Taxation Without Representation, Part II

By James Norwood Pratt

...Continued from last month's article

"Who knows," a prominent merchant named John Rowe asked just before the meeting adjourned, "how tea will mix with salt water?" Whether this was a prearranged signal or not, it was answered by war whoops from a party of men, variously estimated from twenty to ninety, disguised as Mohawk Indians. Followed by throngs of patriots, they proceeded with businesslike directness to the ship, warned the customs officers and crew to keep out of their way, brought the chests of tea on deck, and emptied them over the side. They repeated this process on two other ships that had arrived carrying tea. The account of this action in the Massachusetts Gazette of 23 December 1773 concludes:

They applied themselves so dexterously to the destruction of this commodity, that in the space of three hours they broke up three hundred and forty-two chests, which was the whole number in these vessels, and discharged their contents into the dock. When the tide rose it floated the broken chests and tea insomuch that the surface of the water was filled therewith a considerable way from the south part of the town to Dorchester Neck, and lodged on the shores.

The fame of the Boston Tea Party has obscured the other tea protests, but others there were aplenty. Patriots disguised themselves as Indians on another occasion when tea meant for Philadelphia was actually unloaded in nearby Greenwich, then the largest town in New Jersey. Despite the efforts at secrecy, it was discovered and "none there were who dared to stay the weird figures in paint and feathers who burned it."

The Charleston consignees had a sudden change of heart about their arrangement with the Company, finding it much more in their interest not to accept delivery or pay duty on vie tea, which was stored in the dampest available cellar to rot. Almost a year later, a great crowd demonstrated in front of the docked ship Britannia that had arrived with seven more tea chests aboard. Fearing that the ship and its entire cargo might be burned, the owners rounded up the Company's consignees and forced them to help chop the chests open and dump their contents overboard in full view of the protesters.

Many a protest meeting had already been held in Philadelphia by the time Captain Ayres of the Polly reached there on 26 December 1773. He was met by a committee of citizens who demanded he accompany them to what proved the largest public meeting the city had yet seen. The city knew about the events in Greenwich already; it was in an outside square that Philadelphians first learned of the Boston Tea Party and unanimously passed a resolution that provided, among other things, "that the tea on board the ship Polly, [under] Captain Ayres, shall not be landed .... That Captain Ayres shall carry the tea back immediately .... That a committee of gentlemen be appointed to see these resolutions carried into execution." No doubt Captain Ayres was also impressed by the prominent posters demanding he be publicly tarred and feathered, for he wisely assured Philadelphia he would comply with the public wishes and next day set out on the long voyage back to London with his tea. The Company consignees were reasonable men who knew a stone wall when they saw one. They resigned.

A scene much the same was played in New York the following April and months afterwards at Annapolis, Maryland. The brig Peggy Steward landed with a ton of tea consigned to the ship's owner, a Scottish merchant of the town. He got as far as paying the duty on the tea before his fellow citizens assembled and offered him the choice of being hanged on the spot or setting fire to his ship, cargo and all. He made the obvious choice and left the country soon after for his health's sake.

Amidst the roar of cannon and musketry, this great Republic was born-with a prenatal disinclination for tea. The colonists had given it up, abruptly but completely. En route to sign the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote his wife Abigail how he asked at a tavern, "Is it lawful for a weary traveler to refresh himself with a dish of tea, provided it has been honestly smuggled and has paid no duty?" The landlord's daughter answered sternly: "No sir! We have renounced tea under this roof. But, if you desire it, I will make you some coffee."

The 1 May 1785 Daily Advertiser of New York has four ads for Souchong on the first page, as opposed to one for tea wares, one for Bohea "seventy chests, very fresh," and one offering "Souchong, Sequin, Tonkay, Singlo and Bohea." (Note that only since the domination of black tea in tea bags has "tea" meant just one thing, any more than the word "wine" designates a single sort of commodity.) But tea was by now an orphan product in post-Revolutionary America. When the Reverend Joseph McKean celebrated his ordination in Massachusetts that same year-presumably an austere occasion-the eighty-odd guests for both lunch and dinner consumed, according to the tavern bill, seventy-four bowls of a very alcoholic punch, twenty-eight bottles of wine, eight bowls of brandy and a shilling's worth of cherry rum. At the bottom of this formidable bill appears this modest item: "Six people drank tea-9 pence." Only six out of eighty-odd Americans drank tea in a year when England, having just repealed her taxes the year before, consumed thirty-two million pounds! The year before the Reverend McKean's party Americans had bought those teas advertised in New York directly from the Chinese, finally bypassing England's powerful monopoly, the East India Company.