Primary Source Focus: Protesting the Tax on Tea
December 12, 2009 by Ben Edwards
With the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party coming up on December 16 and the annual reenactment at Old South Meeting House scheduled for this Sunday, today I’ll be reviewing the events leading up to “the destruction of the tea” (as it was called back then), with a special focus on the first town meeting that Bostonians held to protest the tea tax. This initial meeting took place at Faneuil Hall on Friday, November 5, 1773. The image of Faneuil Hall in this post shows the building as it appeared at that time – half the size it is today. Some background: On March 5, 1770 Parliament repealed all elements of the hated Townshend Acts, except for the three pence per pound tax on tea imported into the colonies. When Parliament passed the Tea Act on May 10, 1773, it gave the East India Company the right to bypass any middlemen and sell their tea directly to the colonies. The company was in financial trouble and had a large inventory of tea, so this strategy enabled them to sell it at a reduced price (which they felt would be very agreeable to the colonists) and still make a profit. However, the lower priced tea included the three pence per pound tax and the colonists felt that purchasing the tea would signify their willingness to be taxed without their consent. As a result, everyone was up in arms when shipments of East India Company tea made their way to Boston; New York; Philadelphia; and Charlestown, South Carolina in the fall of 1773. Tea agents were given authority to sell the tea but colonists knew they must make every effort to get these men to resign their commissions and also take steps to ensure that the tea not be landed. Under pressure, agents in New York and Philadelphia gave up their commissions quickly but Boston was a different story as some of the agents there were relatives of Governor Hutchinson and more difficult to sway.
Press coverage of the first tea meeting at Faneuil Hall appeared in the November 11, 1773 issue of the Massachusetts Spy. Links to that coverage appear at the end of this post. In addition to the coverage of the meeting, the paper contained an interesting extract of a letter from a gentleman in Philadelphia to his friend in Boston. Here is a portion of that letter:
The adventure of the East India Company is the most obnoxious measure that could have been proposed. I have not met one individual who does not resent the very idea. You may expect that the next account will give you abundant evidence of a universally determined resolution to oppose the scheme. We hope the commissioners appointed for the sales will gratify the public by giving up the commission. But should they not do so, it will only be the means of a little trouble, for the present temper is to compel them not to receive the tea, and to prevent its being landed. We hear this is the spirit of Maryland and New York. There are many fears respecting Boston. Some give out, and assert that you have imported tea without any reserve and paid the duties: You may depend not an ounce has paid duties in this port. – But whatever may have been done, it is to be hoped the town of Boston will appear on the present occasion with their usual spirit.
John Hancock moderated the meeting on November 5 and the town developed several resolutions including: “that the duty imposed by Parliament upon tea landed in America, is a tax on the Americans, or levying contributions on them without their consent”; “that the resolution lately come into by the East India Company to send out their tea to America, subject to the payment of duties on its being landed here, is an open attempt to enforce the ministerial plan, and a violent attack upon the liberties of America”; “that it is the duty of every American to oppose this attempt”; and “that whoever shall, directly or indirectly, countenance this attempt, or in any wise aid or abet in unloading, receiving or vending the tea sent, or to be sent out by the East India Company, while it remain subject to the payment of a duty here, is an enemy to America.” Finally, they agreed that a committee be chosen to wait on those gentlemen appointed by the East India Company to receive and sell the tea and request that they immediately resign their appointment. The remainder of the meeting, as well as the one on the following day, was focused on the actions of this committee and a second and the responses from the tea agents – which in short order was unanimously voted to be “not satisfactory” to the town.
Original press coverage of the Faneuil Hall tea meetings on November 5 and 6 from the November 11, 1773 issue of the Massachusetts Spy appears below.
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