When most Americans hear of the “Tea Party,” they’re thinking of the conservative political movement to lower taxes, reduce the deficit, and balance the budget.
But the name has its origins in a symbolic – and very effective – act of protest 244 years ago.
But why tea? What was the point of those patriots who dumped so much tea in the Boston Harbor.
Tea had historically been a luxury item, looked on with suspicion by the common man. But it was profitable. By 1765, the tea trade represented as much as 90 percent of the revenue for the British East India Company.
In “The Historic Present” they write that due to smuggling and other means, tea eventually became inexpensive enough that it was a daily drink, but it still had its mystique. It was part of the daily ritual much like coffee is today.
Tea was “classy, it was a shared experience; it was family togetherness; it was caffeine addiction.”
“It was a way for people of all economic classes to show their respectability. Poor families drank tea to get them through the long work day and to show they, too, could appreciate the finer things. Middle-class families drank tea to show the rich that they were sophisticated, too. Wealthy families drank tea with expensive porcelain tea services from Europe or China itself (where the tea came from) and silver utensils to show that they were just as good as people in England, too. All this sophistication was important to Americans, who were always self-conscious about looking provincial in front of their cousins back in England. Americans wanted to show that they were just as good as English people, just as trendy, just as well-mannered.
Eventually, the British East India Company tried a crackdown on smuggled tea. Colonists were forced to choose between the smugglers and the British government they were growing to despise.
So we see why tea became the flashpoint for rebellion in America. When the 1767 Townshend Acts first put a tax on tea, it was seen as outrageous for a few reasons: a) tea was a necessity and raising the price through a tax would put it out of the reach of many; b) the Company was already making a good profit on tea; c) the new tax went to pay the customs officials who forced tea to be unloaded and sold in America.
Americans boycotted tea to protest the Townshend Acts, which imposed high taxes and tariffs on British tea. By now you realize what a huge move this was. Giving up tea was very difficult. It threatened the status of the rich and the energy of the poor. On the most basic level, the boycott led to caffeine-withdrawal headaches that confirmed peoples’ notion that tea was medicinal (since drinking tea again would soothe the headache). Given all this, it is telling that although smuggled tea was available, people did not drink it on principle. Violence escalated, and in 1768 Boston was occupied by British troops, whose presence led eventually to the 1770 Boston Massacre (more on violence in Boston in the next post).
The Townshend Acts were partially repealed, but the tax on tea remained because the EIC was sinking further into debt (in part because it had flooded every market for tea). It had 18 million pounds of unsold tea in its warehouses that it could not sell. And so the Tea Act of 1773 was introduced, on top of the existing tea tax, mandating that the surplus tea be shipped to America and sold at a steep discount. Americans who were trying to keep the tea boycott alive, who knew that many Americans were dying for a chance to return to tea-drinking, were furious. They knew that if the American market was flooded with extra-cheap tea Americans would not be able to resist it, the boycott would end, and the tea tax would be entrenched—the first, perhaps, of many harmful taxes that offered no services to the colonies but simply helped the British control them more tightly. America would be enslaved to the East Inia Company after all.
And so it became paramount to overthrow this tea scheme.
And that was the beginning of the planning for the greatest civil protest in American history. You can read more at The Historic Present’s Part 3, found here.