In 1773, Britain’s East India Company was sitting on large stocks of tea that it could not sell in England. It was on the verge of bankruptcy. In an effort to save it, the government passed the Tea Act of 1773, which gave the company the right to export its merchandise directly to the colonies without paying any of the regular taxes that were imposed on the colonial merchants, who had traditionally served as the middlemen in such transactions. With these privileges, the company could undersell American merchants and monopolize the colonial tea trade. The act proved inflammatory for several reasons. First, it angered influential colonial merchants, who feared being replaced and bankrupted by a powerful monopoly. The East India Company’s decision to grant franchises to certain American merchants for the sale of their tea created further resentments among those excluded from this lucrative trade. More important, however, the Tea Act revived American passions about the issue of taxation without representation. The law provided no new tax on tea. Lord North (Prime Minister of Great Britain 1770-1782) assumed that most colonists would welcome the new law because it would reduce the price of tea to consumers by removing the middlemen. But the colonists responded by boycotting tea. Unlike earlier protests, this boycott mobilized large segments of the population. It also helped link the colonies together in a common experience of mass popular protest. Particularly important to the movement were the activities of colonial women, who were one of the principal consumers of tea and now became the leaders of the effort to the boycott.
Various colonies made plans to prevent the East India Company from landing its cargoes in colonial ports. In ports other than Boston, agents of the company were “persuaded” to resign, and new shipments of tea were either returned to England or warehoused. In Boston, the agents refused to resign and, with the support of the royal governor, preparations were made to land incoming cargoes regardless of opposition. After failing to turn back the three ships in the harbor, local patriots led by Samuel Adams staged a spectacular drama. On the evening of December 16, 1773, three companies of fifty men each, masquerading as Mohawk Indians, passed through a tremendous crowd of spectators, went aboard the three ships, broke open the tea chests, and heaved them into the harbor. As the electrifying news of the Boston “tea party” spread, other seaports followed the example and staged similar acts of resistance of their own.’
When the Bostonians refused to pay for the property they had destroyed, King George III and Lord North decided on a policy of coercion, to be applied against Massachusetts. These “Intolerable Acts”, as they were called by the colonists, banned town meetings, required colonists to provide food and shelter to British troops, and closed Boston Harbor until the tea was paid for. The closing of the harbor put many Bostonians out of work and, even worse, threatened starvation by keeping food from entering the city.
Though the Intolerable Acts were aimed at Massachusetts, the other twelve colonies realized that Britain would not hesitate to treat any of them just as harshly. The colonists bonded together as never before, sending food and other goods to help the people of Bostonians. Patriots and Loyalists alike knew it was only a matter of time before the first shots were fired in the American Revolution.