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Among the causes which led to the American Revolution, the one most prominent in the popular judgment is the "tax on tea," imposed by Great Britain on her American colonies. The destruction, in Boston harbor, in December, 1773, of the cargoes of tea sent to that port by the East India Company, was undoubtedly the proximate cause of that memorable event, and in view of this fact, the occurrence,--"by far the most momentous in the annals of the town," says the historian Bancroft,--merits a more thorough and particular consideration than it has yet received.

The silence necessarily preserved by the actors in this daring exploit, respecting their connection with it, has rendered this part of the task one of no little difficulty. Their secret was remarkably well kept; and but for the family traditions which survive, we should know very little of the men who composed the famous Boston tea party.

Nevertheless, the attempt to gather up the scattered fragments of personal reminiscence and biography, in order to give a little more completeness to this interesting chapter of our revolutionary history, is here made. The fortunate recovery, by the publisher of this volume, of the letters of the American consignees to the East India Company, and other papers shedding light upon the transaction, affords material aid in the accomplishment of our purpose.

When King Charles II. had finished that first cup of tea ever brewed in England,--the gift of the newly-created East India Company,--no sibyl was at hand to peer into the monarch's cup and foretell from its dregs, the dire disaster to his realm, hidden among those insignificant particles. Could a vision of those battered tea chests, floating in Boston harbor, with _tu doces_, in the legible handwriting of history, inscribed upon them, have been disclosed to him, even that careless, pleasure-loving prince would have been sobered by the lesson. It was left for his successor, George III., who failed to read the handwriting on the wall,--visible to all but the willfully blind,--to realize its meaning in the dismemberment of an empire.

A survey of the progress of the revolution up to the beginning of the year 1773, will help us to understand the political situation. Ten years of constant agitation had educated the people of the colonies to a clear perception of their rights, and also to a knowledge that it was the fixed purpose of the home government to deprive them of the one they most valued, namely, that of being taxed with their own consent, through their local assemblies, as had always been the custom, and not at the arbitrary will of the British parliament--a body in which they were not and could not be represented--three thousand miles away. The strange thing about this is, that the people of Great Britain should not have seen in the light of their own past history--what they have since seen clearly enough--that the Americans were only contending for principles for which their own ancestors had often fought, and which they had more than once succeeded in wresting from the grasp of arbitrary and tyrannical sovereigns.

Their difficulty seems to have been that they looked upon the Americans, not as equals, but as inferiors, as their subjects, and as having no rights that an Englishman was bound to respect. Even the celebrated moralist, Dr. Johnson, could say of the Americans, "They are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging." King George III., that obstinate but well-meaning monarch, and his ministers, no doubt honestly believed that the republican tendencies of the colonists endangered British supremacy. Perhaps they were right in this, for it was the kind and degree of supremacy that was really in question. But in entertaining the belief that these tendencies could be eradicated at a blow, they were, as the event proved, grievously mistaken.

Another moving cause for the new policy toward the colonies was the heavy taxation at home,--a result of the late war. Some of this burden they hoped to transfer from their own shoulders to those of their transatlantic brethren.

The stamp act of 1765, repealed in the year following, was in 1767, succeeded by Charles Townshend's revenue acts, imposing duties on paper, painters' colors, glass and tea. The Americans opposed this measure with the only weapon at their command--the policy of non-importation. This policy, while causing much inconvenience to themselves, yet helped them materially in two ways. In the first place it stimulated home manufactures, and accustomed the people to do without luxuries, and in the second place by distressing British merchants and manufacturers, it brought the united influence of these two powerful bodies to bear upon parliament for a change in its policy.

The people of the colonies everywhere seconded the non-importation movement, entering at once upon a course of rigid self-denial, and their legislatures commended the scheme. An agreement, presented in the Virginia House of Burgesses, by Washington, was signed by every member. For more than a year, this powerful engine of retaliation waged war upon British commerce, in a constitutional way, before ministers would listen to petitions and remonstrances; and it was not until virtual rebellion in the British capital, born of commercial distress, menaced the ministry, that the expostulations of the Americans were noticed, except with sneers. Early in the year 1770, the obnoxious act was repealed, except as regarded tea. This item was retained in order that the right of parliamentary taxation of the colonies might be upheld. The liberal leaders of parliament did their best to prevent this exception, and the subject was fully and ably discussed, but they were overruled.

Besides these acts, which had aroused in the colonies a sentiment of union, and embodied an intelligent public opinion, there were others which had contributed to the same result. Such were the royal instructions by which, among other things, accused persons were to be sent to England, for trial. Still another, was the publication of a collection of letters from Governor Hutchinson, and other prominent colonial officials, revealing their agency in instigating the obnoxious measures. These and other aggravating causes had at length brought about that, without which, no revolution can succeed,--organization. Committees of correspondence, local and general, had been created, and were now in full operation.