The Tea Act and the Boston Tea Party

The Tea Act

In 1773, a relative calm existed between the British government and her colonial subjects. British soldiers remained in America after the tumultuous years of the Stamp Act, and the Boston Massacre, and the Townshend duties had been repealed, except for the tax on tea. A new act of Parliament, designed to help a struggling trading company, would fuel the next growing conflict between the American colonies and the British government.

The East India Company, once one of England’s oldest and most successful trading companies, faced economic collapse in the years following the Seven Years War. The high annual payment the company was required to pay the British government was a factor in the company’s financial problems. The company enjoyed many friends in the government, and responding to pleas for governmental assistance, the British Parliament passed the Tea Act in May 1773 to help the company. This act eliminated the customs duty on the company’s tea and permitted its direct export to America. Though the company’s tea was still subject to the Townshend tax, dropping the customs duty would allow the East India Company to sell its tea to Americans for less than smuggled Dutch tea.

Though Parliament did not pass the Tea Act as a revenue measure, patriot leaders saw the act as a cunning way to get the Americans to pay the hated Townshend duty on tea by undercutting the price of smuggled Dutch tea. Many colonial leaders feared that the colonists would buy the company’s tea if it made it to shore and submit to the payment of the tea tax. This would undercut their claim that only colonial legislatures could tax the colonies. Ships carrying the company’s tea arrived in Philadelphia and New York but chose to return to England without unloading rather than face angry mobs. In Massachusetts, however, the Royal Governor refused to allow the ships carrying the company’s tea to leave the harbor without first paying the duty on the tea.

The Boston Tea Party

Lithograph of men throwing tea from crates off of a ship.

W.D. Cooper. “Americans throwing the cargoes of the Teaships into the river, at Boston,” History of North Americas, London, 1789. London: E. Newberry, 1789. Engraving. Plate opposite p. 58. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

On the night of December 16, 1773, patriots disguised as Mohawk Indians boarded ships in the Boston harbor and destroyed 342 chests of East India Company tea. This was a large loss for the East India Company, worth well over $1,000,000 today. The men’s disguises were not meant to be convincing. They were used to hide the men’s identities, but in the small town of Boston where a light disguise couldn’t truly mask a person’s identity, they would have communicated to onlookers to keep the men’s identities to themselves. The choice of disguise as Mohawk Indians also symbolized that the men were American, not Englishmen, and played on the idea that America’s indigenous people lived as far from monarchy as possible.

The Boston Tea Party inspired other similar actions, notably in Edenton, North Carolina and Yorktown, Virginia. News of the destruction of the tea caused outrage in England. Parliament responded by closing the port of Boston in June of 1774 along with issuing the Coercive Acts. With these punitive acts, the colonies had one more reason to resent Parliament and moved a step closer to declaring their independence.

Further Reading:
Student Inquiry:
  1. 1. Why did Parliament pass the Tea Act? What could they have done instead?
    Parliament passed the Tea Act in order to help save the East India Tea Company from going bankrupt. Answers to the second question will vary. One option is that Parliament could have done the same thing but removed the tax on the tea so that colonists would buy it.
  2. 2. Do you think the colonists’ reaction to the Tea Act was justified? Why or why not?
    Answers will vary, the goal is for students to use critical thinking and historical empathy.