Taxation Without Representation
Before we look at the Boston Tea Party itself and the events immediately preceding it, it's important to examine how such great tensions between the American colonists and the British government developed. At its core, the Boston Tea Party was a conflict over taxation. You may have heard the phrase "taxation without representation," which developed in this era. Unlike their British brethren, the people living in the 13 colonies did not have direct representatives in the British parliament. Because of that, the colonists had no way to vote for how they would be taxed or who would represent them. And because of this lack of representation, the British government was free to tax the colonists in any way -- and for any amount -- that it saw fit. With no way to fight taxation and no way to claim their rights, many colonists feared that their property could be taken away through debilitating taxes.
Since it had free reign to tax colonists, the years leading up the Revolution saw the British government introduce a number of taxation laws. However, because of protests, the government modified or repealed many of these laws soon afterwards. These laws and subsequent protests contributed to growing tensions throughout the colonies, particularly in Boston, where the British government stationed soldiers in October 1768.
It's easy to understand why the colonists were upset about taxation without representation. But why was tea a focal point of so many protests? First, tea was a very popular drink in Britain and in the colonies. Colonists drank a lot of tea -- at least 1.2 million pounds (544,311 kilograms) a year [source: The Old South Meeting House]. Besides being popular, tea represented a direct connection to the British government, both culturally and financially. The British East India Company imported the tea, known as Bohea or black tea, although it was actually grown in China. By law, the British East India Company was the only company allowed to import tea into the colonies.
Since the British government had such a close hold on the importation of tea and the ability to tax at will, it instituted high taxes on the product to pay for the costly French and Indian Wars. These taxes frequently resulted in the smuggling of cheaper, non-British tea and boycotts of British tea. The British government responded by repealing tea taxes through the 1767 Indemnity Act. That act was short-lived; later that year, the Townshend Acts restored the taxes on tea, in addition to taxing many other commonly imported goods. Subsequent protests and boycotts of British goods caused the government to repeal the Townshend Acts in 1770.
During this time, other taxation schemes were stoking the fires of rebellion. The Stamp Act, passed in 1765, caused riots and protests throughout the colonies. The reaction was so severe that by the time the act went into effect, all stamp commissioners had resigned their positions or left the colonies [source: PBS].
In 1773, the same year as the Boston Tea Party, the British government passed the Tea Act, which authorized the British East India Company to ship tea directly to colonies while the government levied a tax of three pence on each shipment. While the Tea Act actually lowered the price of tea for colonists, many colonists were still angry at being taxed at all. Colonists responded by pressuring local merchants to refuse the shipments, arguing that, despite the low prices on tea, the act was a backdoor method for the royal government to levy taxes [source: The Old South Meeting House]. Merchants resisted the pressure and continued to receive the tea.