December 18, 2010
For the next three years, Americans ostensibly boycotted the tea of the East India Company, Britain’s licensed monopoly provider, though in practice they drank what they liked. Indeed, for consumers, anger over the tea tax had never made much economic sense. For one thing, many drank Dutch-supplied tea, which was smuggled and therefore tax-free... Meanwhile, the tax on legal tea was largely offset by a tea-tax refund passed the same year. But in 1772 that tax refund shrank, making British tea more expensive and enhancing smugglers’ price advantage. Tea piled up in the British warehouses of the East India Company, which owed money to the British government and also needed to ask it for a loan. Someone had an idea: why not raise cash by dumping the company’s surplus tea on the American market? Parliament agreed to help by restoring the old refund in full and by allowing the company to export tea directly rather than through merchant middlemen. With the new measures, the price of legal tea was expected to halve. Consumers would save, Parliament needn’t lose quite so much on its bailout of the East India Company, and smugglers would be driven out of business.Caleb Crain on 18th century insurgency in The New Yorker.
Boston’s big businessmen felt threatened. Not only might smuggling cease to be profitable but, if the experiment of direct importation were to succeed, it might cut them out of the supply chains for other commodities as well. Clearly, it was time for Sam Adams and William Molineux to rile up the public again. At the start of November, 1773, a public letter summoned merchants expecting tea consignments from the East India Company to the Liberty Tree. When they failed to appear, Molineux led five hundred people to the store where the merchants were huddled, and its doors were torn from their hinges. A second letter warned the consignees not to take it for granted that the colonists would remain "irreconcilable to the idea of spilling human blood." Amid the populist fervor, only a few noticed that the working-class Bostonian stood to gain little from the protest...
George Washington disapproved of the Tea Party, and Benjamin Franklin called it "an Act of violent Injustice on our part." But the Revolution was not yet in the hands of the Founders, although it had left those of the merchants, who now dodged and stalled as the people - passionate and heedless of economic niceties - called for a ban on all tea, even what was smuggled from the Dutch...
Britain overreacted, closing the port of Boston, restricting town meetings in Massachusetts, and giving the King the power to appoint the upper house of the Massachusetts legislature. British troops arrived in Boston in May... A few merchants still hoped that Boston might pay for the tea and reconcile with Britain, but they were too intimidated by the outbursts of popular anger to give voice to their proposal at a Boston town meeting.
Sympathy for Massachusetts broke out in other colonies, and radicalized colonists across the region threw off the guidance of the merchant class. "These sheep, simple as they are, cannot be gulled as heretofore," the wealthy New York City lawyer Gouverneur Morris wrote to a friend. "The mob begin to think and to reason."