Due to the taxes on tea, many of the colonists began drinking coffee or cocoa, or bought tea smuggled in from Holland. Within a few years, the British tea trade with the colonists dropped from 900,000 pounds to 237,000 pounds and in England the warehouses of the East India Company were filled to overflowing.
The East India Company was Britain’s largest and most important trading company and to save it, Parliament passed the Tea Act. The East India Company was given a monopoly on tea trade with the colonies — that is, it was the only company allowed to sell tea to the Americans. It was also permitted to sell its tea through its agents directly to retail stores. This plan would cut out the profit made by British and American shippers and importers. Even after the tax had been paid, the British tea could be sold in the colonies at a price far below that of smuggled tea.
The British believed they had hit upon the perfect way to solve the troublesome tea problem. The colonists would rush to buy tea at a low price, the East India Company would be saved, the government would collect its tax and everyone would be happy. To the surprise of the British, nothing of the sort happened. The Americans were angrier than ever. The merchants feared that if the direct-selling plan of the Tea Act was successful, England would decide to sell other goods in the same way, and many businessmen would be ruined. It was clear, too, that England had deliberately kept the tax on tea to show that Parliament had the right to tax colonial imports for the purpose of raising money. Leading American lawyers denied that Parliament had such a right. An import tax on low-priced tea was just as wrong as the import tax on expensive tea had been under the Townshend Act.
In several American cities, the colonists turned back ships carrying British tea, or would not allow the tea to be sold after it was landed. In Boston, Samuel Adams saw that here was another chance to stir up feeling against England. When three ships loaded with tea sailed into Boston Harbour, he called a meeting at the Old South Meeting House. Hundreds of people gathered there on the afternoon of December 16, 1773 and they decided not to allow the ships to land their cargoes. They waited while one of the ship owners went to get permission from Governor Hutchinson for the ships to leave.
Darkness had already fallen before the ship owner returned. He announced that the governor would not allow the ships to leave until the tea tax had been paid. A hush fell over the crowd, and Samuel Adams slowly rose to his feet.
“This meeting,” he said, “can do nothing more to save the country.”
Everyone understood what he meant. The time had come for action — and they were ready. From the back of the meeting house came a sound like an Indian warwhoop. Someone shouted, “The Mohawks are come!” Another voice cried out, “To Griffin’s Wharf!”
A number of men dressed as Indians appeared at the door of the meeting house, shouting and waving hatchets. Followed by the crowd, they hurried to the docks, where they boarded the tea ships. They broke open the holds, chopped the tea chests open and dumped the tea into the harbour. In three hours the job was finished and the sweet smell of wet tea filled the air.
The British were shocked and angered by the Boston Tea Party, as it came to be called. The colonists were trying to force them to back down on the Tea Act. The destruction of the tea was a challenge to British authority. Americans must be made to understand that it was not up to them to decide which laws of England they would obey and which they would not. One member of Parliament declared that “it would be best to blow the town of Boston about the ears of its inhabitants,” and that a hundred or so of the rebels should be hanged to set an example.
After much debate, Parliament decided to punish the rebels by taking away some of the powers of their colonial assembly. General Gage was appointed governor and more British troops were sent to Boston to keep order. The British also slapped a blockade on the Port of Boston. No ships would be allowed to enter or leave until the people had paid for every leaf of tea.
BOSTON UNDER BLOCKADE
The blockade of Boston was a serious matter, but the city did not suffer for lack of food. Blocks of sheep were driven there from Connecticut and from Brooklyn. The people of New York promised to supply enough food for ten years if necessary. Corn was sent from Virginia, rice from South Carolina. Barrels of flour came from Philadelphia and fish from nearby villages.
What disturbed the Americans most was the British attempt to cut down the power of the colonial government in Massachusetts by placing limits on the colonial assembly. If the British could make changes in colonial governments, they also had the power to destroy those governments. The Committees of Correspondence in Boston pointed this out to other colonies and warned that a blow struck against one colony was really a blow against them all. It said that England was waging war against American freedom. Committees in other colonies took up the fight and sent messages to each other by express riders mounted on swift horses. A young man in the Virginia assembly, named Thomas Jefferson, called for a day of fasting and prayer to unite the people against any threat to American rights. Another Virginian, George Washington, said that the question was whether Americans would sit quietly and do nothing while one colony after another was being reduced to slavery.
The colonists soon realized they could better protect their rights if they had some central authority. On June 17, 1774, at the suggestion of Samuel Adams, the Massachusetts assembly proposed that a Continental Congress be held in Philadelphia the following September.
Samuel Adams was chosen as one of the delegates from Massachusetts. He had spent so much of his time fighting the British that he was almost penniless and his clothes were too shabby to wear to the congress. One evening, he was surprised by a visit from a tailor, who came to measure him for a suit. Next came a shirtmaker, then a hatter and then a shoemaker. A few days later, a trunk arrived at his house. In it were a suit of clothes, a cloak, a cocked hat, stylish shoes with silver buckles and a gold-headed came. They had been paid for by his friends.