The Boston Tea Party is one of the most cherished stories from the founding of our country. This is one of the events that inspired the American colonists to stand up against tyranny imposed on them from the British government.

We have heard a lot about the Tea Party of today that has used this historical event to help rally their movement. So what happened in 1773 that made the colonists to want to throw the tea into the harbor in the first place?

Until 1764, the colonies were allowed self-rule but with the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763, the British were low on money so they decided to begin enforcing their trade laws to try to increase their capital.

The British began to go after smuggling in the new world by using Writs of Assistance that gave the British customs inspectors the ability to search colonial ships. The customs inspectors always had this ability but never enforced the rule until now and this enraged the colonists because the violators were not given a trial by jury but instead were sent to the British admiralty courts.

Also, the British began levying taxes against the colonists. The legislation that Britain tried to enforce before the Tea Act was the Sugar Act of 1764 that taxed sugar, coffee and wine, the Stamp Act of 1765 that taxed all printed material and the Townshend Acts of 1767 that taxed items such as paints, glass, paper and tea.

According to United States History website:

“If taxes were necessary, then the Americans wanted their own assemblies to impose them. Further, the colonists wanted Parliamentary recognition of this perceived right. Essentially, “No taxation without representation” really meant, “No taxation by Parliament. No representation in Parliament. Let us run our own affairs.”

The British did not think they were being harsh on the American colonists. The taxes imposed on the colonists were less than those of the mainland English citizens. They kept the colonies safe during the war but at a high monetary cost and the taxing of the colonies went only to paying for their defense even though the taxes raised did not cover the expense needed to maintain all of the British troops in the colonies.

The Americans disagreed. They believed the troops garrisoned in the colonies were not needed since the French threat had been removed. Why would they want to pay taxes for garrisons that were only there to make sure the American colonists stayed in line? They weren’t causing trouble so why was there a need to watch them.

Boston Tea Party Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZC4-1582
Boston Tea Party Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZC4-1582

The colonists always received permission in the past from England for levying their own taxes but now this right was being taken away, and because they did not have their own representation in the British Parliament, they were being denied their own traditional rights as English subjects. This was going too far.

In regards to the Tea Act, the British Government gave the East India Company permission to transport tea, duty free, from Great Britain to America to sell. Because they did not have to pay the duty meant they could undersell the American merchants who sold tea, which would monopolize the tea trade. This would drive many colonists out of work.

The Bostonians felt that something had to be done.  If they had allowed the tea to land and be off-loaded, then the British would have had a moral victory in that the colonists were finally paying the tax they created for them.

According to the book, ”A Retrospect Of The Boston Tea-Party, With A Memoir Of George R. T. Hewes, A Survivor Of The Little Band Of Patriots Who Drowned The Tea In Boston Harbour In 1773” written by James Hawkes in 1834, the colonist knew they could not keep the people from buying the tea and if they passed a law outlawing the purchasing of the tea, they would have had to arrest and prosecute those who did buy.

Illustration from James Hawkes book
George Hewes

Also, there were many Tories, those still loyal to England, which would have had no problem with buying the tea.  Destroying the tea seemed to be their only option. James Hawkes wrote:

“Why might not the colony of Massachusetts have passed a law, prohibiting her citizens, under a suitable penalty, from purchasing or using tea, or such other article? In answer to this it may be said, that so strong had become the habit of using that article, it would have been perhaps impossible to prevent the secret evasions of the law.”

Having studied the history, how do the views of the colonists compare to the Tea Party members today?

Many in the Tea Party of today proclaim that they want a limited government with lower taxes, which is very similar to the original Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson, and that the government is not representing their beliefs and values with the legislation being passed. Because of this, they have sought to remove the politicians responsible for them.

There is one problem with the history compared to the Tea Party’s platform of today though. The colonists did not have any representatives in the British Parliament and were denied their traditional rights as English subjects. This is not the case today because all Americans have representation through their congressmen or congresswomen.

As citizens, we all have the right to vote for and speak to our elected representatives. Many people may not like who was elected to their districts but this fact cannot be denied because they were elected by a majority of voters.

With the rise of the Tea Party candidates who have won their primaries and elections, we can see they do indeed have the ability to elect new candidates to represent them, which was lacking during the times of our founding fathers.

However, the rise of the Tea Party has been impressive to watch with how quickly they were able to affect legislation in congress and how they have helped control the agenda of the Republican Party. Even if other political groups have many reservations about the Tea Party’s ideals, their model for growing a grassroots movement shows that a democracy of the people can work.

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