Moments in History: Tyranny, Taxes, and Tea Parties

by Christian Rivera

In the years following the Seven Years’ War, disputes over taxation figured very prominently in the deterioration of relations between Britain and the colonies. The British government had allocated tremendous amounts of funding, troops, and resources to the war effort—which created a massive debt that needed to be serviced. As a consequence, the British government viewed the various acts they imposed on the colonists—who were British subjects—as a valid means of recouping their share of the costs of the war. This did not bode well with many Americans, who viewed the various acts imposed by Parliament as a usurpation of their right to self-taxation.

Another reason many colonists were so vehemently opposed to the British solution to the war debt was their lack of representation in Parliament. Although British Prime Minister, George Grenville, agreed with the concept of taxation by consent, he rejected the colonists’ grievances, asserting that the colonies were “virtually” represented in Parliament. Grenville insisted that the House of Commons represented all British subjects, regardless of their location. Colonial leaders, on the other hand, ardently rejected the notion of “virtual representation,” arguing that it could not endure the trans-Atlantic distance; indeed, colonists at large were unwilling to pay heavy taxes levied by a distant Parliament.

In addition to the taxes (which included the Sugar Act, the Stamp act, and the Tea act), other actions taken by Parliament aggravated the relationship between Britain and the colonies. For instance, the Declaratory Act—which was passed as the Stamp Act was repealed—asserted Parliament’s right to legislate for the colonies under all circumstances—a power grab intended to (among other things) secure the Parliament’s ability to impose any tax on the colonies it so desired. The colonists were further angered by a controversial provision of the Townshend duties (enacted in 1767), which directed that royal governors would draw their salaries from some of the revenue generated by taxes levied on the colonists.

As early as 1765, the colonists were angered to the point of unrest, and by 1768, British troops were stationed in Boston in order to deter any subsequent disturbances and restore civil order. The presence of British troops did little to change the attitudes of Bostonians. By 1770 tension gripped Boston, and culminated in what would soon be known as the Boston Massacre—an event that strengthened the resolve of American patriots. The colonists were becoming bolder in their displays of protest to British tyranny. When the Tea Act was passed in 1773, the colonists perceived it as a plot concocted by Parliament, intended to “trick” the colonists into buying the dutied tea. In Boston, after a twenty day stalemate between the colonists and Governor Hutchinson, thousands of pounds of tea ended up at the bottom of the Boston Harbor at the hands of angered colonists.

Parliament’s response was rapid and severe: they issued four new laws, known as the Coercive Acts, as a punitive measure in retaliation of the destruction of the tea. The laws closed Boston Harbor, greatly altered the charter of Massachusetts, affected the way trials for royal officials would be carried out, and permitted military commanders to lodge their troops wherever they saw fit—even in private residences.

A fifth law, known as the Quebec Act—which essentially gave Ohio to Quebec—had nothing to do with the Coercive Acts; however, it fed the fears of Americans nonetheless. The Quebec Act, paired with the Coercive Acts, became known to American colonists as the “Intolerable Acts,” and in essence, became the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. By the time the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in 1774, all of Massachusetts was on the brink of open insurrection.

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