The Boston Tea Party, Intolerable Acts & First Continental Congress
- 0:12 Calm Before the Storm
- 1:39 The Troubles With Tea
- 3:02 The Boston Tea Party
- 4:05 The Intolerable Acts
- 5:06 The First Continental Congress
- 6:35 Lesson Summary
Three years of calm followed the Boston Massacre and the repeal of most Townshend duties. But no sooner had Parliament passed a new tax on tea than the colonies were in an uproar again about taxation without representation. What followed were the Boston Tea Party and the fateful last steps leading to war.
Calm Before the Storm
In the thirteen colonies, the concept of republicanism had been evolving since the Enlightenment, reminding Americans of their rights as Englishmen. One of those rights was representation in government. Each of the colonies had a legislature, serving as the only representation the Americans had because they had no member of Parliament.
The Stamp Act, the first tax on the Americans that didn't go through their assemblies first, offended their belief in republicanism. When the legislature of Massachusetts was dissolved, it began a downward spiral in the relationship between Great Britain and the colonies.
Still, few Americans were calling for independence. By most accounts, the majority of colonists were loyal British citizens. A few educated, bold leaders spoke out about real problems in the political system, but they weren't trying to depose the king. They believed the most realistic solution at the time was for them to have an elected representative in Parliament.
So, why did they form the Sons of Liberty? It was partly because they realized that mere discussion and protest weren't getting them anywhere with the leaders in London, and it's also likely that they were scared to speak out against the government publicly. Attempting to overthrow the king was a crime punishable by death.
After the Boston Massacre in 1770, even the Sons of Liberty quieted down. There were a few scattered incidents, like the burning of the Gaspee, but the violence was limited, and nearly three years passed without a major confrontation. Most of the Townshend Acts had been repealed, and the colonists weren't protesting the remaining tax on tea because it was easy enough to avoid. They just stopped importing tea from Britain and smuggled it in from Dutch colonies. If England had overlooked this problem, we might still be loyal to the British monarch today, but they couldn't let it go for two reasons.
The Tea Act
Of course, the government wasn't collecting much tax money, and smuggling had left the British East India Company in serious trouble. This joint-stock company had warehouses full of tea from Asia that no one wanted to buy. In 1773, the Prime Minister believed he could solve everyone's problem. He wrote a new Tea Act allowing the Company to bring shiploads of tea directly to America. They didn't have to go through English merchants, and they didn't have to pay export duties on the shipments. So, even though the colonists would have to pay an import tax, the tea was still less expensive.
The Prime Minister expected the colonists to be happy, buy the tea and save the company. He was wrong. American merchants stirred up opposition to the Tea Act, saying that they were still being taxed without representation. In October 1773, a group of colonists in Philadelphia managed to force the resignation of British tea agents after being threatened with tar and feathering. Many ports would not allow ships carrying tea to enter the harbor. They were forced to sail back to England.
The Boston Tea Party
Boston, normally the trend-setter in protesting the British, was unable to duplicate the success of other colonies. Massachusetts had a loyal governor who insisted that three ships be allowed to anchor and demanded that the tea be paid for, tax and all. But laborers on the docks wouldn't unload it, and merchants wouldn't pay for it. The ships sat in Boston harbor for a month before the Sons of Liberty finally decided to take action. On December 16, 1773, as many as one hundred and fifty men (a few of whom were dressed as Indians) dumped the ships' cargo - valued at nearly one million dollars today - overboard into the sea.
The event has come to be known as the Boston Tea Party, and it stands out as one of the defining moments of American history. But at the time, it was controversial, even in the colonies. Benjamin Franklin insisted that the money had to be repaid. And, in fact, four New York merchants approached the Prime Minster and offered to compensate the Company. But their offer was refused, and Boston was in big trouble.
The Intolerable Acts
In response to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passed a series of resolutions in 1774 called the Coercive Acts. Massachusetts was placed under martial law, and the Quartering Act was reinstated. All forms of local legislation were forbidden, and the commander of the British army in America was appointed governor of Massachusetts. Perhaps most importantly, Boston Harbor was closed until the people responsible for the destruction of the tea stepped forward and paid its full value.
A piece of unrelated legislation revealed profoundly bad judgment on London's part. The Quebec Act allowed French Canadian Catholics the right to settle in the land west of the Proclamation Line. This aroused the ire of many people in the colonies that had otherwise been unconcerned about what was happening in Boston. The Coercive Acts together with the Quebec Act were dubbed the Intolerable Acts, and many Americans decided that regional protests weren't working. It was time to unite.
The First Continental Congress
Each of the colonies had organized secret governments, called the committees of safety, to direct their militias. Delegates from twelve colonies were chosen from among them to meet in Philadelphia because it was the most centrally located city. Only Georgia wasn't present, though historians debate the reason. During the months of September and October 1774, the First Congressional Congress met to assert their rights within the British government, not to rebel against it.
The Congress was contentious, characterized by heated debates, but the delegates were able to get a better feel for the needs of the other colonies and demonstrated an ability to cooperate that would be critical in the years to come. More importantly, they took several important actions. First, they sent the Declaration and Resolves to King George III in which they condemned the Intolerable Acts as a violation of British law. They sanctioned the colonial militias and a Patriot government in Massachusetts and endorsed a boycott of British goods, including slaves. Finally, they agreed to meet again the following spring if England had not granted them full representation and undone some of the wrongs they had committed.
Many in England were incensed by the Congress and its work, but William Pitt (for whom Pittsburg is named) defended the colonies. Parliament passed the Conciliatory Resolution relieving taxes for colonies that supported the government. But before news of the law could reach the colonies, war had broken out.
Tension between England and its colonies had calmed down following the Boston Massacre in 1770. Three years passed without serious incident, and England decided it was time to try and collect some tax money. The Tea Act would have lowered the price of tea while still collecting the Townshend duty, and it would have helped bolster the nearly-bankrupt British East India Company, but colonists protested yet another example of taxation without representation.
Many colonies refused shipments of tea and successfully bullied the tax agents into resigning, but the Massachusetts governor insisted on allowing three shiploads of tea into the harbor. During the Boston Tea Party, the Sons of Liberty threw the cargo overboard rather than allow the tea to be unloaded and the tax paid.
Britain responded by passing the Coercive Acts aimed at punishing Boston. They simultaneously passed the Quebec Act that angered Americans because it allowed Canadians to settle in land west of the Proclamation line. Together, these actions were called the Intolerable Acts. Delegates from twelve colonies met at the First Continental Congress to lodge a formal protest. Parliament responded with the Conciliatory Acts, but before word of the compromise reached the colonies, war had broken out.
Chapters in History 103: US History I
- 1. First Contacts (28,000 BCE-1821 CE) (7 lessons)
- 2. Settling North America (1497-1732) (11 lessons)
- 3. The Road to Revolution (1700-1774) (6 lessons)
- 4. The American Revolution (1775-1783) (10 lessons)
- 5. The Making of a New Nation (1776-1800) (12 lessons)
- 6. The Virginia Dynasty (1801--1825) (11 lessons)
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