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What are the causes of the 1773 Boston Tea Party? I have read the article on Wikipedia already but I couldn't understand it. I was also taught that one of the causes that lead to the 1773 Boston Tea Party was the reduction of tea taxes, but wouldn't that actually made the Americans happier, creating the exact opposite effect?

  • Yeah, you'd think so. Unfortunately though (IIRC) people smuggle tea in for a tidy profit. The lower taxes made legal tea competitive, and those who had grown rich off the illegal trade found their interests hurt. – Semaphore Sep 29 '14 at 6:37
  • @Semaphore So what you are saying is most revolutionists are illegal smugglers? It hard to believe that there were enough illegal smugglers then to create such a revolution (although it could be possible). Another interesting point: if you argue that there were some normal Bostonian among the revolutionists, what would be their motive? I don't see how making legal tea more competitive could actually hurt them (actually, it's even economically beneficial to them.) – krismath Sep 29 '14 at 6:48
  • You misunderstand. It doesn't take that many people to whip up a public fervour if you are wealthy and influential. Do you really think each and every revolutionary fighter independently and through thoughtful, reasoned consideration arrived at the conclusion that they must take up arms against Great Britain for some lofty cause? Or did they read about their rights being violated in an inflammatory news article? – Semaphore Sep 29 '14 at 6:55
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    It doesn't really matter whether you think it is or not logically; the important thing is that the colonists perceived it to be. – Semaphore Sep 29 '14 at 7:15
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    The Tea Act was supposed to convince the colonists to purchase Company tea on which the Townshend duties were paid, thus implicitly agreeing to accept Parliament's right of taxation. – Rohit Sep 30 '14 at 8:17
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The Tea Party was the culmination of a resistance movement throughout British America against the Tea Act, which had been passed by the British Parliament in 1773. Colonists objected to the Tea Act because they believed that it violated their rights as Englishmen to "No taxation without representation," that is, be taxed only by their own elected representatives and not by a British parliament in which they were not represented.

There are a couple of notions to unpack here that may or may not clarify the issues involved, but before I start, I want to acknowledge that the history of the American Revolution is not simple. Revolutions generally involve groups of people who don't agree on basic terms trying to control the discussion by making false statements about what their opponents believe. I'll also point to the Revolutions Podcast The Boston Tea Party as a good, accessible treatment of the events.

Briefly (and unfairly) summarizing: * The British were willing to reduce the tax on tea, but they were absolutely unwilling to budge from their point of view that Parliament governed the colonies. Parliament had the unmodified right to tax any British citizen any amount on any product or service. The British Parliament was the Parliament of the British people, and had the right to make laws. Many Members of Parliament were elected from rotten or otherwise non-representative boroughs; Parliament represented the British people because Parliament committed to do so.

  • The (original) Tea Partiers (the radical wing of the American revolutionary movement) were adamant that taxation must be based on representation.

As always, it is in the interest of radicals on both sides to polarize issues and make it tougher to occupy a moderate center. Parliament was willing to give in on small issues to preserve the fundamental principle. The revolutionary wing of the Patriot movement had to prevent the US from cooperating with that. They had to make the issue about politics, rather than about tea.

Everything would have remained an abstract theoretical discussion except:

  1. Governance. Remember that the Glorious Revolution of 1699 was less than a century old. Britain was still working out what it meant to be a constitutional monarchy. There wasn't a strong theory about what taxes were, who should pay them or how they should be authorized. Most of what was known about taxation was in the negative - e.g. "The King cannot tax, nor can he maintain a standing army.", or were in the form of well intentioned sentiments without practical underpinnings, e.g. "Taxes are the free gift of the people to the Sovereign". Many of the US Patriots were inspired by a small faction of British politicians called Whigs, who were most significant for their attractive, but internally inconsistent political philosophy.

  2. The Seven Years War. This was actually the first world war in which effectively every nation participated in some way. Britain won, France lost. There are too many implications to summarize but the key implications were:

    • Debt. Britain had to find a lot of money to pay off the debt. The limited macroeconomic theory of the day permitted a nation to accumulate debt during wartime, but pay it off in peacetime. There was no macroeconomic theory on how.

    • Officers. Britain finished the war with many officers, who suddenly had to go on half pay. Britain settled many of them in America. This had complex effects on perception and taxation. This also affected settlement of lands beyond the Ohio, but that is far too complex for this answer.

    • Empire. French losses in Canada effectively catapulted Britain into a world spanning empire. Britain's constitution was ill suited to empire.

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The Boston Tea Party is one of those events that have been so colored by patriotic historicism that the accounts you read in history books are fairly distorted and have a lot of factual misinformation.

Believe it or not, American textbook versions are ultimately based on a book that was written by an Italian who had only very remote, secondhand knowledge of the events.

As Wallace says, the main issue was largely patriotic because the tax in itself was a fairly minor expense. Some Americans resented paying such taxes for which they had no vote in parliament. The tea tax was especially annoying because the British had a monopoly on tea imports, so there was no alternative.

As for the tea party itself, it happened because of the intransigence of the Governor of Massachusetts at the time, Thomas Hutchinson, who was a notorious Tory. In other cities in the colonies, tea ships were simply turned back. The locals prevented the tea from being landed, so, for example in Baltimore the tea ships had to return laden to England.

In Boston, this did not happen due to a legal technicality: if the ships left with the tea it would be an "export" and therefore subject to a large export tariff, which was essentially impossible to pay. In the other cities, such niceties were ignored, but Hutchinson insisted on this law being applied, so the tea ships were trapped. Hutchinson was hoping this would cause the locals to relent and let the tea get landed, but he miscalculated.

The ships being trapped caused a huge problem for the captains because every day the ships sat idle they lost money because they had to pay their crews. The captains did not own the tea. For them, they faced a big loss due to being stuck in Boston. So, what eventually happened, is that the captains of the ships with their mates (the officers) disguised themselves and dumped all the tea. By doing this, they would be allowed to leave since they were no longer "exporting" anything.

They had to disguise themselves, because if anyone recognized them, they could be imprisoned or sued back in England for destruction of property. Contrary to what you read about them being disguised as "Indians", this is not true. They just blackened their faces and wore rag tunics and floppy hats, dressed more like bums than Indians.

This was all well known to the authorities in England, and you can find accounts in the private papers of Lord North and others that show he was fully informed of the circumstances. Unfortunately, historians tend to ignore British letters so the accounts in British state archives, which are much more accurate than those in American history books, have been sort of lost to history.

No action was taken against the captains, because the British public was outraged and it was in the interest of the British government to fuel this outrage by blaming the Americans.

--- Comment on "Counterfactual" Information (answer to comments)

Nothing I have written is "counterfactual". What is counterfactual is the nonsense you think you know about the event.

You may think it strange that such a "well-known" event could have any questions about it, but in this you are mistaken because in fact it was not a well-known event. At the time NOTHING was published about it, except a few highly inflammatory editorials in London newspapers. In America the event was considered to be a "riot" and was considered shameful and noone talked about it. It was only FIFTY years later, thats right 50, FIVE OH, years later that it became the popular jingoistic event it is today. So, if you are under the impression it was "well documented" you are completely wrong.

Just to give you one ludicrous example of the misinformation in history books is the number of dumpers. It was well established that there were 17 men, and in the Italian guys book (the main source for all subsequent historians), it indeed says this, there were exactly 17 men. Nevertheless, a historian AFTER him, wrote there were "about two dozen men", then another guy in the 1860s wrote "less than 50 men", and so on and so forth, until by the twentieth century supposed "histories" wrote that "over a 100 men" were there. The wikipedia says "30 to 130", I guess coalescing the combined exaggerations of 150 years of "scholarship". What a joke.

As I wrote above, the matter is well delineated in British state papers and my account merely relates what is contained therein.


As a by-the-by I will point out that the false history on the event is a good illustration of how people will believe things and not analyze them. The idea that a random mob of Americans could just storm a British ship and loot it in 1773 would only be believed by someone with no knowledge of the way things were in those times. Just like now, docks are guarded facilities. The wharf involved was literally in the shadow of Boston castle, loaded with soldiers and cannons. Random people were not allowed onto the docks. During the dumping the Americans had to watch passively from the public street, and you can be assured that all the people on the ships were authorized to be there.

  • There's a lot in this answer I'd take issue with, but the sentence that starts, "Unfortunately, historians tend to ignore British letters" is completely on target. Ignoring what was going on with the British side is a huge issue with most accounts of the American Revolution. – T.E.D. Sep 29 '14 at 16:09
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    The assertion that the captains and crews of the ships orchestrated the dumping of the cargo contradicts numerous participant and eye witness accounts {1}{2}{3}. Benjamin Carp's book identifies around 100 colonists with written claims of participation. Is there reference you can refer us to in order to substantiate a British conspiracy and cover-up? – Comintern Sep 30 '14 at 1:21
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    Are you able to quote anything to back up this claim? Not paraphrasing wrapped in quotation marks or a vague reference to some unspecified letters, but an actual verifiable quote? – Semaphore Sep 30 '14 at 5:24
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    I refer to a cover-up in the contemporary sense. If Lord North was aware of the circumstances, he certainly led King George, the Parliament, and others to think otherwise during the passage of the Boston Port Act. Again, I would be much more likely to accept your answer if you could be specific about which "state papers" you are referring to. The tendency to "believe things and not analyze" is amplified if people don't have the ability to analyse them. The comparison and evaluation of source material is fundamental to the study of history. – Comintern Oct 1 '14 at 1:31
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    The method of histriography, is people propose hypothesise, and facts are presented then in support of it, or contradicting it. The hypothesis which is most reassured by evidences, rides on to become a theory. The one without legs, falls, until it can get new legs. And, arguments presented against the exsisting theory, material or immaterial, are not simply enough, to advocate a new theory. Can any evidence, from the aforesaid 'british papers' be presented? – Rohit Oct 3 '14 at 7:14

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