Lord North, purblind to the rights of a continent,
eye on a few London merchants…
–Ezra Pound (1885-1972), Canto LXII
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 return 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 enormous surplus, direct to the colonies, without paying import duties, and to sell it through its own agents in America. Thus in effect the Company was granted 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.