The British won the French and Indian War (known in Europe as the Seven Years’ War) in 1763, effectively driving the French out of power in North America. But the war was costly; much treasure (not to mention blood) had been spent in protecting their colonies in North America from the French and their Indian allies. Now, Parliament thought, it was time for the Colonies to repay the mother country via taxes.
Protests Against the Stamp Act
Since the inception of its American colonies, Britain had not bothered to tax them; when it did, it was notably lax and inefficient in collecting those taxes. This encouraged a strong trade between the mother country and the American colonies, but also allowed the colonists to operate with a great deal of independence. England began a series of tax levies by enforcing the Sugar Act, which placed a tax on molasses (this tax had been in place before the war but seldom collected). In 1765, Parliament enacted the Stamp Act, which was a direct consumer tax on common items such as newspapers, playing cards and legal documents. New Englanders, especially in Boston, rioted against this act, and Parliament repealed it in 1766.
An Indirect Tax
Reasoning that the colonists were angry about such a direct tax -- each time an American consumer bought a newspaper, he or she was aware that it was the British who had made it more expensive -- Parliament in 1767 enacted a series of laws known collectively as the Townshend Revenue Acts, named after Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend. These were indirect taxes, collected as import duties, on such items as paint, glass, lead, paper and tea. The British hoped that this would prove less onerous to the colonists, and at the same time establish firmly that England had the right to tax them without political representation.
A Massacre and Repeal
Once again, the taxes were a failure. British troops had been quartered in Boston to enforce the Townshend Acts, which raised the ire of colonists. The troops fired into a crowd of colonial hecklers in March 1770, killing five of them in an incident quickly dubbed the Boston Massacre. Boston’s radical patriots made effective use of the massacre in propaganda; in the meantime, an organized and widespread boycott in New England of all goods taxed by the Townshend Acts caused Parliament to finally repeal the laws, except for a tax on tea.
One Last Attempt to Tax
In May 1773 the British passed the Tea Act, which lowered import duties on tea and made the taxed British tea cheaper than the smuggled tea most colonists drank. But most colonists saw the tax for what it was: an attempt by the British to hold fast to the notion that they could tax them without their permission. As usual, New England led the way in protesting. After the Boston Tea Party of December, 1773, when protestors disguised as Indians threw more than 340 chests of East India Company tea into the harbor, Americans up and down the eastern seaboard held their own tea protests, spreading the fever of rebellion throughout the 13 colonies in the next year.
- U.S. Department of State: Office of the Historian: Milestones: 1750-1775
- Massachusetts Historical Society: The Coming of the American Revolution: The Stamp Act
- American History From Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond: The Townshend Acts of 1767
- History.com: Boston Massacre
- History.com: Boston Tea Party
- Teaching History.org: Colonial Tea Parties
- Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images