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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
The Tea Tax and the Boston Port Bill
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[The state of irritation into which America had been thrown by the injudicious measures of the British Parliament was not allayed by its subsequent action. Before proceeding with the record of these events, reference may be made to an outbreak which at this time occurred in North Carolina, not directly due to English action, yet arising from the corruption and inefficiency of functionaries of the British government. Abuses in the collection of exorbitant fees by public officers, and in permitting the sheriffs and tax-collectors to delay the payment of public moneys, produced an association of the poorer colonists, who claimed that they were being overtaxed for the support of dishonest officers, and who assumed the title of Regulators. Other events added to their discontent, and they broke out into wild outrages, assembling in 1771 to the number of two thousand, and declaring their purpose to abolish courts of justice, exterminate lawyers and public officers, and overturn the provincial government in favor of some mad scheme of democracy devised by their foolish or knavish leaders. The respectable part of the community rose in opposition to these insurgents, and in a battle at Almansee, on May 16, the Regulators were routed, three hundred of them being left dead on the field. Others were condemned and executed for high treason, and peace was restored to the province. Events more directly connected with the struggle between the colonies and Great Britain rapidly succeeded in the other provinces, a statement of the more important of which we select from Grahame's "Colonial History of the United States."]

An act of violence committed by the colonists of Rhode Island, though less memorable in respect of its intrinsic importance than the insurrection of the Regulators in North Carolina, excited more general attention from its significance as an indication of the height to which the general current of American sentiment was rising. The commander of the Gaspee, an armed British schooner stationed at Providence, had exerted much activity in supporting the trade laws and punishing the increasing contraband traffic of the Americans, and had provoked additional resentment by firing at the Providence packets in order to compel them to salute his flag by lowering theirs as they passed his vessel, and by chasing them even into the docks in case of refusal. The master of a packet conveying passengers to Providence (June 9, 1772), which was fired at and chased by the Gaspee for neglecting to pay the requisite tribute of respect, took advantage of the state of the tide (it being almost high water) to stand in so closely to the shore that the Gaspee in the pursuit might be exposed to run aground. The artifice succeeded; the Gaspee presently stuck fast, and the packet proceeded in triumph to Providence, where a strong sensation was excited by the tidings of the occurrence, and a project was hastily formed to improve the blow and destroy the obnoxious vessel. Brown, an eminent merchant, and Whipple, a ship-master, took the lead in this bold adventure, and easily collected a sufficient band of armed and resolute men, with whom they embarked in whale- boats to attack the British ship of war. At two o'clock the next morning they boarded the Gaspee so suddenly and in such numbers that her crew were instantly overpowered, without hurt to any one except her commanding officer, who was wounded. The captors, having despatched a part of their number to convey him, together with his private effects and his crew, ashore, set fire to the Gaspee and destroyed her, with all her stores The issue of this daring act of war against the naval force of the king was as remarkable as the enterprise itself. [A large reward was offered for information, and commissioners appointed to try the offenders.] But no trial took place. Nobody came forward to claim the proffered reward;. . and in the commencement of the following year the commissioners reported to the British ministry their inability, notwithstanding the most diligent inquisition, to procure evidence or information against a single individual.

[In Massachusetts a violent enmity had arisen between Hutchinson, the governor, and the majority of the Assembly, which produced several controversies. Among the most notable of these was the effort of the Assembly to abolish the slave- trade. In 1712 the importation of slaves into Massachusetts had been forbidden, but her merchants were not restrained from conveying slaves to other provinces. No fewer than four bills prohibiting traffic in negroes were, during the administrations of Governors Bernard and Hutchinson, passed by the Assembly, but they were all negatived by the governors.]

The British government, meanwhile, having rashly determined to enforce the Tea- duty Act, of which the most considerable effect hitherto was a vast importation of smuggled tea into America by the French, the Dutch, the Danes, and the Swedes, attempted to compass by policy what constraint and authority had proved insufficient to accomplish. The measures of the Americans had already occasioned such diminution of exports from Britain that the warehouses of the English East India Company contained above seventeen millions of pounds of tea, for which it was difficult to procure a market. The unwillingness of the Company to lose their commercial profits, and of the ministry to forego the expected revenue from the sale of tea in America, induced a compromise for their mutual advantage. A high duty was imposed hitherto on the exportation of tea from England; but the East India Company were now authorized by act of Parliament to export their tea free of duty to all places whatever (may, 1773). By this contrivance it was expected that tea, though loaded with an exceptionable tax on its importation into America, would yet readily obtain purchasers among the Americans; as the vendors, relieved of the British export duty, could afford to sell it to them even cheaper than before it was made a source of American revenue.

The crisis now drew near when the Americans were to decide whether they would submit to be taxed by the British Parliament, or practically support their own principles and brave the most perilous consequences of their inflexibility. One common sentiment was awakened throughout the whole continent by the tidings of the ministerial device, which was universally reprobated as an attempt, at once injurious and insulting, to bribe the Americans to surrender their rights and bend their own necks to the yoke of arbitrary power. A violent ferment arose; the corresponding committees and political clubs exerted their utmost activity to rouse and unite the people; and it was generally declared that, as every citizen owed to his country the duty at least of refraining from being accessory to her subjugation, every man who countenanced the present measure of the British government should be deemed an enemy of America. .

The East India Company, confident of finding a market for their tea, reduced as it was now in price, freighted several ships to America with this commodity, and appointed consignees to receive and dispose of it. Some cargoes were sent to New York, some to Philadelphia, some to Charleston, the metropolis of South Carolina, and some to Boston. The inhabitants of New York and Philadelphia prevailed with the consignees to disclaim their functions, and forced the ships to return with their cargoes to London. The inhabitants of Charleston unladed the tea, and deposited it in public cellars, where it was locked up from use and finally perished. At Boston, the consignees, who were the near kinsmen of Governor Hutchinson, at first refused to renounce their appointments (November 5); and the vessels containing the tea lay for some time in the harbor, watched by a strong guard of the citizens, who, from a numerous town meeting, despatched peremptory commands to the ship-masters not to land their obnoxious cargoes. . [The consignees] proposed then to the people that the tea should be landed, and preserved in some public store or magazine; but this compromise was indignantly rejected. At length the popular rage broke through every restraint of order and decency. From the symptoms of its dangerous fervor the consignees fled in dismay to the Castle; while an assemblage of men, dressed and painted like Mohawk Indians, boarded the vessels and threw the tea into the ocean (December 16).

It was remarked with some surprise that during the whole of this transaction the civil and military force of government, including the garrison of Castle William and several ships of war in the harbor, remained completely inactive. The governor, indeed, issued a proclamation forbidding the people to assemble in factious meetings. But the council, when their protection was implored by the consignees, refused to interfere at all in the matter; and though, after the outrage was committed, they condemned its perpetration and invoked legal vengeance upon all who had been engaged in it, the futility of this demonstration was obvious to every eye. To procure legal proof that would implicate even a single individual was notoriously impossible.

[Another source of popular irritation was the proceeding of the ministry against Franklin. He had obtained and made public some letters of Hutchinson and others, misrepresenting the occurrences in America and pressing the ministry to support their schemes by military power. The Massachusetts Assembly now petitioned the king to remove these obnoxious persons from office. This was refused, and severe measures were taken against Franklin.]

On the following day [after the rejection of the petition] Franklin was dismissed by the British government from the office of postmaster-general of America. These proceedings, and especially the elaborate malignity of insult heaped [during the discussion] upon a man whom they so highly admired and respected, sank deeply into the minds of the Americans. Another act of British power, that was directed with the most childish absurdity against the scientific repute of Franklin, awakened the liveliest derision and disdain in America. For the king, shortly after, transported by the blindest abhorrence of the American philosopher, for whom he had once professed esteem, actually caused the electrical conductors invented by Franklin to be removed from the palace of Buckingham House and replaced by instruments of far less skilful construction and efficient capacity.

[Hutchinson was soon after recalled to England, ostensibly to inform the ministers regarding the state of the colonies.]

Along with Tryon, who was afterwards recalled from New York, and Carleton, the governor of Canada, he was desired by the cabinet to declare his opinion whether the Americans, in the last extremity, would venture to resist the arms of Britain. Hutchinson confidently predicted that they would either not fight at all, or at most offer no further opposition than what a few troops could easily quell. Carleton protested that America might certainly be conquered, but that a considerable army would be necessary for this purpose, and that, for himself, he would not venture to march against New York or Boston with a smaller force than ten thousand men. Tryon declared that Britain would require large armies and long efforts to bring America to her feet; that her power was equal to anything, but that all her power must be exerted in order to put the monster in chains. The representations of Hutchinson were the most congenial to the sentiments and the temper of the British government; and, unfortunately for England, they were corroborated by the kindred folly and ignorance of many British statesmen and officers. "The Americans are a degenerate race of Europeans; they have nothing of the soldier in them," was the customary language of men who were destined by their own defeats to illustrate the valor which they depreciated, and who learned too late to consider the Americans as a regenerated race of Europeans, in whom the energy of freemen more than supplied the mechanical expertness of severely-disciplined slaves. General Clarke. . declared in a company of learned men at London, and in the hearing of Dr. Franklin, that with a thousand British grenadiers he would undertake to march from one end of America to another. . Another general officer asserted in the House of Commons that "The Yankees (a foolish nickname which now began to be applied to the Americans) never felt bold."

The speeches of other military officers in Parliament, and of the prime minister, Lord North, conveyed ideas equally calculated to delude their countrymen and to inflame by contumely all the rage and courage which injustice and injury had already kindled in the Americans. "Believe me, my lords," said the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, in the House of Peers, "the first sound of a cannon will send the Americans a-running as fast as their feet can carry them." Unfortunately for his country, he was believed.

[During the period here indicated the population of America was rapidly increasing. We have few statistics, but these are very suggestive. Seventeen thousand three hundred and fifty emigrants reached America from the north of Ireland alone in 1771 and 1772. In the first fortnight of August, 1773, three thousand five hundred emigrants from Ireland landed at Philadelphia. Many others came from Scotland, Holland, Germany, and elsewhere. The country was fast filling up with people who had been oppressed at home and who were in the proper temper to strike for liberty abroad.

With the infatuation which had all along marked the acts of Parliament and the ministry, new measures of coercion were now adopted, calculated to increase the irritation of the colonists. Exasperated by the opposition to the sale of tea in America, and in particular by its destruction at Boston, the ministry determined on more stringent measures, and selected this town as the culprit to be disciplined. A bill was hastily passed, suspending the trade and closing the harbor of Boston. It was followed by another bill destroying the representative government of Massachusetts, by declaring that the provincial council should be appointed by the crown, that the royal governor should appoint and remove all important executive officers, and that no town meeting should be held without written permission from the governor.

Other stringent measures were passed, despite the warning protest of an old member of the House of Commons: "If there ever was a nation running headlong to its ruin, it is this." The tidings of the passage of these bills produced universal indignation in America. Philadelphia made a liberal contribution in aid of the poorer inhabitants of Boston who might be injured by the operation of the Port Bill. In Virginia a day of fasting and prayer was ordered, and Jefferson published an indignant protest. Strong feeling was exhibited in all the other provinces.]

On the day when the operation of the Boston Port Bill was appointed to commence (June 1, 1774) all the commercial business of the capital of Massachusetts was concluded at noon, and the harbor of this flourishing town was closed, till the gathering storm of the Revolution was to reopen it. At Williamsburg, in Virginia, the day was devoutly consecrated to the religious exercises recommended by the Assembly. At Philadelphia it was solemnized by a great majority of the population with every testimonial of public grief; all the inhabitants, except the Quakers, shut up their houses; and after divine service a deep and ominous stillness reigned in the city. In other parts of America it was also observed as a day of mourning; and the sentiments thus widely awakened were kept alive and exasperated by the distress to which the inhabitants of Boston were reduced by the continued operation of the Port Bill, and by the fortitude with which they endured it. The rents of the landholders in and around Boston now ceased or were greatly diminished; all the wealth vested in warehouses and wharves was rendered unproductive; from the merchants was wrested the commerce they had reared, and the means alike of providing for their families and paying their debts; the artificers employed in the numerous crafts nourished by an extensive commerce shared the general hardship; and a great majority of that class of the community who earned daily bread by their daily labor were deprived of the means of support. But, animated still by that enduring and dauntless spirit of freedom which had been the parent principle of the New England communities, the inhabitants of Boston sustained the presence of this calamity with inflexible fortitude. Their virtue was cheered by the sympathy, and their sufferings were mitigated by the generosity, of the sister colonies. In all the American States contributions were made for their relief. Corporate bodies, town meetings, and provincial conventions, from all quarters, transmitted to them letters and addresses, applauding their conduct, and exhorting them to perseverance.

[The royal garrison of Boston was now augumented, and its fortifications strengthened and increased, thus adding to the irritation of the people. At the suggestion of the Massachusetts Assembly, a Congress of the provinces was called. This Congress, embracing members from all the colonies except Georgia, met at Philadelphia on September 5, 1774. Of the debates of this body, which continued in session eight weeks, no authentic report exists, but it published a Declaration of the Rights of America, with many other acts in which a determined spirit of resistance to tyranny was indicated. Before dissolving, it was decreed to meet again on May 10, 1775, if no redress of American grievances was granted. A cargo of tea about this time entered the harbor of Annapolis, Maryland, but the ship-master became so alarmed by the popular excitement that he asked the advice of an able lawyer, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, as to what he should do. Carroll advised him to burn the vessel and cargo. This advice was taken. "The sails were set, the colors displayed, and the vessel burned amidst the acclamations of the multitude."

In Massachusetts, General Gage had called a meeting of the Assembly. But, alarmed by the temper of the people, he issued a proclamation suspending its meeting. In defiance of his power the Assembly met, elected John Hancock its president, and proceeded to the bold and extreme measure of calling out the militia for the defence of the province. A portion of them were to be ready to meet at a minute's warning, and generals were appointed to command these minute- men, and the militia at large.]

And now all America was aroused by expectation of awful conflict and mighty change. New England, upon which the first violence of the storm seemed likely to descend, was agitated by rumors and alarms, of which the import and the influence strikingly portrayed the sentiments and temper of the people. Reports that Gage had commanded his troops to attack the Massachusetts militia, or to fire upon the town of Boston, were swallowed the avidity of rage and hatred, and instantly covered the highways with thousands of armed men, mustering in hot haste, and eager to rush forward to death or revenge. Everything betokened the explosion of a tempest; and some partial gusts announced its near approach, and proved the harbingers of its fury. In the close of the year there reached America a proclamation issued by the king, prohibiting the exportation of military stores from Great Britain. The inhabitants of Rhode Island no sooner received intelligence of this mandate than they removed from the public battery about forty pieces of cannon; and the Assembly of the province gave orders for procuring arms and martial stores, and for the immediate equipment of a martial force. In New Hampshire, a band of four hundred men, suddenly assembling in arms, and conducted by John Sullivan, an eminent lawyer and a man of great ambition and intrepidity, gained possession by surprise of the castle of Portsmouth, and confined the royal garrison till the powder-magazine was ransacked and its contents carried away.

[These violent demonstrations provoked new measures of oppression in Parliament. Lord Chatham, indeed, after seeking the counsel of Benjamin Franklin, introduced a bill calculated to remove the causes of disaffection in America. But this bill was rejected, and one introduced by Lord North was passed, which virtually extended the measures of the Boston Port Bill to all New England. As it soon appeared that the other provinces supported New England, the provisions of the bill to restrain commerce were extended to them all, with the exception of New York, Delaware, and North Carolina. But this exemption failed to produce its designed effect, since the exempted colonies at once declared their intention to accept the restraints imposed on their neighbors.]

The example of Massachusetts in preparing for defence was followed by the other provinces; and warlike counsels were boldly broached in the provincial Assemblies and Congresses. When some members of the Virginia Assembly urged the postponement of those preparations, reminding their colleagues of the power of Britain and the comparative weakness of America, and insisting that it would be time enough to fly to arms when every well-founded hope of peace had entirely vanished, Patrick Henry, with vehement and victorious eloquence, contended that that time had already come. "It is natural," said he, "to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are prone to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that enchantress till she transforms us into beasts. There is no longer any room for hope. We must fight. I repeat it, sir, we must fight. An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us. They tell us that we are weak, and unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be when our supineness shall have enabled our enemies to bind us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak, if we make use of those means which the God of nature has placed in our power. Three millions of people armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as ours, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Nor shall we fight our battles alone. That God who presides over the destinies of nations will raise up friends to aid us. The battle is not to the strong alone, but to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, we have no longer a choice. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery. Our chains are forged; their clanking may be heard upon the plains of Boston. The war is inevitable, -- and let it come ! Gentlemen may cry, `Peace! Peace!'-- but there is no peace. The war is actually begun. The next gale which sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms."

[These words proved prophetic. Arms and provisions were being diligently collected in Massachusetts, in preparation for an expected conflict. General Gage was not unaware of nor indifferent to these proceedings.]

Having learned that some military stores belonging to the colonists were deposited in Salem, he despatched Colonel Leslie from Castle William, on the 26th of February, with one hundred and forty soldiers, in a transport, to seize them. The troops, landing at Marblehead, proceeded to Salem; but, not finding there the object of their expedition, they advanced along the road leading to Danvers, whither the stores had been removed, and reached the drawbridge laid across the river. Here a number of the country-people were assembled, and on the opposite side the American colonel Pickering had mustered thirty or forty armed men, and, having drawn up the bridge, stood prepared to dispute the passage of the river. Leslie commanded them to lower the bridge; but, as they peremptorily refused, he was preparing to cross the river in some boats that were moored to the shore, when the people, who had gathered round him, perceiving his intention, sprang into the boats and scuttled them with axes.

[As the stores were now removed, and the purpose of the British negatived, it was decided that Leslie might cross the river and march thirty paces beyond it, as a point of honor, and then return without attempting further progress.]

At length the bridge was lowered; and Pickering with his men, still facing the British troops, retired to the line they had measured and marked. Leslie and his soldiers, after advancing to the stipulated point, returned and embarked for Boston. Thus ended the first military enterprise of the Revolutionary War,-- without effect and without bloodshed.

[Its main effect was to add to the bitterness and to redouble the vigilance of the Americans in guarding their stores. The second enterprise of this kind was not destined to end so harmlessly.]

James Grahame

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