Principled Resistance and the Trouble with Tea

Critical Thinking

February 27, 2024
by Robert Guy Also by this Author


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On November 16, 1775, Robert Dixon lay dying not far from Quebec.

Among the first American troops commissioned by the Continental Congress, he was a sergeant in Matthew Smith’s Company of Thompson’s Rifle Battalion. The previous July, he had walked with his company from the backcountry of Pennsylvania all the way to Boston, a distance of four-hundred miles.

Two months later, when Gen. George Washington ordered Col. Benedict Arnold to join Gen. Richard Montgomery in his campaign for Canada, Dixon trudged another thousand miles through the rain and snow across the rugged Maine wilderness toward Quebec.

But Sergeant Dixon never quite completed the journey. Deceived by a Royalist Canadian, his company had been lured into a trap near the mouth of the St. Charles River. Trying to free a boat to recover some supplies under a supposed order from Arnold, they were fired upon by a nearby cannon, and a thirty-six-pound ball took off Dixon’s leg just below the knee.

He was carried to a house about a mile away where his leg was amputated and bandaged. He was being cared for by gracious English woman, but when she brought him a bowl of tea, he politely refused it. “Oh no, Madam,” he said, “it is the ruin of my country!”

“Uttering this noble sentiment,” recalled John Joseph Henry, “this invaluable citizen died.”[1]

Henry, son of the renowned Lancaster merchant and gunsmith, William Henry, had been standing right next to him when he was hit. He described Sergeant Dixon as “a gentleman of good property and education.” Though only a sergeant in this company of riflemen, Henry noted he was “intuitively a captain,” and more than that, he was “the most happy of human beings.”

“The blood of Dixon,” Henry recorded in his journal, “was the first oblation made upon the altar of Liberty at Quebec.” It was certainly not the last!

But for what? It’s a question we must ask! For what did Dixon give his life? For what did these Americans endure such painful hardship and sacrifice? For what were they taking such a significant stand? Surely, it wasn’t just about tea! Surely it wasn’t merely about taxes!

As we look back two and a half centuries to the conflict that created an independent United States of America, how are we to begin to understand what this trouble was all about? John Joseph Henry told this story for a reason, as a way of illustrating the conviction common to Americans at the time, and accenting the laws that Parliament had been imposing upon them, laws which “annihilated our rights as Englishmen!” This cogent phrase shed considerable light on what tea had come to represent to America, and the deep conviction beneath their firm defense of their ancient liberties. For this reason, Henry recalled, “no one, male or female, would deign to taste that delightful beverage.”[2]

This posture toward tea did not emerge overnight, nor did the Americans quickly resort to violence. In fact, by the time Americans were called to arms, they had already been engaged in a decade-long campaign of non-violent principled resistance, having done everything in their power to avoid the shedding of blood.

The trouble actually had begun in 1763 as Parliament began to address some of Britain’s own national concerns. As the Seven Years’ War between England and France had concluded, Parliament was confronted with a national debt that was out of control, having nearly doubled in less than a decade to over one hundred and twenty million pounds. Interest payments were over four million pounds per year. This rapidly growing debt was largely due to military spending across the war’s many theaters, not just in North America. Hostilities had ceased in North America in 1759 with the British victory on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec. By 1760, the French administration and troops had been expelled from Canada. Nonetheless, the British maintained their forces in the region for the next several years.

It did not help that the king had died in 1760, bringing his twenty-two-year-old grandson to the throne as George III. It was under his new Prime Minister, Lord Grenville, that a new approach to the American colonies emerged, seeing in them a key to helping to mitigate the problem of Britain’s mounting debts. By the time Grenville unveiled his plan the following spring, that debt had risen another twenty million pounds.

George III had also issued, in 1763, a proclamation to create a temporary boundary between the previous English colonies, the Indians lands, and those territories newly acquired from the French. This proclamation “strictly forbid” any land purchases or squatting beyond the proclamation line. The intent was to maintain order and to prevent any incursions that might spark new conflicts. British troops were retained throughout North America to ensure its stability. In light of Britain’s mounting debts, new measures of taxation seemed a reasonable means to defer some of the cost of maintaining these troops, with the colonies bearing their share of the load.[3]

In April, 1764, Parliament passed the Sugar Act, the first step in Lord Grenville’s agenda, which placed a duty on a variety of imported items, from coffee and wine to indigo and cloth. While largely a renewal of the Molasses Act from 1733, the new legislation added additional language describing its purpose, specifying these new regulations were established “for improving the revenue of this kingdom.” Singling out America, it declared that it was “just and necessary, that a revenue be raised,” distinctly to defray “the expences of defending, protecting, and securing the same.”[4]

This act had been followed two weeks later by the Currency Act, which outlawed colonial currency, despite the fact that it was America’s commercial activity which made the colonies profitable, and upon which Britain had become dependent. Parliament began insisting on dictating the way the colonies conducted their commerce, as well as how payments were made to Britain, demanding their debts be paid in gold or silver. Especially unsettling to some colonial leaders was its perceived interference into provincial government, as it stated that any “act, order, resolution, or vote of assembly, contrary to this act, shall be null and void,” and that any governor who acted in contrary to these terms would not only be fined a thousand pounds, but also “shall be immediately dismissed from his government, and for ever after rendered incapable of any public office or place of trust.”[5]

The young attorney John Dickinson was quick to become alarmed at these actions, and began in 1764 to call attention to the dangers presented by Parliament’s newly-presumed authority. Though a newcomer to the Pennsylvania Assembly, he reminded the Pennsylvanian representatives of the “particular privileges of Pennsylvania” spelled out in their own charter, of the liberties guaranteed and protected in their own frame of government.[6] He likewise called attention to Parliament’s rightful role in years past, of the Bill of Rights passed by Parliament in 1689 which put England’s legacy of liberty into writing, which insisted upon the “undoubted rights and liberties,” of the English people, and prohibited any future “declarations, judgments, doings or proceedings” that might be “to the prejudice of the people.[7]

In May 1765, Parliament continued to press its agenda by passing the Quartering Act, which authorized commanding officers “to take up and hire,” for those under their command “uninhabited houses, outhouses, barns, or other buildings, for the reception of such soldiers as the barracks and publick houses shall not be sufficient to contain or receive.” These British troops, believed unnecessary, must now be housed and fed at colonial expense. This was particularly an issue in New York, where a disproportionate number of them were stationed.[8]

But it was the Stamp Act, passed by Parliament two months earlier, that sparkeda widespread sensation which kindled the ire of the American people. This act dictated that publications must be printed on official paper, bearing the required stamp to demonstrate their compliance. In addition, it required that every legal transaction in America likewise bear the required stamp; otherwise, the transaction would be considered null and void. Through these measures, Parliament was not only taking new steps to dictate America’s affairs, but to enforce these measures as well.

Recognizing not only the financial implications of this act, but also the overreach of Parliament represented by it, the leading merchants across Philadelphia raised their voices in opposition to such a law. Having no representation in Parliament, American legislators had no input into the crafting or passing of this legislation. Nonetheless, they were determined neither to be manipulated nor bullied, so they came together to resist this act by implementing a non-importation agreement before the Stamp Act became effective on November 1, 1765. They resolved to cease their orders and shipments from Great Britain “until the Stamp Act is repeal’d,” pledging to abide by this agreement until “released from this agreement by mutual and general Consent”[9]

The colonies’ reaction to the Stamp Act, and the posture of non-importation, perplexed members of Parliament. Many failed to understand what they found so objectionable. Others were offended that Parliament’s actions were being questioned at all, as if the Americans were merely railing against any authority being over them. Unable to understand the Americans’ concerns, or to discern why their acts were met with such resistance, Parliament remained determined to pursue their objectives.

At this critical juncture, Benjamin Franklin, already in London as an official representative of Pennsylvania, was given by Parliament an opportunity to shed light on the Americans’ situation, and to explain the rationale behind their resistance to these new measures. Franklin explained that while the Americans’ used to consider Parliament as “the great bulwark and security of their liberties and privileges,” since these recent developments that was no longer the case, and the Americans’ temper toward Britain had been “very much altered.” Accenting the unreasonable trade conditions placed upon the colonies, Franklin stated bluntly that “there was not enough gold and silver in America to pay the stamp duty for one year.” Even if the act were altered, and the more objectionable aspects removed from it, he declared that the Americans “will never submit” to the Stamp Act.

Lord Grenville posed to Franklin whether he thought it was just that the Americans should “pay no part of the expense” from the war. “That is not right,” Franklin responded, correcting the popular misconception. He informed Parliament that the Americans had “raised, clothed, and paid … nearly 25,000 men, and spent many millions.” And when asked if the colonies would pay a different tax grounded in the same principles, he assured Parliament that, “No, they will never submit to it!”[10]

Despite Franklin’s forthright conversation, the Americans’ concerns largely went unheard and remained misperceived.

While it was true that Britain’s financial issue must be resolved, it was not true that Britain had no other alternative. William Pitt had recommended taxing the East India Company instead of the colonies, a strategy that would have sufficiently raised the necessary revenue and avoided the conflict. What became increasingly clear with each successive action was that many in Parliament were now more concerned about compelling the colonies to acknowledge and submit to their newly assumed authority than they were about addressing the national debt.

The month after Franklin’s hearing, Parliament revoked the Stamp Act. This might have been a hopeful step, had it not been followed that very same day with the Declaratory Act, which once again asserted Parliament’s authority. It declared arbitrarily that the colonies were “subordinate unto, and dependent upon the imperial crown and parliament of Great Britain,” and that Parliament possessed “full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever.”[11]

It was this inflated authority to which the Americans objected. As British subjects, they were not questioning the sovereign authority of the Crown. Neither were they challenging the right for Parliament to regulate or legislate commerce. But Parliament’s stated purpose of raising revenue, and imposing conditions upon America’s commerce without recognizing its voice, and enforcing these demands in a manner that bypassed the colonies’ own legislatures and courts—all of these measures were unprecedented and unacceptable!

Under a new administration led by Charles Townshend, a different approach to taxing the colonies was enacted, this time imposing a tax on other imported items, namely glass, lead, paper, and most significantly, tea. While the items being taxed may have changed, however, the principle beneath the taxation did not, and the so Americans continued to respond to these measures with principled resistance and non-importation.

At this point, John Dickinson again picked up his pen to address these underlying concerns beneath Parliament’s misguided actions. In a series of twelve letters, Dickinson articulated a clear and cohesive case that challenged Parliament’s actions as “unconstitutional.” Widely published throughout the colonies, they were instrumental in cultivating a shared conviction and a cohesive perspective on the growing crisis. Representing himself as a “farmer,” Dickinson discussed the issues at hand in a natural and down-to-earth manner, enabling citizens like Robert Dixon in every colony to understand and relate. As a result, Dickinson was quickly embraced throughout the colonies as a spokesman who represented the concerns of everyday Americans.

The Americans were landowners, governed by the laws of their provincial assemblies, with whom they had elected representatives and to whom they paid taxes. Since the colonies had been created, and throughout their whole existence, those in America had been considered subjects of the kingdom just like those residing in Great Britain, enjoying the inherent rights and liberties as subjects as well.

Dickinson began the letters by addressing Parliament’s authority directly, drawing attention to their speedy inclination to suspend New York’s assembly for balking at their quartering demands. He not only challenged the authority of Parliament to take such an action, but accented the inconsistent logic in such an action. If New York had the right to refuse submission to their mandates, he argued, then Parliament had no right to compel them. And if not, then Parliament had no right to punish them![12]

Then Dickinson addressed taxation. While he “unquestionably” affirmed Parliament’s right to regulate trade, he denied their authority to pass legislation which, in their own words, was “to raise revenue.” After looking over “every statute relating to these colonies,” Dickinson contended, all of Parliament’s previous laws were “calculated to preserve or promote a mutually beneficial intercourse between the several constituent parts of the empire.” “Never did the British parliament,” Dickinson asserted, prior to Lord Grenville’s administration, “think of imposing duties in America for the purpose of a revenue.” This, Dickinson concluded, “I call an innovation.”[13]

Dickinson pressed the question whether Parliament had the right to tax Americans at all. It didn’t matter what items were taxed, or how small a tax was imposed; if a tax was unjust, it mattered little how it was packaged. “In short,” Dickinson explained, “if they have a right to levy a tax of one penny upon us, they have the right to levy a million upon us. For where does their right stop?”[14] Through these letters, Dickinson tutored the American public, reminding them what it meant to be English citizens, and of the valued legacy of liberty that had been crafted into so many provincial governments from the beginning. He also helped them to see the presumptive intrusion beneath Parliament’s assertion of authority.

In helping Americans to identify the trouble with Parliament, Dickinson provided a solid footing for a principled resistance. He encouraged leaders throughout the colonies to come to their own conclusions. He inspired them to add their own insights, their own voices and their own responses to this resistance. And he directed the colonists not toward a rejection of their longstanding relationship with Great Britain, nor a rebellion against Parliament’s rightful authority, but rather toward a legitimate protest against illegitimate legislation and the wrongful use of Parliament’s authority.

It is true, of course, that Parliament could decide to change its priorities, to enact innovative legislation or impose whatever demands it chose. What it could not do is change its own history, pretending these changes were not, as Dickinson claimed, “an innovation,” marking a serious departure from a century old practice. Accordingly, Parliament could hardly be surprised at an outcry when they changed the rules in the middle of the game. They could hardly expect the colonists to simply swallow these new laws when the colonists’ own legislatures had nothing to say about them. Neither could they attempt to force the new rules on its citizens without being met with some sort of resistance.

Once again, the Americans’ non-importation measures had their eventual effect, and most of the Townshend duties were revoked—most, that is, but not all! The duties on tea remained in place, and served as a reminder to Americans to remain on their guard, that the trouble with Parliament was far from over!

When Parliament passed the Tea Act in 1773, the Americans saw clearly that nothing had changed—the same presumptions and principles motivating Parliament remained in place that had troubled them for the past eight years. The act forbade colonists from purchasing tea from anyone but the East India Company, giving Britain a monopoly and restricting America’s free trade. The act authorized a commission that bypassed the American courts to enforce these measures. And even though the price of tea went down, everyone knew that the Townshend duty on tea had never been rescinded.

Discerning Parliament’s veiled motives, the Americans concluded that to accept this tea, with its imposed duties, would be to accept Parliament’s inflated authority, opening the door to whatever else they wished to impose on the Americans by arbitrary authority. That would be too high a price to pay! At every port to which this tea was sent, Americans were resolved to reject it!

In mid-October, 1773, when word reached those on watch in Philadelphia that the undesired tea was on its way to the colonies, they prepared a set of resolves to place before the legislature which articulated the rationale for rejecting this tea. The Pennsylvania Assembly adopted these resolves, reaffirming once again the same essential concerns raised over the past several years. They took exception to Parliament’s presumed right to “levy contributions on us at pleasure,” declaring that the duty imposed “upon tea landed in America” is a tax on them “without their consent. They claimed that taxing for this purpose “has a direct tendency to render assemblies useless and to introduce arbitrary government and slavery.”

They affirmed that a “virtuous and steady opposition to this ministerial plan is absolutely necessary to preserve even the shadow of liberty.” They claimed that this latest step “to send out their tea to America subject to the payment of duties on its being landed there” was both an “open attempt to enforce this ministerial plan” and a “violent attack upon the liberties of America,” calling it “the duty of every American to oppose this attempt.”[15]

A broadside was posted throughout the city informing the public, especially anyone involved in handling the tea, that it would not be accepted. When the ship Polly was spotted sailing up the Delaware River, it was intercepted at Gloucester Point, and not allowed entrance to Philadelphia. After explaining to the captain the “dangers and difficulties” of refusing to comply with their requests, they escorted him to the state house where he was met with a crowd so large that the meeting was moved outside into the square. Here they informed him that he was to “carry the Tea back immediately,” and he consented to “literally comply with the sense of the city.”[16]

As Philadelphians anticipated the coming of a new year, they were comforted knowing that the ship Pollywas making its way back to England, and celebrated having resolved their tea troubles without incident! Even so, they remained unsettled, wondering what 1774 might hold. Given the previous decade, they knew their troubles were far from over!

They did not have long to wait. Angered that the tea sent to Boston had been unloaded into the harbor, Parliament once again intensified its resolve and increased its hostility, this time in a series of acts that were distinctly designed to be punitive and coercive. In May, news began to reach the colonies of the Boston Port bill, the first in the series of acts the colonists dubbed “the Intolerable Acts.” One of the earliest articles reaching America, penned anonymously by an author calling himself “Fabius,” warned that “the port of Boston is to be shut up, its trade to be utterly destroyed, and the Inhabitants . . . devoted to poverty.” “You may shut up their ports one by one,” Fabius declared, and “you may reduce their cities to ashes,” but “the flame of Liberty shall not be extinguished,” and “Cruelty, oppression, and revenge shall only serve as oil to incite the fire!”[17]

In response to the Coercive Acts, representatives from the colonies converged on Philadelphia in September as the First Continental Congress, resulting in a formal Association in unified opposition to Parliament’s inappropriate measures. The Congress issued a resolution which targeted the Coercive Acts, asserting that all of them “are impolitic, unjust, and cruel, as well as unconstitutional, and most dangerous and destructive of American rights.” It declared that “the foundation of English liberty, and of all free government, is a right in the people to participate in their legislative council.”

Because “the English colonists . . . cannot properly be represented in the British parliament,” Congress again asserted that “they are entitled to a free and exclusive power of legislation in their several provincial legislatures, where their right of representation can alone be preserved.” It also affirmed that “we cheerfully consent to the operation of such acts of the British parliament, as are bonfide,” toward the end of the “commercial advantages of the whole empire to the mother country, and the commercial benefits of its respective members.” Distinctly excluded, however, was “every idea of taxation internal or external, for raising a revenue on the subjects, in America, without their consent.” The resolution ended by clearly declaring that “to these grievous acts and measures, Americans cannot submit.” Nonetheless, they affirmed that they still cherished the hope of resolution, “in which both countries found happiness and prosperity,” their present plan of action still involving only “peaceable measures.”[18]

Once again, despite their repeated attempts to amicably resolve the issues, their voice went unheard and unheeded. It became apparent that their earnest efforts to avoid a violent conflict would come to nothing, and their deepest fears were becoming unavoidable.

By the time the Continental Congress convened again the following June, blood had been shed at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. Americans were confronted with the ominous reality that a substantial number of British reinforcements would be landing on their shores in a matter of weeks, intending to compel the Americans into submission and compliance. Congress was left with no alternative but to form a viable military strategy to prevent the British army from now physically running over America’s people with further punitive measures.

Men like Robert Dixon were happy to respond. They welcomed the opportunity to demonstrate their convictions, and to defend and protect their people throughout the colonies! With every step in those long journeys, Dixon knew exactly why he was there and what he was protecting; and he was willing to defend it with his life. And no, it wasn’t about taxes or tea. It was about tyranny and the destruction of rightful authority! It was about liberty, and the need to present an unwavering, principled resistance against Parliament’s insistence on depriving them of it!

Even as Robert Dixon lay dying, in a stranger’s house outside Quebec, he refused to drink tea until his dying day, and he understood why! True to his convictions, he was determined to abstain from that taxed commodity that had become the emblem of the enslavement of free men, and the snare of a condescending Parliament. As Sergeant Dixon had declared with his final words, it represented “the ruin of my country.”[19]

[1]John Joseph Henry, An Accurate and Interesting Account of the Hardships and Sufferings of that Band of Heroes who Traversed the Wilderness in the Campaign Against Quebec in 1775 (Lancaster, PA: William Greer, 1812), 89.

[2]Ibid., 88.




[6]The Political Writings of John Dickinson, v. 1 (Wilmington, DE: Bonsal and Niles, 1801), 23.



[9]Resolution of Non-Importation Made by the Citizens of Philadelphia. Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Treasures Collection, Am. 340.

[10]Text of the Examination printed in The Examination of Doctor Benjamin Franklin, before an August Assembly, relating to the Repeal of the Stamp Act, &c., Papers of Benjamin Franklin, February 13, 1766,


[12]John Dickinson, Letters from A Farmer in Pennsylvania (New York: Outlook Company, 1903) 9.



[15]The Pennsylvania Gazette, October 20, 1773.

[16]The Pennsylvania Gazette, December 29, 1773.

[17]Fabius to the Earl of Buckinghamshire, Dunlap and Claypoole’s American Daily Adviser, May 23, 1774.


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