The Boston Tea Party was not actually in protest against a tax on tea so much as against a monopoly on tea by the British East India Company. Many American colonists had been boycotting tea imported from England since the 1767 passage of taxes on it, along with many other imported items. However, avoiding tea or only buying tea smuggled in from other countries (British law forbade any tea to be imported from anywhere but Britain) was a much bigger sacrifice for Americans than avoiding other items, as according to a Pennsylvania pastor, it was "a drink very generally used. No one is so high as to despise it, nor anyone so low as not to think himself worthy of it."

Most of the taxes were repealed in 1770, but the three pence per pound tax on tea was kept because Lord North, English prime minister, wanted to make it clear that England was still asserting its right to tax items imported into the colonies. So many Americans continued to prefer smuggled tea, as did many in England. The East India Company piled up unsold tea in its warehouses because so many people in England were buying smuggled tea; as a way to dispose of it, Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773, which allowed the East India Company to transport tea directly from its plantations in the East Indies to the American colonies without having brought it to England first. This cut the price of the tea in America substantially, because that extra stop was eliminated. Legal tea could be sold in America for less than smuggled tea which usually went through Holland.

However, American patriots felt that they were being used as a dumping ground for the tea, and that the English figured the colonists would abandon their principles for money. Those who believed that England should not have so much control over American commerce continued the boycott of English tea. When ships carrying it arrived in Boston harbor, signs were posted all over the city saying,

Friends! Brethren! Countrymen!
That worst of plagues, the detestable tea, shipped for this port by the East India Company, is now arrived in this harbour. The hour of destruction or manly opposition to the machinations of tyranny stares you in the face.
So colonists disguised as Mohawk Indians snuck aboard three ships the night of December 16, 1773, and dumped 342 chests of tea (worth about 10,000 pounds) into the water. They followed up this by marching through the city streets with pipes and drums. John Adams' diary describes it as "the most magnificent moment of all . . . this destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid, and inflexible, and it must have so important consequences..." Paul Revere rode to New York to spread the news. In the next year, at least four other "tea parties" of the same nature were held in other colonial cities, as well as numerous public bonfires for burning the tea people had already bought. Ironically enough, though, by 1776 when the American Revolution's fighting had actually started, the boycotts on tea were dropped since there seemed to no longer be any need for these less violent forms of protest.

Source: Barr, Andrew. Drink: A Social History of America. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1999.

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