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This Day in History: The Tea Act of 1773

On this day in 1773, Parliament passes the Tea Act. The decision was the catalyst for a memorable pre-Revolutionary War event: the Boston Tea Party.


The Tea Act wasn’t quite what many modern Americans imagine.


Many Americans likely believe that the Tea Act leveraged a massive tax hike on the colonies. Colonists received it badly not only because they had no representation in Parliament, but also because the Tea Act was going to cost them so much money.


Such modern perceptions are inaccurate, to say the least.


For starters, the Tea Act didn’t raise taxes on tea. Americans had been paying taxes on tea since 1767, when the infamous Townshend Acts were enacted. Instead, the Tea Act of 1773 had a surprising effect: It made the tea delivered to the American colonies cheaper.

Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol

By the terms of the Act, Parliament effectively gave the East India Company a monopoly on sales of tea to America. The company would “appoint its own licensees to sell tea directly to consumers and bypass wholesalers and retailers,” explains historian Harlow Giles Unger. “By eliminating ‘middle men,’ a handful of East India Company licensees would be able to sell tea at prices below even the cheapest smuggled tea. . . .”


But the colonists weren’t focused on inexpensive tea. Instead, Parliament’s decision resurrected the old discontent: The colonists did not think that the taxes on tea were legitimate in the first place. And they did not intend to pay taxes on a forced monopoly, even if their tea was cheaper.


Our ancestors weren’t going to be tricked into accepting tyranny!


Hundreds gathered at the Liberty Tree in Boston to demand the resignations of East India Company commissioners. Broadsides and newspapers were printed, railing against the temerity of a Parliament that would tax Americans when they had no representation in that body. “[R]evenue acts are opposite to the very idea and spirit of liberty,” an article in the Pennsylvania Packet concluded.


“[W]e are reduced to this dilemma,” Samuel Adams agreed in a circular letter to other Massachusetts towns, “either to sit down quietly under this and every other burden that our enemies shall see fit to lay upon us as good natured slaves or rise and resist this and every plan laid for our destruction as becomes freemen.”


Adams knew that tyranny must be resisted early, even when the initial encroachments on liberty are small. When small intrusions on liberty stand, bigger, more tyrannical intrusions will follow.


Thus, on December 16, 1773, more than 100 members of the Sons of Liberty dressed up as Mohawk Indians. (They wanted to express to the world that they were Americans, not British subjects.) The men boarded three ships that had been sitting in Boston Harbor, waiting to unload their cargos of tea. The protest was orderly, and no looting was allowed. Nothing was harmed, except the tea, which went into the water. The protestors even swept the ships and put everything back into place when they were done.


“This is the most magnificent Movement of all,” John Adams wrote in his Diary. “There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity, in this last Effort of the Patriots, that I greatly admire. The People should never rise, without doing something to be remembered—something notable And striking. This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences, and so lasting, that I cant but consider it as an Epocha in History.”


The first shots of Revolution, of course, would be fired a mere 16 months later.


What would our Founders think of modern America? Do we have more tolerance for minor incursions on liberty—and what will this mean in the long run?

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