In early 1767, the British Parliament adopted the plan offered by Charles Townshend, chancellor of the exchequer, to levy import duties on a range of items used in the American colonies, including paper, lead, glass, dyes, and tea.
The colonists were outraged, and full enforcement of the duties was impossible. By early 1769, merchants in every colony were refusing to import British goods. Many products, tea in particular, were being smuggled in from other countries. Poorly paid customs officials survived on bribes. Those trying to execute their duties were frequently greeted at gunpoint. Friends and neighbors would surround houses officials tried to search for contraband. Colonists refused to testify against one another. All told, there was only one smuggling conviction in New England in two and one-half years.
The less radical colonists responded to the Townshend duties with a great deal of pamphleteering. Moderate John Dickinson wrote in his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, “[W]e cannot be free without being secure in our property–… we cannot be secure in our property if without our consent others may as by right take it away–… taxes imposed on us by Parliament do thus take it away.”
In 1770, Parliament repealed most of the Townshend taxes, but retained the tax on tea, and the smuggling of that product continued. By 1773, 15-20 million pounds of unsold tea languished in British warehouses. British prime minister Lord North decided to reduce – but not repeal — the tea tax, thus underselling the smuggled tea, and export it to colonial merchants.
The gesture offended the colonists. The financial cost of the tax was not the issue inflaming them. The true issue was the moral question of whether or not Britain had the right to tax the colonists at all without their consent. Attempting to undersell the smuggled tea was seen as an attempt at bribery.
Seven tea-carrying ships set sail – four for Boston and one each for New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Most of the New York merchants refused to stock the tea. The people of Philadelphia adopted resolutions declaring that since “the duty imposed by Parliament upon tea landed in America is a tax on the Americans, or levying contributions on them without their consent, it is the duty of every American to oppose this attempt”. The intimidated importers in those two cities sent the tea back. In Charleston, the tea was unloaded and then sat unsold in warehouses.
As usual, the patriots of Boston were rowdier. On the evening of December 16, 168 Sons of Liberty, disguised as Mohawks, rowed out to the anchored tea ships, boarded them, split open the cargo chests, and dumped their contents – approximately ₤15,000 worth – into the harbor.
The British reacted to the Boston Tea Party in early 1774 with what became known as the Intolerable Acts. The port of Boston was ordered closed until the patriots made restitution for the tea. A new quartering act required families to lodge British soldiers in their homes. The Massachusetts Government Act made the colony’s council and law-enforcement officers all appointive by the crown. The Administration of Justice Act permitted the transfer of any British official accused of committing an offense while on duty to be tried in England.
The Intolerable Acts were intended to make an example of Boston and intimidate the other colonies. In fact, they had the opposite effect: They unified the colonies.
In Virginia, George Washington argued that the colonies must not “suffer ourselves to be sacrificed by piece meals”. In Williamsburg, that colony’s capital, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and other members of the House of Burgesses drafted a successful resolution declaring June 1, 1774, a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer in support of the Bostonians.
In response, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor, dissolved the Virginia Assembly …