We Must Continue Tea Tax in America, Says Lord North

On , the British House of Commons debated a bill concerning a certain tax on tea and other items shipped by British merchants and traders to the colonies in America.

Some of these merchants and traders had petitioned Parliament because they were being hurt by a colonial boycott of such taxed goods. They asked Parliament to rescind the taxes so as to end the boycott.

The Prime Minister, Lord North, began by saying that while he had been in favor of reducing or eliminating taxes on the colonies, he feared that if they abolished all of the taxes, rather than leaving at least a token tea tax in place, they would be effectively conceding that Parliament lacked the right or authority to tax the colonies, which his government was not prepared to do:

Indeed, I heartily wished to repeal the whole of the law… if there had been a possibility of repealing it without giving up that just right which I shall ever wish the mother country to possess, the right of taxing the Americans. But I am sorry, heartily sorry to say, that the colonies, so far from deserving additional instances of tenderness, did not deserve the instance then shewn, for their resolutions became more violent than ever; their associations instead of supplicating proceeded to dictate, and grew at last to such a meridian of temerity, that administration could not, for its own credit, go as far as it might incline to gratify their expectations; and I am now perfectly satisfied that was the tax now under consideration to be this moment wholly abolished, it would neither excite their gratitude, nor re-establish their tranquillity: they would set the abolition down, not to the goodness, but to the fears of the mother country, and upon a supposition that we were to be terrified into any concession, they would make fresh demands, and rise in their turbulence instead of returning to their duty. Fatal experience, Sir, has sufficiently proved the truth of this conjecture. We repealed the Stamp-act to comply with their desires, and what has been the consequence; has the repeal taught them obedience, has our lenity inspired them with moderation? No, Sir, that very lenity has encouraged them to insult our authority, to dispute our rights, and to aim at independent government. What is therefore to be done? Shall we, while they now deny our legal power to tax them, acquiesce in the argument of illegality, and give up that power? Shall we betray ourselves out of compliment to them, and through a wish of rendering more than justice to America, resign the controuling supremacy of England? God forbid! The properest time to exert our right of taxation, is, when the right is refused. The properest time for making resistance is when we are attacked. To temporize is to yield, and the authority of the mother country now unsupported, is, in reality, relinquished for ever.

Some debate followed, some of which was interesting, but most of it was just politicians blowing smoke. How much foreign policy, then and now, I wonder, has been macho insecurity in disguise — we can’t do what we know to be just while those who are demanding justice are threatening us! That would be to show weakness!

Here is how Thomas Pownall characterized the colonists’ point of view during the debates:

The rate which you Britons, as merchants, having the monopoly of our trade, are enabled to put upon your goods, we must pay, because we have no other shop to go to. On these terms we have been your customers, from our first establishment to this day. — We have purchased from you many articles of supply, necessary to us, but which we have not been able as yet to supply ourselves with; — and in the last place, from an affection to, and affectation of, your modes and fashions, we have gone into a trade of luxury: thus the surplus of the profit of our lands, our labour, and our trade, hath, to the last farthing, centered in Great Britain. Yet, not content as merchants in thus setting the highest rate upon us which you think we are able and willing to pay — you have of late, as legislators, superadded a farther rate, by a tax: this we cannot, we will not pay. I repeat, Sir, the reasoning; we will not pay: there are certain bounds which power itself cannot pass — we see those bounds — we will not purchase those articles of supply to which you have superadded the rate of a tax. You have treated us as the overseers of great works and manufactures treat the poor labourers which are put under their direction. You set the price of our labour; and you set also the price of those supplies, which we must purchase by the fruits of our labour; whilst you are enabled to confine us to the purchasing them from you alone — and would you superadd a tax to all this? If you do — we can refuse that tax, by withholding ourselves from purchasing those articles which you have thus taxed. From various harsh measures, one part of our people have been soured — another irritated. From various inefficient exertions of your power, we have been taught to see your weakness, and to feel our own strength — and by nothing more than by this vain attempt of taxing your own articles of trade. The temper of our people is thus wrought up to, and prepared for, this species of opposition arising from self denial; — and in this temper we associated in resolutions, and united in conduct, not to trade with you farther than we like, and find necessary. By recurring to ourselves, we find that we can furnish from within ourselves many articles of supply, which we used to take entirely from you. We not only find it right, but we feel from pique the disposition to retrench in many of these articles of supply, which, if we use, we must take from you — and at the moment in which we are determined to cut off our commerce of luxury, we have raised up a spirit of labour and industry which will ever multiply our supplies; and is gone far, and is every day going further into manufactures.

As it turned out, the British stubbornness in maintaining the tea tax did not work out too well for them. On , British soldiers fired into a group of colonists, killing five, in what became known as the Boston Massacre. Over , the American independence movement would move in the direction of an armed rebellion.