A Difference over Tea
In his old age, John Adams wrote, “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.” The events of the 1760s had done much to test the ties between the colonies and their mother country, culminating in the bloodshed of the Boston Massacre. In these years the Americans had developed sophisticated arguments in defense of their representative institutions. They had developed effective tactics to thwart the will of Parliament. They had learned the value of working together, both within and across colonial boundaries. As the events of the 1770s would show, they had grown very sensitive to and suspicious of any initiative from London. They were growing weary of the everyday, ongoing friction with British officialdom. Almost without noticing it, Americans had grown more receptive to the idea of independence. Unable to see this, intent on imposing its will on the fractious colonists, the British government would drive them to rebellion.Lord North Takes the Helm
Lord North became prime minister in 1770 and would remain in office until 1782. The creation of his ministry ended a period of instability in the British government. Enjoying the support of the King and a stable coalition in Parliament, North could have launched a sustained and creative policy of reconciling the colonies. But Lord North was not the man to do this. A lax administrator and indecisive leader, he was better at keeping office than using it. As Edmund Burke, a great parliamentary critic of the ministry's American policy put it, under North the government would continue the practice of “blundering into a policy one day and backing out of it the next.”
North began on a positive note. He convinced Parliament to repeal most of the Townshend duties. He believed that taxing British exports was bad economic policy. The conflict with the Americans was proving costly, and he wanted to put an end to the nonimportation movement in the colonies. However, like previous British governments, he was unwilling to concede Parliament's authority to tax the Americans. With the active encouragement of the King, he kept in place a three-pence-per-pound tax on tea. At the time, this mattered little. Most of the tea that Americans drank was smuggled in to avoid paying the duty. In the short run, North's policy had the desired effect. Nonimportation was abandoned and for a few years business boomed.
But tensions over British policy remained. In June 1772, Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts announced that his salary would be paid by the Crown. This freed him from any control by the colonial legislature, a situation the colonists had feared for a long time. Samuel Adams created committees of correspondence in Massachusetts to discuss strategies to protect American rights. Early in 1773 Virginia's House of Burgesses created a similar committee, which included Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Richard Henry Lee, to communicate with other colonies. Soon most of the colonies had committees of correspondence in touch with each other.
In the summer of 1772, the British customs ship Gaspee ran aground near Providence, Rhode Island, while pursuing a smuggler. Eight boatloads of men attacked and burned the helpless ship. The British demanded to know the identities of the culprits and declared they would be tried in England. Though the men involved were widely known in Providence, no informer turned them in.
Lord North's incomprehension of American attitudes led to a major crisis over tea. The powerful East India Company held a monopoly on tea imports to Britain. It had to pay a duty of a shilling a pound on this tea. Early in 1773, the East India Company faced bankruptcy. To help save the company, Lord North gave it a monopoly in America. Even with the three-pence duty on tea sold in America, the East India Company could undersell the smugglers who had dominated the colonial market. Lord North thought this scheme would benefit all concerned: the East India Company would be saved; the Americans would get cheap, legal tea; and the Crown would benefit from the increased revenue brought in by the tea tax.
Most Americans saw things differently. The Tea Act seemed a sinister attempt to seduce the colonists into surrendering the principle of “no taxation without representation” through the attractions of cheap tea. Better to drink the more expensive smuggled tea on which no duty had been paid. The merchants who smuggled tea encouraged this attitude. Many Americans were also troubled by the East India Company's monopoly. If this privilege was sustained, what other monopolies might follow? The Sons of Liberty began a campaign of intimidation against agents for the incoming tea. When East India Company ships reached New York and Philadelphia, popular antagonism forced their captains to return the tea to England. In Charleston the tea was impounded in warehouses; it stayed there until 1776, when it was sold to support the new revolutionary government. At Annapolis, colonists burned a ship loaded with East India Company tea.
The East India Company dominated British trade with India for centuries. It always had a close relationship with the British government. In 1773, when it had 17 million pounds of excess tea on hand in Britain, it was easy to turn to Lord North for relief.
Three ships full of tea arrived at Boston. Mass meetings in Boston passed resolutions insisting that the tea ships leave with their cargo, but Governor Hutchinson was determined that the tea would be landed and sold. He refused to let the ships leave with the tea. He knew his position would anger the colonists, and he recognized the issues at stake, declaring, “I know of no line that can be drawn between the supreme authority of parliament and the total independence of the colonies.” Once Hutchinson's attitude was clear, Samuel Adams took action. On the evening of December 16, a band of men disguised as Mohawk Indians boarded the ships and dumped 342 cases of tea worth £90,000 into Boston Harbor.