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British Actions That Led to the American Revolution: The Boston Tea Party to the Shot Heard Round the World

Updated on March 6, 2018

The Boston Tea Party

The years after the Boston Massacre of 1770 saw a decline in the simmering tensions between the British government and its North American colonies. However, a major misunderstanding in 1773 turned America closer to open rebellion, and the events that would unfold over the next two years threw the proverbial gasoline on the fire. The East India Company, due to war in Mysore and a famine in Bengal, had a stockpile of 17 million pounds of tea that it could not sell.

The Indian tea faced a duty of more than 100% when unloaded in London. After unloading, the tea would then be sold in Britain or re-exported to the colonies with an additional tax added to the cost. The government passed the 1773 Tea Act to clear out some of this stockpile and help the company’s financial situation.

The provisions of the Tea Act allowed the East India Company to take 7 million pounds of the tea direct to the American colonies without paying the London duty. The only tax would be the tax paid in America. This actually lowered the cost of the tea below that of smuggled Dutch tea that the Americans had been drinking in opposition to the Navigation Acts. It would even be a lower cost than that at which Londoners could buy the tea.

The British “thought that on these terms [the colonists] would hardly try to continue to boycott [the tea]. In this way the government expected to manoeuvre them into buying tea which had paid the vestigial remains of the duties Townshend had imposed. (Lloyd 94-95)

Rather than viewing the Tea Act as a bargain, certain Americans who really disliked perceived British encroachments on liberty, such as Sam Adams and John Hancock, met in Boston and refused to allow the ships to unload the tea. On the night of December 16, 1773, Adams and his compatriots dressed up as Mohawks and made the Boston Harbor a teapot as they boarded a British merchant vessel and dumped its cargo into the water. They did not pay the duties and they did not take delivery of the tea.

The Boston Tea Party

The Boston Tea Party by Nathaniel Currier
The Boston Tea Party by Nathaniel Currier | Source

The Intolerable Acts

George III and the British government were not amused at this display of American rebelliousness. Many American colonists also had a problem with this action, as it involved destruction of private property, something most colonists found very sacred. In early 1774 the British government passed a series of four acts dubbed collectively the Coercive Acts, although the colonists referred to them as the Intolerable Acts.

The first of these acts was the Boston Port Act, which closed the port of Boston until the colonists reimbursed the price of the tea dumped into the harbor. For a city that relied on maritime commerce, this act was especially disconcerting.

The second act was the Act for the Impartial Administration of Justice, which gave the British authorities the right to try cases involving British government officials in another colony or Britain, rather than the colonies. From a British perspective government officials were unlikely to get a fair trial in Boston, but the colonists viewed this as an infringement upon their customs.

Parliament also passed a new Quartering Act that permitted the use of abandoned buildings by British soldiers in addition to the previous requirement of provisioning food and shelter for the regulars.

The final of the Coercive Acts was the Massachusetts Government Act, which called for the legislative assembly to be made up of members appointed by the royal governor. The act also banned the Boston Town Meeting.

The colonists found these acts egregious infringements upon their traditional rights. Shortly after the passage of these acts, the British government appointed General Thomas Gage as governor of Massachusetts, which effectively set up martial law in the colony.

The Quebec Act

A fifth act from 1774 that is often included with the Intolerable Acts (even by T. O. Lloyd) was the Quebec Act. This legislation was not a part of the Coercive Acts, but the colonists found it no less a reason for concern. The Quebec Act officially codified the religious status of French-speaking Catholics in Quebec.

While the colonists were no fans of Catholicism, the governmental repercussions of the act caused greater frustration. The Quebec Act set up an appointed council that permitted Catholics to sit as members.

New Englanders and other colonists saw this as an affront to their tradition of elected assemblies, and it effectively established Catholicism as the religion of Quebec. In addition, the Quebec Act expanded the boundary of Quebec into the Ohio Valley and kept French legal procedures for local matters.Sam Adams and similarly-minded colonists wondered if this was a blueprint for the rest of the colonies and that a similar governmental structure was in their future.

Reaction in Britain and America

This crisis led to the calling of the First Continental Congress. Thomas Jefferson and a few other members of this congress began to promote what they called the Dominion Theory of government. They argued that the colonial legislatures were equal to Parliament in their sphere. Parliament answered to the king; therefore, the colonial legislatures answered to the king, not Parliament. Joseph Galloway proposed the old Albany Plan of 1754, but Paul Revere rode in with the more radical Suffolk County Resolves, which the Congress adopted. These resolves repudiated the Intolerable Acts and dictated a more rebellious stance of solidarity with Bostonians.

Throughout this tense period, prominent Whig politicians in Parliament supported the colonies in their confrontation with the British government. William Pitt understood the importance of the colonies; he had thrown the weight of the British army and navy behind them in the Seven Years’ War. Pitt and Edmund Burke encouraged leniency on the colonies. They feared an all-out rebellion that could cost Britain the crown jewel of their first empire.

Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, argued that colonies cost too much money. He advocated just letting the colonies go their own way because he believed free trade with the former colonies would bring in more money to the national coffers than the old mercantilist system had without the cost associated with British governmental administration and protection.

George III disagreed wholeheartedly with these voices of reason within and without his government. Instead, he intended to crack down on the colonies. As T.O. Lloyd argued, “This reduced relations between Britain and America to the connection between the colonies and the King, and it was most unlikely that this connection would stand much strain.” Parliament understood how difficult money was to extract from America, but George III wanted obedience in spite of these difficulties. (Lloyd 96)

The Shot Heard 'Round the World

The Massachusetts militia continued their work in spite of the Intolerable Acts and began stockpiling weapons and ammunition outside of Boston. Governor/General Gage received orders in April 1775 to arrest rabble rousers like Sam Adams and John Hancock while seizing the stockpiles of patriot arms. While on the way to Concord, Massachusetts, Gage’s men and patriot minute men met on Lexington Green.

Although the colonies did not immediately declare independence after this “shot heard ‘round the world,” this was truly the start of the American Revolution. In spite of this open violence, many American colonists continued to have doubts as to its wisdom, even after the Revolution ended in 1781.

In 1773 the British government thought it was merely doing a favor for the East India Company that would at the same time mutually benefit the American colonies with cheaper tea. Instead of being hailed in North America, this act met resistance from radicals who saw it as an attack on their liberties. Although it did not immediately or inevitably start the American Revolution, the Boston Tea Party and the British response to it started the American colonists on the path to the revolution that would end with their independence within a decade.


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