The year was 1773. On May 10, Parliament had passed the Tea Act allowed the East India Company to sell tea directly to the American colonies without paying any customs or duties in England. This gave the company a monopoly over the production, distribution, and sale of tea. The colonists saw the Act as a revenue tax. They were afraid that if the tea was landed and sold, Parliament might create new monopolies on future products. Early in September chests of tea were being loaded onto vessels in England that soon would set sail for colonies. One of them, the Polly, was carrying 698 chests; her destination was Philadelphia. Colonists learned this from an extract of a letter from London dated August 4 that was printed in the Massachusetts Gazette; and the Boston Post-Boythe first week of October:
The East-India Company have come to a resolution, to send 600 chests of tea to Philadelphia, and the like quantity to New-York and Boston, and their intention I understand is to have ware-houses, and sell by public sale four times a year, as they do here . . . What will be the consequence when it arrives, on your side the water, I know not ; but suppose it is landed, you will hardly let it be sold. John Inglis, Joseph Wharton, jun. and J. Brown, are the Commissioners with you.
Shortly after the news reached Philadelphia, an essay entitled “By Uniting We Stand—By Dividing We Fall,” appeared in the October 11 edition of the Pennsylvania Chronicle. In it, the author, under the pseudonym Scaevola, chastised the East India Company’s agents of Philadelphia.
You need not be surprised to find the eyes of ALL now fixed on you . . . How foolish, how dangerous it is, to undertake to force the loathsome pills of slavery, and oppression, down the throats of free, independent, and determined people . . . you cannot believe that the Tea Act . . . differs in one single point from the Stamp Act. If there be any difference . . . the Stamp Act was sensibly felt by all ranks of people; but the Tea Act [is] more insidious in its operation . . . Under the first, no man could transfer his property; . . . even read a newspaper without seeing and feeling the detestable imposition . . . under the Tea Law, the duty is afterwards laid on the article, and becomes so blended with the price of it, that, although every man who purchases tea imported from Britain must pay the duty; yet, every man does not know it, and may therefore not object to it . . . It is in your power and you are now warn’d, to save YOURSELVES much Trouble, and secure your native Country from the deadly Stroke now aimed in your persons against her.
Days later, a second essay appeared in the October 20 edition of the Pennsylvania Journal. It was entitled “To His Fellow Countrymen: On Patriotism,” and like the first essay, its author used a pseudonym—Hamden. It was an appeal to the virtue of patriotism.
Patriotism is as much a virtue as justice, and is as necessary for the support of societies as natural affection for the support of families . . . Its sincerity shall be distinguished . . . by its perseverance in opposition to every difficulty, temptation, and reproach . . .You have heard of the machinations of the enemies of our country to enslave us by measures of the East india Company . . . we are informed that vessels were freighted to bring over a quantity of tea . . . to raise a revenue from America. Should it be landed . . . then farewell America Liberty! We are undone Forever. All the images we can borrow from everything terrible in nature are too faint to describe the horror of our situation. But I rely too much upon that virtue which has hitherto distinguished my countrymen to cherish a thought that this will be the case. Let us with one heart and hand oppose the landing of it. The baneful chests contain in them a slow poison in a political as well as physical sense. They contain something worse than death—the seeds of Slavery.
In a letter dated October 10, prior to the publication of both essays, Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote to Rev. Mr. William Gordon, a friend, “We are preparing here to oppose the landing of the East India tea. The pieces in our newspapers signed Scaevola are written by Mr. Mifflin, those signed Hamden in defense of patriotism, etc., are written by your friend.” Thomas Mifflin was a friend of Rush’s and a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly; Rush was a young, highly competent physician who practiced in Philadelphia.
One of the more common places for merchants and politicians to gather and conduct business in Philadelphia was the London Coffee House; it was located on the southwest corner of Market and Front streets. It was owned by William Bradford, a veteran of the French and Indian War and publisher of the Pennsylvania Journal and assorted magazines. On October 13, Bradford got into a discussion with a group of men just outside the coffee house. One of the men was Thomas Mifflin. Bradford told them that the colonies were exposed to danger if the tea was allowed to be unloaded and suggested an opposition to the landing. “Mifflin received the proposition coolly, and said it would be impossible to awaken our Citizens to a Sense of the importance of such a measure.” Bradford responded, “Leave that business to me I will collect a few active Spirits at my house tomorrow evening. Do you be one of them, and we will soon set the City in motion.”
The next evening, a group of six to eight men met at the Coffee House and drafted eight resolutions opposing the Tea Act and the East India Company’s tea shipment that was soon to arrive. Bradford, Mifflin, and Rush are the only men known for sure to have attended. Others may have been Thomas Barclay, John B. Bayard, Dr. Thomas Cadwalader, George Clymer, Joseph Reed, and Charles Thomason. The Resolutions read as follows:
Resolved, That the disposal of their own property is the inherent right of freemen; that there can be no property in that which another can, of right, take from us without our consent; that the claim of parliament to tax America is, in other words, a claim of right to levy contributions on us at pleasure.
That the duty imposed by Parliament upon tea landed in America is a tax on the Americans, or levying contributions on them without their consent.
That the express purpose for which the tax is levied on the Americans, namely, for the support of government, administration of Justice, and defense of his Majesty’s dominions in America, has a direct tendency to render Assemblies useless, and to introduce arbitrary government and slavery.
That a virtuous and steady opposition to this Ministerial plan of governing America is absolutely necessary to preserve even the shadow of Liberty, and is a duty which every freeman in America owes to his country, to himself, and to his posterity.
That the resolutions lately entered into by the East India Company to send out their tea to America, subject to the payment of duties on its being landed here, is an open attempt to enforce this ministerial plan and a violent attack upon the liberties of America.
That it is the duty of every American to oppose this attempt.
That whoever shall, directly or indirectly, countenance this attempt or in any wise aid or abet in unloading, receiving, or vending the tea sent or to be sent out by the East India Company while it remains subject to the payment of a duty here, is an enemy to his country.
That a committee be immediately chosen to wait on those gentlemen who, it is reported, are appointed by the East India Company to receive and sell said tea and request them, from a regard to their own characters and the peace and good order of the city and province, immediately to resign their appointment.
The next day some of the members of the group with the assistance of other merchants and politicians arranged for a town hall meeting the following day in the State House. The meeting on the 16th was well attended and presided over by Dr. Cadwalader. According to Rush, “the business was conducted with prudence, Spirit and Unanimity,” and the resolutions had been adopted. Afterwards they were taken outside and read to the crowd that had gathered.
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Nearly three weeks later and three hundred miles to the north in the town of Boston, merchants and politicians were wrestling with the same issue. The “active Spirits” in Boston were men like Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Joseph Warren, Benjamin Edes, Dr. Thomas Young, and Thomas Chase. On November 2, each merchant who had been chosen by the East India Company to accept and sell tea received a letter requesting him to personally appear at the Liberty Tree at twelve o’clock the next day. On November 3,
The assembly [of near 500 at the Liberty Tree], having waited till twelve o’clock . . . then appointed a committee of respectable inhabitants of this town to wait on Mr. Clark and Son, the two Messrs. Hutchinsons and Mr. Faneuil . . . who were at Mr. Clark’s store, and acquaint them that as they had neglected to attend, they should think themselves warranted in looking upon them as the enemies of the people; and have read the message to them were peremptorily answered that they should pay no regard.
The next day another message was delivered to Benjamin Faneuil. It stated,
We do not wonder in the least that your apprehensions are terrible, when the most enlightened humane & conscientious community on the earth view you in the light of tigers or mad dogs, whom the public safety obliges them to destroy . . . [you will receive] the just rewards of your avarice & insolence . . . from the insulted, abused, and most indigent vindicators of violated liberty in the Town of Boston.
On November 5, the citizens of Boston gathered at Faneuil Hall for the first town meeting in six months. It was presided over by John Hancock. The first matter of business concerned a petition by the tradesmen of Boston; they were alarmed that the East India Company and the British government had created a plan to destroy the local trades. After a brief discussion, a vote was taken of the estimated 400 tradesmen present—the result was a unanimous decision to disavow support of the merchants serving as tea agents.
The second business matter involved the recently arrived Philadelphia Resolutions. The tea was coming and the town needed to make clear its position regarding it. After another discussion, it was decided “that the Sense of the town cannot be better expressed on this Occasion, than in the words of certain Judicious Resolves lately entered into by our worthy Brethren the Citizens of Philadelphia.”
The resolves had now become official position of both Philadelphia and Boston. Who would have thought that the town made up of many Quakers who opposed violence, many loyalists who supported England, a group of moderates who continued to pursue reconciliation with England, and a group of radicals who believed their freedom was being trampled upon, would produce a document that word for word would be adopted by the most radical town in the thirteen colonies. Only the Preamble was written anew. A draft of it, in the handwriting of Samuel Adams, is in the Mellen Chamberlain Collection of the Boston Library:
Whereas it appears by an Act of the British parliament passed in the last Sessions, that The East India Company are by the said Act allowed to export their Teas into America, in such Quantities as the Lord of the Treasury shall judge proper without the same having been exposed to sale in the Kingdom of Great Britain: And some People with an evil intent to amuse the People, and others thro’ inattention to the true design of the Act, have so construed the same, as that the Tribute of three Pence on every Pound of Tea is not to be enacted by the detestable Task Masters here—Upon the due consideration thereof, RESOLVED, that the Sense of the town. . . .
Benjamin Rush to John Adams, August 14, 1809, founders.archives.gov/Adams/99-02-02-5414; Pennsylvania Mercury, October 1, 1791.
Richard A. Ryerson, The Revolution is Now Begun: The Radical Committees of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978), 34-5, 82; Lorett Treese, The Storm Gathering: The Penn Family and the American Revolution (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1992), 124.