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Summary Article: Tea Act of 1773
from The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America

After the French-Indian War, the British Crown enacted the Proclamation of 1763. This proclamation created a line intended to protect the colonists from Native American attacks and ease the Crown's role of protecting the colonists by prohibiting anyone from crossing over it. It extended from Canada to Georgia, along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. This act angered the colonists because they felt the Crown no longer trusted them, and by 1773 hostilities intensified. In conjunction with the Proclamation Line, the Crown also instituted the Grenville Taxation Program, which aimed to recover the losses the Crown had incurred while defending the colonists and winning the French-Indian War. Three basic taxes were the Revenue Act (dubbed the Sugar Act as it placed a tax on molasses), the Currency Act (forbidding the issuance of paper money on the colonies), and the Stamp Act (taxing all paper goods).

Almost instantly, the colonists began protesting these new taxes and boycotting British goods. During the next decade, the Crown continually fought the colonists, and one of the most infamous incidents was the Boston Massacre of 1765. With each new tax, the colonists created a new plan for boycott and protest, and the avoidance of tea and coffee hit the Crown particularly hard. The Crown reacted by placing a tax on tea. The Tea Act of 1773 was meant to support the East India Tea Company. The company was nearly bankrupt, as it was a key supplier to the colonies and colonial boycotts prevented sales. The Tea Act removed the tax on tea, but it allowed tea to be sold in the colonies only via its own agents. The act functioned as a default tax. The colonists had been relying on Dutch or homemade teas since the beginning of the Grenville Taxation Program.

In November 1773, the first of three ships arrived at Boston Harbor carrying tea for the East India Tea Company. A standoff immediately ensued, with the Dartmouth standing at the center of the controversy. Samuel Adams quickly gathered a crowd—as he had been a key leader for colonial protests—and the militant group the Sons of Liberty joined the masses. Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson insisted that the tea would be delivered, and he refused to settle for anything else. On December 16, an estimated 8,000 gathered at Boston's Old South Meeting House. The owner of the Dartmouth and its captain feared the crowds, and they agreed to return the tea to England. Hutchinson again refused, ordering the blocking of Boston Harbor so that no tea-bearing vessel could leave until all goods had been delivered.

The newly arrived Beaver and Eleanor waited with the Dartmouth. Members of the Sons of Liberty, thinly veiled as Native Americans, headed that night to the harbor to dispose of the tea. The tea was brought up to the hold, dumped overboard, and smashed so that it was ruined. By daybreak, nearly 90,000 pounds of tea was dumped into the harbor, costing the Crown £10,000 or $1.87 million in 2007 currency. Nothing else was damaged or stolen. A padlock was broken in the surge for the tea, and it was anonymously replaced the next day.

A fourth East India Tea Company ship ran ashore in Provincetown, Massachusetts. All 58 tea chests were salvaged and smuggled into Boston via a fishing schooner, but the effects of the Boston Tea Party were still felt. Parliament responded with the Coercive Acts, which closed Boston Harbor, removed the trials of royal officials out of New England, allowed for the quartering of troops in colonists’ homes, and extended Quebec's boundaries south. The colonists viewed this act as another token of Britain's distrust of them. The First Continental Congress formed in 1774, establishing the "Declaration of Rights and Grievances" and the Continental Association to prohibit importing British goods. War broke out before the second congress could meet.

See Also: 1600 to 1776 Primary Documents; American Revolution and Criminal Justice; Colonial Courts; Tax Crimes.

Further Readings
  • Bowen, H. V. Revenue and Reform: The Indian Problem in British Politics, 1757–1773. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Carp, Benjamin L. Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.
Annessa A. Babic
New York Institute of Technology
© 2012 SAGE Publications, Inc

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