Even though it had a virtual global monopoly on the tea trade, by 1772, the British East India Company was burdened with tons of unsold tea and associated financial problems. One of the reasons for these problems was that, to resist paying the Townshend import duty of two shillings and three pence per pound, imposed by England, merchants in the American colonies were operating a black market of lesser quality tea than The Company’s bohea variety.
Consequently, on May 10, 1773, the English Parliament passed the Tea Act, which provided for The Company’s tea to be sold at a significant discount in America. The Act did not impose any new tax, but it did do two things: 1) the lower price would undercut the colonists’ black market; and 2) each pound of the cheaper tea would still generate Townshend duty revenue.
In most market actions, lower prices are welcomed by consumers, especially for a superior product. But in 1773 America, where even the slightest westward twitch of the British government was considered by the once and future revolutionaries as disrespect at a minimum and oppression at a maximum, English ships laden with tariff-generating cheap tea were not welcome in American harbors.
Resistance to The Company’s cheap tea was universally vociferous throughout the colonies, but in New England, the reaction manifested in the immortal Boston Tea Party. What the English government did not learn from the Boston Tea Party was that resistance by the American colonists was more about the principle of liberty than any specific government policy.
So far, I haven’t joined the modern-day Tea Party movement, attended any of their gatherings or even interviewed any self-proclaimed members on my radio show. But as a small business owner wanting little more from the Federal government than for it to do me no harm, increasing anti-market sentiment and intrusive policies surely make me identify with the principles of the 21st century Tea Party and its 18th century namesake.
On the 237th anniversary of the Tea Act, the U.S. government would do well to not minimize what is behind peaceful resistance to intrusive policies or indignation to words that offend self-determination. It’s not just about a tax, tariff, tea or health care, it’s about liberty.
Americans haven’t come lately to their love for liberty nor their willingness to stick a finger in the eye of any usurper of that beloved principle which, more than anything else, is America’s greatest product.