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Revolt Against Taxation Without Representation Led to American Revolutionary War, U.S. Constitution and First Census Population Count

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Tensions between the American colonists and their British colonizers had been brewing for years, much of it about tea, and finally erupted into the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773, a political act of defiance against taxation without representation.

So, what was the population during the Boston Tea Party? Experts estimate it was about 2.41 million on that fateful day and climbed to around 2.56 million by Independence Day on July 4, 1776.

The colonists eventually declared independence and the U.S. Constitution was ratified, mandating a population count to ensure everyone was represented in the new democracy. The first census count was taken in 1790 and continues to be taken every 10 years. The next one will be conducted in 2030.

On the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, we look at the population profile of the original 13 colonies and what U.S. Census Bureau data tell us about how the U.S. population has grown and ancestries have shifted.

Population of the Colonies in the 1770s

During colonial times, the British colonies provided all population estimates. In 1909, the Census Bureau (then known as the Bureau of the Census) with the help of academics and historians provided the best estimates of the population during those early days.

So, what was the population during the Boston Tea Party? Experts estimate it was about 2.41 million on that fateful day and climbed to around 2.56 million by Independence Day on July 4, 1776.

“Great Britain had 8 million residents in 1775, and the 13 colonies about 2.5 million (of which half a million were slaves),” according to the American Battlefield Trust, an organization focused on preserving battlefields of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the American Civil War.

The first census in the United States (1790) counted almost 4 million residents. The first census in Great Britain (1801) counted almost 11 million residents.

Fast forward to today when according to the Census Bureau’s International Database, the U.S. population is an estimated 339.7 million and the United Kingdom’s 68.1 million.

Comparing Nationality in 1790 to Ancestry in 2022

Not surprisingly, the first census reported that based on the names of heads of families, more than 90% of the White population in 1790 hailed from British stock: English (83.5%), Scottish (6.7%) and Irish (1.6%).

It counted 5.6% of the population as having German roots, followed by Dutch (2.0%), French (0.5%) and Hebrew (less than one-tenth of 1%). The “Nationality as Indicated by Name” [PDF 2.25 MB] table below provides a breakdown of the 1790 population by state.

Connecticut was the state with the most people (96.2%) with English roots. Pennsylvania (Delaware was included with Pennsylvania at the time) was the state with the fewest (59.0%) due in part to a large (26.1%) German population. South Carolina was the state with the most (2.6%) people of Irish descent and New York with the most (16.1%) of Dutch descent.

The 2022 American Community Survey 1-year estimates, our most current self-reporting of ancestry, show 31.4 million Americans said they had English roots and 30.7 million Irish.

While the share of the U.S. population with Great Britain and United Kingdom ancestry was much smaller (21.0%) than in 1790, the population (72.6 million) was larger than the total (68.1 million) U.K population.

Spilling the Tea On Tea Trade

The U.S. and the U.K. today are major trading partners. The U.K. was the seventh ranked U.S. export market and 12th among all the countries we imported from in 2022.

And yes, we still import tea from the U.K. In 2022, the Census Bureau’s USA Trade Online data tool showed that the value of tea (flavored or not) from the U.K. was $18.6 million. Today’s estimated value of the 342 chests of tea dumped in Boston Harbor in 1773 is approximately $1.7 million.

The Census Bureau’s History webpage recently shared this interesting tea tidbit:

“Although tea was a popular beverage in the United States, Americans began drinking more coffee than tea as a direct result of the Tea Act of 1773, the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution … Boston-area merchants like John Hancock were so enraged by the 3-cents-per-pound tax on tea arriving in colonial ports that he declared that anyone who drank the ‘baneful weed’ and paid the tea tax was an ‘Enemy of America’."

The National Coffee Association reported in September that more Americans drank coffee every day (63%) than any other beverage including bottled and tap water. The Tea Association of the U.S.A. [PDF <1.0 MB] reports that on any given day, more than one half of the American population drinks tea.

Derick C. Moore is a senior communications specialist in the Census Bureau's Communications Directorate.


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Page Last Revised - December 14, 2023
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