Near the end of the eighteenth century, the British East India Company was one of the world’s biggest and richest business associations. Despite trade regulations, the company effectively held a monopoly on trade between England and its colonies. Though chartered by the state, it held a private army and used its military strength to govern large territories in India. Yet despite its power and reach, the company was in financial trouble. Among its many problems was a surplus of tea.
At the time, the Company complied with trade regulations that required all its tea to be sold in London. From London, British merchants could ship tea to the American colonies and sell it at a markup. In addition, tea was subject to the Townshend Act taxes, a program intended to raise revenue to help England govern its colonies and which was disputed by colonists, who felt that they were not adequately represented by Parliament. The combined taxes and markup made British East India Company tea particularly expensive, and many colonists instead purchased tea that was smuggled illegally from Dutch East India Company traders. Hence the tea surplus in British warehouses: colonists weren’t buying.
The Tea Act of 1773 was intended to correct this problem by permitting the Company to export tea directly to the colonies, therefore bypassing the middleman markup and double taxation from landing first in London and then in the colonies. Ostensibly, the act had benefits for both sides. The Company gained an opportunity to clear out their surplus and recoup some losses on the tea–which is why some historians refer to the Tea Act as a corporate bailout. The colonists had the opportunity to buy better quality tea at significantly less cost without reverting to illegal activity.
But many colonial leaders opposed the Tea Act because it upheld the much-protested Townshend Act taxes; accepting the tea consignments meant paying taxes without representation. And so, in major ports along the eastern seaboard, colonists refused to allow the tea-bearing ships to dock. In some cities, this merely meant that ships remained in the harbor or tea remained in the ships. Of course, as we know well, some cities destroyed the tea rather than pay duty on it. Boston and Chesterton tossed their tea overboard. Princeton and Wilmington subjected their tea to public burning. (Quirk Books recently posted about some of the lesser-known colonial tea protests, cheekily pairing each with a unique brew.)
Though the widespread destruction of tea did not earn its ironic nickname until decades after the Tea Act, the idea of a “tea party” protest has remained vivid in American imagination and current events frequently allude to the events to invoke righteous protest. Most notably in recent American history, a loose and leaderless collection of fiscally conservative constituents took the name “Tea Party,” which supposedly refers to their opposition to high and complicated taxes, although many recorded Tea Party protests have been rallies against certain kinds of government spending, like healthcare. The Boston tea party in particular is often invoked to defend the destruction of public property in the wake of unjust or oppressive state actions, such as the riots in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown and in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray.
These modern-day invocations of “tea party” have power in part due to the contradictory connotations of the term. A tea party in the literal sense is the very model of propriety: tea parties are polite and social affairs governed by the sacred rules of hospitality and ornamented in accordance with the aesthetics of delicacy and refinement (and, often, femininity). A Tea Party threatens just the opposite: a hostile and potentially violent retaliation, an abandonment of social rules in response to a perceived breach of contract by a governing body.