“a pernicious article of commerce”

December 16th is the 240th anniversary of the famed Boston Tea Party in which Massachusetts patriots, disguised as Indians, boarded three ships and threw their cargo—341 tea chests—into the harbor. The purveyor of the tea was the financially troubled East India Company.

In an attempt to save the company, in which many MPs had stock, Parliament granted it a monopoly, allowing it to sell tea directly to consignees in North America, instead of at auction in London to merchants there who sold it at higher prices in England and abroad. The company expected to benefit in two ways: it could clear its warehouses of old, overstocked Chinese tea (it was Chinese and not Indian) and at the same time, by eliminating the middlemen, increase its revenue.

The plan did not work. Parliament insisted on retaining the tax on tea—which had been part of the Townshend Acts (1767), and was reaffirmed by the Tea Act (1773)—and was determined to collect it. Although the tax had provoked a boycott in the colonies, Parliament expected that, lured by a lower price, paying the tax (only a three penny duty) would be less objectionable. They were wrong. Even though the colonists could buy tea at a lower price than they had been paying before (for smuggled Dutch tea) they were not swayed; they objected to paying the tax because, they said, they were not represented in Parliament.

Mercy Otis Warren, in her History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, described what happened. She was not an eyewitness of what came to be known as the Boston Tea Party, but she was very much aware of what was going on.

[Tea] was an article used by all ranks in America, a luxury of such universal consumption, that administration was led to believe, that a monopoly of the sales of tea, might be managed, as to become a productive source of revenue. . . .

The people throughout the continent, apprized of the design, and considering at that time, all teas a pernicious article of commerce, summoned meetings in all the capital towns, and unanimously resolved to resist . . . by every legal opposition, before they proceeded to any extremities. . . .

As by force of habit, this drug had become almost a necessary article of diet, the demand for teas in America was astonishingly great, and the agents in Boston, sure of finding purchasers, if once the weed was deposited in their stores, haughtily declined a resignation of office. . . . .

The storage or detention of a few cargoes of teas is not an object in itself to justify a detail of several pages, but as the subsequent severities towards the Massachusetts [the so-called Intolerable/Coercive Acts] were grounded on what the ministry termed their refractory behaviour on this occasion; and as those measures were followed by consequences of the highest magnitude both to Great Britain and the colonies, a particular narration of the transactions of the town of Boston is indispensable. There the sword of civil discord was first drawn, which was not re-sheathed until the emancipation of the thirteen colonies from the yoke of foreign domination. . . .
Within an hour [after a meeting of townspeople which authorities had ordered to be dispersed] . . . there appeared a great number of persons, clad like the aborigines of the wilderness, with tomahawks in their hands, and clubs on their shoulders, who without the least molestation marched through the streets with silent solemnity, and amidst innumerable spectators, proceeded to the wharves, boarded the ships, demanded the keys, and without much deliberation knocked open the chests, and emptied several thousand weight of the finest [it was really old and of poor quality] teas into the ocean. No opposition was made, though surrounded by king’s ships, all was silence and dismay.

This done, the procession returned through the town in the same order and solemnity as observed in the outset of their attempt. No other disorder took place, and it was observed the stillest night ensued that Boston had enjoyed for many months.

Mercy Otis Warren’s History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, from a facsimile copy of the first edition (Volume 1) of the work, which was published in Boston by Manning and Loring in 1805, edited and annotated by Lester H. Cohen, (Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund, 1994), pages 57- 61.

posted December 16th, 2013 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Boston, Resistance to British, Warren, Mercy Otis


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