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Monday, December 11, 2023

December 11, 2023: Boston Tea Party Studying: Causes

[This coming weekend marks the 250th anniversary of one of the most significant events in Colonial America, the Boston Tea Party. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of layers to that important moment, leading up to a special weekend tribute to some of the many BostonStudiers from whom I’ve learned a great deal!]

On a few key 1773 moments along the way to the Boston Tea Party.

1)      The Tea Act: One of the many (many many) crucial historical issues about which I knew very little for much of my AmericanStudying life was the role of the British East India Company in American colonial and Revolutionary history (to say nothing, as that hyperlinked article notes, of its roles in the whole world during this period). It’s not just that the company dominated trade between so much of the world, but also and even more importantly that the English government was willing to do whatever it could to support that economic institution. One such step was the Parliamentary Tea Act, which passed in April 1773 and went into effect in May; the law granted the East India Company virtually sole rights over the tea trade between England and the American colonies. This was far from the first controversial such law—that would be the Stamp Act of 1765—but it was another key step in the road toward Revolution.

2)      Franklin’s Satire: If laws were one form of historical documents that helped precipitate those Revolutionary responses, another of course were the impassioned and activist writings—often anonymous or pseudonymous, but no less potent for it—produced by colonial leaders. In September 1773, four months after the Tea Act went into effect, the London newspaper The Public Advertiser published such a work by none other than Ben Franklin himself. Entitled “Rules by Which a Great Empire May be Reduced to a Small One,” Franklin’s essay was deeply satirical, poking fun at a number of British missteps but certainly dwelling at length on precisely the kinds of economic extremes comprised by laws like the Tea Act. It’s impossible to know whether the anger that led to the Tea Party would have happened without this textual encouragement, but again these different layers undoubtedly worked together at the very least.

3)      The Dartmouth: Four total ships left England in November 1773 with the first shipments of East India Company tea affected by the new law; one (the William) was lost at sea and the other three arrived in Boston a few weeks later, with the first to dock being the Dartmouth. As that first hyperlinked article above highlights, the Dartmouth had originated in Nantucket, reflecting the complex interconnections between American shipping and these English companies and laws. Indeed, as I’ve argued both here and in Of Thee I Sing about Revolutionary War Loyalists, that community were just as much part of America (and thus the new United States) as were the revolutionaries. The Nantucket Quaker Rotch family behind the Dartmouth (and a second of the four ships, the Beaver) offer one small window into those multiple American communities, all of which were present at the Boston Tea Party in December 1773 to be sure.

Next Tea Party post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Tea Party takes you’d share?

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