The American Revolution from 1775-1783 changed the world. In this article, Aidan Curran takes a unique look at the causes of the Revolution – stamps, sugar and tea. This article is part of our introductions to history series.

 

Thinking of hosting an afternoon tea party any time soon? Think again, you might just spark a revolution!

The Boston Tea Party in 1773 was not your ordinary tea party. There were no forced pleasantries, scrumptious pastries, or even tea being drunk. Instead, there were 60 men, dressed as Native Americans, flinging 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. This was in response to the British Government passing the Tea Act, which stated Americans had to buy tea from Britain only. Americans were less then pleased by this, as taxes were being placed on them, yet they had no representation in the British Parliament. This led to the cry for “No Taxation without Representation.” However, a tea party is not complete without sugar, and this was also a cause of the American Revolution. A third cause was a tax on stamps.

But before we get into tea, sugar, and stamps, it is important to understand what life was like for the colonists under British rule. Society was made up of ruling elites, from great landowners to British placemen, who were trying to make their fortune in the Thirteen Colonies. Nobody really cared about the colonists; everybody was in it to serve their own interests. Americans were restricted in their day-to-day living. The Navigation Acts stated that the most important goods had to be sent to British ports, and transported in British vessels. Turning crude iron into finished goods was also forbidden, along with selling beaver hats. Granted, not being able to buy a hat is hardly an excuse for a Revolution, but the fact remains: the colonists were serving needs other than their own, as economically they were restricted, and politically they had no influence. Upon the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, it was colonists who had to pay the price, literally. 

The tarring and feathering of the Loyalist Commissioner of Customs, John Malcolm, January 1774, underneath the Liberty Tree. He is also being forced to drink tea. In the background, the Boston Tea Party is taking place, an event that in reality occurred in December 1773. Painting attributed to Philip Dawe.

The tarring and feathering of the Loyalist Commissioner of Customs, John Malcolm, January 1774, underneath the Liberty Tree. He is also being forced to drink tea. In the background, the Boston Tea Party is taking place, an event that in reality occurred in December 1773. Painting attributed to Philip Dawe.

War Debt

Why did Britain have to impose taxes on tea, sugar, and stamps? From 1754-1763, they battled with France over North American territory, which is known as the Seven Years’ War. To fight this war, Britain borrowed huge amounts of money from banks and individual investors. The colonists assisted Britain in the war by providing soldiers and economic resources, and this made Britain realize just how important the colonies were in maintaining its status as a world power.

Were the British grateful for the colonists help though? Absolutely not!

The British saw the colonists as inferiors, whose main role was to enrich the mother country. One British official even described the colonists as “fools.” In fact, the British even believed that Americans should be grateful for the continued protection they received, and so did not hesitate in making Americans pay for the war debt.

 

Taxing the Colonies

And now, we get to the tea, sugar, and stamps! By placing taxes on these items, Britain hoped to regain the huge amount of money that it had spent fighting the Seven Years War. In 1764, the Sugar Act was introduced by Prime Minister George Grenville, which forced Americans to pay a three-cent tax on sugar. There was also a tax placed on wine and coffee.

While, the Sugar Act was really only a new reinforced aspect of the Navigation Acts, the Stamp Act was a new matter altogether. Introduced in 1765, it placed a tax on every single piece of paper that Americans used, from newspapers to playing cards.

Now, it would seem reasonable that a person should be able to buy tea from wherever they want, don’t you think? Well, the British didn’t think so. The Tea Act of 1773 meant that if Americans wanted tea, they had to buy it from the British owned East India Company. And the colonists certainly liked their tea – they drank at least 1.2 million pounds of it every year.

The colonists were annoyed, very annoyed indeed. Not so much with the acts themselves, but the fact that Britain was making decisions without their consent. Furthermore, the colonists believed that if they were paying taxes, they should be represented in the British Parliament, and devised the slogan “No Taxation without Representation.” This simply meant that if colonists were to pay taxes, they wanted somebody in the British Parliament, who would claim their rights and fight taxation. If Americans were British citizens, they wanted to be treated as such.

 

American reaction to taxation

Feeling that their rights were being violated, colonists reacted to taxation with mass meetings, protests, and boycotting British goods. Everything revolved around the word “liberty.” Opponents of the new taxes went as far as to hold mock funerals, in which liberty’s coffin would be carried to the grave. At the last minute, the occupant would jump out of the coffin, and everybody would go to a tavern and celebrate. In Boston, there is a large elm tree, where protesters once hanged an effigy of stamp distributor Andrew Oliver, and this became known as the Liberty Tree. Mass meetings were also held under this tree, and this space became known as Liberty Hall.

In New York, hundreds of residents passed through the streets every night shouting “liberty.” Around this time too, the Sons of Liberty were formed, and while they were unsupported by society’s elite, they had a large following from the city’s laborers, craftsmen, and sailors. A British officer by the name of Major Thomas James infuriated colonists by boasting that he would force the stamps down New Yorkers’ throats, and the colonists reacted by destroying his home.

Faced with such resistance, the British government repealed the stamp act in 1766. However, they did proceed to pass a Declaratory Act, which dismissed the colonists’ claims that they should be represented in Parliament.

The Townsend Acts also contributed to the American Revolution. They angered the colonists even further by placing taxes on glass and paper. The colonists again protested and boycotted British goods. British troops were sent to enforce the laws, but this led to many unpleasant clashes with colonists. Indeed, on March 5, 1770, the Boston Massacre took place. British troops who were guarding a customs house, opened fire and killed five Bostonians, while wounding many more. It is believed that the soldiers panicked, after somebody began to throw snowballs.

In response to the Tea Act imposed by the British government, colonists boarded three British ships in Boston Harbor and threw $4 million worth of tea into the sea. This is event of now known as the Boston Tea Party. As the British loved their tea (and money), they were furious, and quickly and decisively enforced the Intolerable Acts. As part of the Acts, Boston’s port was closed to all trade until the tea was paid for, town meetings were banned, and colonists had no choice but to feed and house the extra British soldiers that were sent to keep order. The British realized that they had to stand firm against the Americans – to back down over the Tea Party would portray them as weak to their other colonies. Again, colonists responded with resistance and defiance to the Intolerable Acts, claiming that their rights to liberty were being violated. They went so far as to accuse the British as being “instigated by the devil.” Revolution was edging ever closer…

 

The Continental Congress and outbreak of war

In response to the Intolerable Acts, the First Continental Congress was held in Philadelphia from September 5 through October 26, and urged citizens to resist the new laws and prepare themselves for war. It was here that Patrick Henry made his famous proclamation: “Give me liberty, or give me death!”

The Continental Congress was the final bolt that opened the door of Revolution. By May 1775, war had broken out between British soldiers and armed colonists.

 

 To sum it all up

Who knew a row over tea, sugar, and stamps could contribute to the establishment of one of the world’s great superpowers? However, as has been outlined, there were many factors that led to the American Revolution and, eventually, American Independence. Colonists were tired of being seen as inferior and wanted to have the rights of an English citizen, but more importantly, they wanted the rights of a human being. They also felt they should not be made to pay for Britain’s debt resulting from the Seven Years War. In addition, they thought that they should not have to pay taxes if they were not represented in Parliament – “No Taxation without Representation.”

With the Declaration of Independence, Americans were allowed to embark on their “pursuit of happiness” and realize their goals. They could shape their society in whichever way they saw fit. Oh, and they had the freedom to buy tea from whoever they chose…

 

You can find out more from Aidan Curran on his site here or his Twitter feed here.

 

This article is the first in what will be occasional articles on introductions to history. Introductions to History will feature an overview of a major event in world history, often told in a somewhat humorous or different way!

 

Finally, you can find out more about the American Revolution in our podcast series here.

 

 

Selected References

  • The American Revolution, Colin Bonwick
  • The American Revolution, Edward Countryman
  • The Limits of Liberty, Maldwyn Jones
  • Give Me Liberty!, Eric Foner
  • http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/patrick.asp
  • http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/era.cfm?eraID=3&
  • http://history.howstuffworks.com/revolutionary-war/boston-tea-party1.htm
  • http://www.usfca.edu/fac_staff/conwell/revolution/tea.htm