Taxation Without Representation

By James Norwood Pratt

Never was mingled such a drought In palace, ball or arbor,
As freemen brewed and tyrants quaffed That night in Boston Harbor.
     -Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-94),

As expected of good colonists everywhere, the American colonists did their damnedest to ape the fashions of their mother countries. Thus when the English relieved the Dutch of New Amsterdam and re-christened it New York in 1674, they found themselves in possession of a colony that probably drank more tea than all England put together. The directors of John Company must have delighted to watch as the demand grew in America over the following decades.

The sober Quakers created a new market for "the cups that cheer but not inebriate" when, under the patronage of William Penn, they founded Philadelphia in 1682. In 1712, a year after Mr. Addison prescribed tea for "all well-regulated households" in London, a Boston apothecary named Zabdiel Boylston hastened to advertise "Green and ordinary tees" for sale. By 1730 it was sold in every Boston dry-goods, grocers, hardware, millinery and apothecary shop and advertised in every newspaper. Both green and Bohea were known in the Carolinas by 1725.

In imitation of London, New York City came to support numerous coffeehouses and tea gardens. Over the course of the century there were three Vauxhalls alone, one Ranelagh, and several others. To make up for a lack of decent drinking water in Manhattan, the city was forced to establish special Tea Water Pumps, one of them where Christopher Street meets Greenwich and Sixth Avenue. Demand for the water the pumps and springs provided was, by 1757, such that the city fathers had to enact "a law for the Tea Water Men in the City of New York."

Not only in the cities but also throughout the countryside, tea was a long-established part of the American Way by the time of the revolution it helped spark. Trevelyan, an English historian, described its prerevolutionary popularity:

"The most portable, as well as the most easily prepared of beverages, it was drunk in the backwoods of America as it is drunk today in the Australian bush. In more settled districts, the quantity absorbed on all occasions of ceremony is incredible to a generation which has ceased to mourn in large companies and at great expense. Whatever the gentlemen, who rode or drove into a funeral from thirty miles around, were in the habit of drinking, the ladies drank tea. The very Indians, in default of something stronger, drank it twice a day."

But regardless of "the quantity absorbed," John Company revenues began to shrink during this period on account of a mere three penny per pound tax Parliament had specially imposed on tea and other goods America imported. The duty was voted at a time when the English at home were charged a tea tax amounting to over 100 percent of its value, but the amount was not the issue to the colonists. They were willing to pay the same taxes as any other British subjects, but were determined to resist any tax specifically levied on them as colonists, especially since they weren't consulted in the matter. Reacting in true British fashion, they boycotted the articles specially taxed and, in the case of tea at least, resorted to smuggling it in from Holland. Thomas Hancock, the uncle of John and a staunch loyalist, amassed a considerable fortune smuggling in Dutch tea and selling it to the British army and navy outfits stationed in America. By 1769, British exports to America had fallen by one-half.

"The Cabinet was not seriously apprehensive, but perturbed," to quote Sir Winston Churchill. "It agreed to drop the duties, except on tea. By a majority of one, this was carried. Parliament proclaimed its sovereignty over the colonies by retaining a tax on tea of threepence a pound." The Americans were not amused, and certainly saw no reason not to go on importing ever larger quantities of the cheaper Dutch teas. Finding its colonial market ever more rapidly eroding and itself sitting on an unprecedented eighty-five hundred ton surplus of tea in England, the Honorable Company engineered the passage of the Tea Act of 1773. I turn to Sir Winston's A History of the English-Speaking Peoples:

An Act was passed through Parliament, attracting little notice among the Members, authorizing the Company to ship tea, of which it had an enormous surplus, direct to the colonies, without paying import duties, and to sell it through it own agents in America. Thus in effect the Company was grated a monopoly. The outcry across the Atlantic was instantaneous. The extremists denounced it as an invasion of their liberties, and the merchants were threatened with ruin. American shippers who brought tea from the British custom-houses and their middlemen who sold it would all be thrown out of business. The Act succeeded where [Samuel] Adams had failed: it united colonial opinion against the British.

By eliminating the tax of over 100 percent, the Company directors were sure to undersell the Dutch in America. The threepenny colonial tax seemed to them a silly issue-even a Dr. Johnson living in Charleston or Philadelphia and paying the maximum could trim his tea budget enormously. For the colonists, however, the issue remained the same: taxation without representation was illegal under the British Constitution. "They have no idea," wrote another great tea lover of the time, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, "that any people can act from any other principle but that of interest; and they believe that threepence on a pound of tea, of which one does not perhaps drink ten pound in a year (!), is sufficient to overcome the patriotism of an American." As a point at issue, it was silly-a saving to American tea drinkers and of no appreciable value to the British treasury. But as a cause, tea, "farfetched and dear bought," assumed an enormous importance to both sides. And even thus, our harmless, necessary tea was dragged into the conflict, all for a projected annual income of a mere million dollars to the Crown.

Having appointed agents in Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, the Company sent its first tea consignments on their way in the autumn of 1773, despite a warning from the New York consignee that "there will be no such thing as selling it, as the people would rather buy so much poison. In fact, at mass meetings, first in Philadelphia, then in New York and Boston, the people resolved not even to let it land. The first of three ships bringing the tea to Boston made port on 28 November. The citizenry allowed the captain to unload everything except the tea and kept watch around the clock to make sure he did not. According to law, the cargo would be subject to seizure and sale by the customs for unpaid duty at the end of twenty days after entering port. This was what the consignees confidently waited for, since the customs men would be backed by British troops. On 16 December, the day before the scheduled seizure and landing, all business was suspended in Boston and people by the hundreds flocked in from surrounding towns. It was the greatest gathering the city had ever seen. Speeches were given and negotiations were carried on with the ship's captain, the customs men, and the governor, but by nightfall no progress had been made. "Who knows," a prominent merchant named John Rowe asked just before the meeting adjourned, "how tea will mix with salt water?"

Read part II