Why was the Tea Act of 1773 so Important?

W.D. Cooper. "Boston Tea Party.", The History of North America. London: E. Newberry, 1789.Engraving. Plate opposite p. 58. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

W.D. Cooper. “Boston Tea Party.”, The History of North America. London: E. Newberry, 1789.Engraving. Plate opposite p. 58. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

By 1773, a relative calm existed between the British government and her colonial subjects. While British soldiers remained in America and the Townshend duty on tea remained the law, moderates on both sides appeared to be gaining control. A new act of Parliament, designed to help a struggling trading company, would next fuel the growing conflict between the American colonies and the British government. The East India Company, once one of England’s oldest and most successful trading companies, faced economic collapse in the years following the Seven Years War. The high annual payment the company was required to pay the British government was a factor in the company’s financial problems. The company enjoyed many friends in the government, and responding to pleas for governmental assistance, the British Parliament passed the Tea Act in May 1773 to help the company. This act eliminated the customs duty on the company’s tea and permitted its direct export to America. Though the company’s tea was still subject to the Townshend tax, dropping the customs duty would allow the East India Company to sell its tea for less than smuggled Dutch tea.

Though Parliament did not pass the Tea Act as a revenue measure, patriot leaders saw the act as a cunning way to get the Americans to pay the hated Townshend duty on tea by undercutting the price of smuggled Dutch tea. Many colonial leaders feared that the colonists would buy the company’s tea if it made it to shore and submit to the payment of the tea tax. This would undercut their claim that only colonial legislatures could tax the colonies. Angry mobs, like the Sons of Liberty, in Philadelphia and New York forced ships carrying the company’s tea to return to England without unloading. In Massachusetts, however, the Royal Governor refused to allow the ships carrying the company’s tea to leave the harbor without first paying the duty on the tea. On the evening of December 16, 1773, patriots disguised as Indians boarded three ships in Boston Harbor and threw over three hundred crates of tea into the water to make sure the tea did not get unloaded. The British government swiftly reacted to the Boston Tea Party. In the l8th century, the British proudly based their national identity on the twin pillars of international trade and the rule of law. The senseless destruction of private property by a group of hooligans shocked the English merchant class. Moderates within Great Britain who had long supported the colonists turned decisively against them. Instead of placating the colonies by repealing the Tea Act, the British government decided to punish Boston and the people of Massachusetts with a series of acts which became known as the Intolerable Acts or the Coercive Acts.