The Debunker: Was the Boston Tea Party a Protest Against High Taxes?

It’s May, and that means only one thing to all men and women of good will: National Beverage Day on the sixth of this month! We all love a refreshing beverage, but how much do we really know about them? If you’re thirsty for knowledge, take a deep, satisfying swig of Jeopardy!‘s Ken Jennings, who will be debunking drink-related disinformation all month. As Alexander Pope once said, “A little learning is a dangerous thing, / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring”!

The Debunker: Was the Boston Tea Party a Protest Against High Taxes?

When the American colonists heard about the Tea Act of 1773, they did exactly what you or I would do in that situation: dressed as Native Americans, boarded three merchant ships, and destroyed almost fifty tons of tea by dumping it into Boston harbor. Most American schoolkids, entranced by the romance and wanton vandalism of that night, tend to logically assume that the Tea Act had raised taxes on tea, and that’s why the Bostonians were so pissed off. But that’s not true—in fact, the Tea Act lowered taxes, and lowered tea prices. Wait, what?

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Here’s what really went down: the Tea Act, unlike the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act and all those other acts of Parliament that the American colonists hated, wasn’t primarily a play for tax revenue. It was a bailout! The struggling East India Company was having a hard time staying profitable, so Parliament decided to incentivize the sale of cheap tea to America. Tea prices were going to go down—and that was exactly what the Sons of Liberty were worried about. Parliament had never repealed its 1767 tax on tea, so Americans would have been paying the crown three pennies per pound of imported tea, roughly half what an Englishman back home would pay. But it was the principle of the thing! An influx of cheap British tea, combined with a nominal tax, might help to normalize Parliament’s policy of “taxation without representation.” It would also continue the trend of giving British imports preferential treatment over home-grown products. So the patriots headed to the boats.

The popular classroom image of the Sons of Liberty dropping whole crates of tea into Boston harbor is also inaccurate. The crates were just too heavy, so the boarding party opened them with axes and dumped the loose-leaf tea overboard. Both George Washington and Ben Franklin thought the Boston Tea Party was a colossal mistake, but they got lucky: Parliament responded with the punitive “Intolerable Acts” of 1774 and that pushed lots of on-the-fence colonists into the independence camp. Even more importantly, the raid added the phrase “tea party” to the American lexicon of protest, guaranteeing that every modern-day tax rally will forever feature a bunch of doofuses in three-corner hats.

Quick Quiz: What classic novel’s Chapter Seven is titled “A Mad Tea-Party”?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He’s also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o’ Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

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