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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Real Tea Party

Each year near July 4, Ways of the World talks about the American Revolution.  We don't discuss Founding Fathers or major War battles, but instead focus on the participation of ordinary people in the broader Revolutionary process.  It was a broad process of restructuring society:  not just the development of a new government, but a whole new approach to organizing people's relationships with one another.  It took place not just on the battlefields beginning with Lexington and Concord, but over a longer span with a wider kind of geography.  Weapons included not just guns, but words and actions of everyday life, such as buying certain products or refraining from buying them, for example boycotting tea and also dumping some into Boston Harbor.

Several weeks ago, we were pondering what to do for this year's July 4 article, when news headlines burst forth about the IRS targeting certain political organizations that had been filing for tax-exempt status.  Groups with "Tea Party" or "Patriot" in their names were getting special attention, apparently long, drawn-out approval regimens not required of other similar groups.  We may well have to come back to this specific contemporary issue at some point, but the whole uncomfortable business made us want to know more about the "real" Tea Party: the one in Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773. 

Our main source is a recent book on the event, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, by Benjamin Carp, Associate Professor of Early American History at Tufts University[1]. Professor Carp teaches us the underlying importance of several aspects of the event that underscore our general theme of the significance of ordinary people in the Revolutionary process.

Tax-and-Spend Fundamentals
First, while we all know about "taxation without representation", this was only part of the foundation issue, especially for Massachusetts.  Massachusetts was organized under royal charters dating from 1629.  In a first charter, male colonists held substantial governing authority through town meetings and the election of a colony-wide House of Representatives.  A second charter diluted this somewhat by inserting an upper legislative chamber called The Council and a royal governor, who was given veto power over actions of both houses.  Even so, the House of Representative still thought it could basically govern the colony.  And the charters were seen as nearly sacred documents granting rights the colonists thought were permanent and inviolate.

Importantly, the Massachusetts House determined the salaries of public officials, including the governor, and also including the budget for his office.  However, with passage of the Townshend Duties in 1767, Parliament stripped the colonies of this role.  So, "taxation without representation", already a cause for concern after the Stamp Tax two years before, was aggravated by use of the associated tax receipts to pay the salaries of the officials who were being imposed on the colony.  The colonists also then had no voice in the spending of the money they were being forced to send to London.  It felt like Parliament was rubbing salt in wounds they had already inflicted on the colonists.

This also points up the fact that many in Britain believed the colonists were second-class citizens.  Professor Carp has a whole chapter explaining why the participants in the Tea Party were disguised as Indians.  Keeping their own personal identities covered was important, but it was perhaps secondary to the identification with Native Americans.  In Britain, people "had come to appreciate Indian disguises as a symbol of rakish, daring, and mischievous behavior."[page 153] And "…many people in Great Britain, as they came to see white Americans and American Indians in the same light, believed that Americans could never shed their savagery or their inferior status. . . . London political cartoonists were also regularly using Indian figures to symbolize America."[page 154]  So Indian disguises for the Tea Party crowd made an irony-filled political statement.  There was obviously much more going on here in parent country-colony relations than simple tax-and-spend policies.

The Issue of the Tea Itself
Now, about the tea itself; all the controversy came over a very popular commodity.  We take world trade for granted any more, but it had really just gotten under way in the late sixteenth century and was limited to a few food and fabric commodities.  A voyage from the Port of Canton, China, to London took six months.  But as these voyages became more frequent, Europeans began to enjoy some of the new items, such as tea, that couldn't be grown in northern Europe or the British Isles.  Others of interest were coffee and cocoa, but tea made up by far the largest part of the trade: between 1765 and 1813, it accounted for 70% of the East India Company's imports from Canton.  Duties from tea imports into Britain accounted for 6% of the entire budget of the British government.[Carp, page 54]

Tea also had an important role in people's daily lives.  When men wanted to socialize, they could go to a tavern, or for serious conversation, to a coffeehouse.  But women had no such outlets.  Serving tea in the home and inviting friends became an important social occasion; the women presided.  Some courting was carried on over Afternoon Tea served by the young woman.  Accoutrements were needed, and Paul Revere, for one, gained fame and fortune making silver tea services, which, as we do know, could be real works of art.

At first tea was expensive and limited to the very wealthy.  But other shippers into Europe, including the Dutch, began smuggling tea into Britain and the colonies, lowering the effective price.  Middle class and even servants began to enjoy it.  In some ways, the movement down the class structure rankled those at the top, who thought it was part of their status.  The availability of cheaper teas also meant that the British East India Company's monopoly power suffered, and it was stuck with warehouses full of high-priced substance. 

The Tea Act
Thus, Parliament passed the Tea Act early in 1773.  It was meant to relieve the financial pressure on the East India Company by lowering its liability for duties on tea and making it a sole source, cutting out wholesalers, especially in the colonies.  All this would make the price people actually paid for quality tea go down.  But American merchants would be eliminated from the distribution chain and English power and influence would go up.  There were companies in the colonies assigned to place the tea in retail shops, but these were pro-government favorites with connections.  Among them in Boston was a group headed by sons of the governor.  So taxes confiscated from Americans would pay a pre-determined salary to the royal official and his own family would reap benefits of the tea sales.  It got more incestuous and more insulting to the colonies, seemingly every day.

By mid-October 1773, the first ships left Britain with cargoes of tea covered by the new pricing and monopoly business arrangement.  Committees of Correspondence in Philadelphia and New York proposed destroying the tea when it arrived.  They pressured Bostonians.  Colonists' reactions to earlier customs taxes had included boycotts of the relevant imports [see our own article of July 7, 2008], but Boston was known to be a bit slipshod in adhering to them.  So here was a chance for Boston to catch up on its obligations.  Ships arrived in Boston Harbor on November 28.  There was a 20-day deadline for taking action on the cargo or it would automatically be landed and the duty paid; this was not the outcome the colonists wanted by then at all.

They tried to get the ships to leave and take the tea back to England, but the governor refused to grant the necessary permissions for the ships to depart, once they officially entered the Harbor.  Other negotiations also came to naught.  So on December 16, the day before customs officers would board the ships, people of Boston gathered at Old South Meeting House to try to conjure some last-minute action.  The governor turned down one of the ships' captains one last time and he reported back to the public gathering.  As they waited for the captain to appear at the meeting, some of their number were putting on disguises.

The Tea Party and Its Aftermath
The event itself was very orderly.  It began early in the evening; this was mid-December, so darkness fell early.  The people who carried it out were largely craftsmen and other manual laborers; many of them had worked on ships.  They were very careful and very neat and very quiet as they went about their work.  They went directly to cargo holds and took only the chests containing tea; they cracked them open and dumped the tea into the water.  Then they swept the decks of the ships.  The crews did not stop them.  A couple of people who tried to pocket some tea were sent home and actually punished for this.  All told, the crowd destroyed 340 chests, each weighing as much as 400 pounds each, for a total of 92,600 pounds of tea.  The value was £9,659, an amount equal to the Governor's salary for six years plus three times the value of Paul Revere's own home.[Carp, p. 140].

The aftermath brought severe punishment upon Boston and Massachusetts.  Parliament thought it would largely do away with local governing there and isolate Massachusetts from the other colonies.  Instead, other colonies became determined to help as they could and unification was the outcome, not isolation.[Also see our 2008 article].  Further, just a few months later, groups in western Massachusetts, one led by a blacksmith and several thought to be loyalist-leaning, totally undermined British rule there.  We've also written about those actions [here; Carp cites the same sources we used in both the 2008 and 2009 articles].

So the American Revolution might be said to have been triggered by a simple item of every-day life, tea drinking.
[1]Benjamin L. Carp.  Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America.  New Haven: Yale University Press: 2010.  The book is full of maps and illustrations of the scenes.

For more on tea and world trade, see
Kenneth Pomeranz and Steven Topik.  The World That Trade Created. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe. 2nd Edition, 2006. Chapter 3: "The Economic Culture of Drugs: 3.2 Brewing Up a Storm".  pp. 77-81.  The authors explain that Buddhist monks first noticed the effects of the caffeine in tea when they needed help staying awake to study for ordination exams, possibly as early as A.D. 600.

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