laid over that to enliven his appearance." The same committee threatened the consignees; and when, on Christmas day, the news reached Philadelphia that the long-expected Polly was "below," several gentlemen proceeded to meet her. She was intercepted a few miles below the city. When her captain was told about public sentiment in Philadelphia, he left his ship and accompanied the gentlemen to the city. The next day an immense public meeting was held at the State-house, to "consider what was best to be done in that alarming crisis." It was resolved that the tea should not be landed, nor the tea-ship be allowed to enter the port, or be registered at the Custom-house. It was also resolved that the tea should be sent back, and that the vessel should make her way out of the river and bay as soon as possible.

News that a similar spirit had been manifested in Charleston, New York and Boston, drew hearty thanks from the meeting in Philadelphia. The Captain (Ayres) of the Polly pledged himself to conform to the wishes of the people, and so the latter triumphed. A contemporary writer said: "The foundations of American liberty are more deeply laid than ever."

When the tea-ship Nancy, Captain Lockyier, arrived at Sandy Hook, below New York, her master wisely heeded the advice of the pilot, and went to the city without his vessel. Already a notice had appeared in Holt's journal of that city, for the "Mohawks" to be in readiness when a tea-ship should arrive; and the captain found public sentiment so strong against receiving the tea, that he resolved to return to England with his cargo. While he was in the city, a circumstance occurred which justified him in making his decision. A merchant vessel arrived with eighteen chests of tea hidden away in her cargo. The wide-awake Sons of Liberty, suspecting smuggling, searched the vessel, and on finding the tea, cast the whole of it into the waters of the harbor. The captain was advised to leave New York as quickly as possible. As he and Lockyier put off in a boat for their respective vessels, at Whitehall (foot of Broad street), a multitude who had gathered there shouted a farewell; and while cannon-peals from the Fields shook the city, the people hoisted a British flag on the Liberty-Pole in token of triumph.

At Boston, yet the focus of resistance to British oppression, the greatest demonstrations concerning the tea-ships occurred. When the people heard of the sailing of these ships, they resolved to resist the landing of their cargoes at all hazards. The subject was discussed at the clubs and coffee-houses, with great warmth. The consignees were two of Governor Hutchinson's sons and his nephew, Richard Clarke, the father-in-law of John Singleton Copley, the artist. Their near relationship to the detested governor made them more obnoxious in the eyes of the Sons of Liberty. They were invited to appear before a meeting of citizens to be held under Liberty-Tree, on the 3d of November, where about five hundred citizens assembled, some of them leaders of popular opinion. A flag floated over the consecrated tree. The consignees did not appear, and a committee was appointed to wait upon them. They repelled the committee with discourtesy, and refused to agree, as was demanded of them, to return the tea to London in the same ships in which it should arrive. When the committee reported to the meeting, there was a cry--"Out with our enemies! Out with them!" The excited people were persuaded to disperse, and two days afterward a regular town-meeting was held. The next day another committee called upon the consignees with a request that they should resign. Their answer was: "It is out of our power to comply with the request of the town." On receiving this reply, the meeting broke up without the utterance of a single word; and that night a crowd gathered in front of Clarke's house, when a pistol-ball was fired among them from a window of the dwelling. Nobody was hurt, and the affair ended in the smashing of Clarke's windows.

The silence of the town-meeting, on its dissolution, was ominous. The consignees felt it to be so. It plainly indicated that talking was over, and henceforth there would be action. They saw that they were now to be dealt with by the able committee of correspondence and the populace, and they were alarmed. The governor called a meeting of his council to consult about measures for preserving the public peace. The consignees, thoroughly frightened, petitioned leave to resign their appointments into the hands of the governor and council, but their prayer was refused. Believing themselves to be in personal peril, they fled from the city and took refuge in Castle William.

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