Path to the Revolution: Boston Tea Party
The Boston Tea Party was one of the organizations, events, or pieces of legislation in the aftermath of the French and Indian War that would lead us to the American Revolution. These include:
- Committees of Correspondence
- Pontiac’s War
- Sugar Act
- Quartering Act
- Stamp Act
- Declaratory Act
- Townshend Acts
- Boston Massacre
- Tea Act
- Boston Tea Party
- Intolerable Acts
- Continental Congress
- Common Sense by Thomas Paine
- Declaration of Independence
Boston Tea Party
The Boston Tea Party was an American political and mercantile protest by the Sons of Liberty in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 16, 1773. The target was the Tea Act of May 10, 1773, which allowed the British East India Company to sell tea from China in American colonies without paying taxes apart from those imposed by the Townshend Acts. American Patriots strongly opposed the taxes in the Townshend Act as a violation of their rights. Demonstrators, some disguised as Native Americans, destroyed an entire shipment of tea sent by the East India Company.
They boarded the ships and threw the chests of tea into the Boston Harbor. The British government responded harshly and the episode escalated into the American Revolution. The Tea Party became an iconic event of American history, and since then other political protests such as the Tea Party movement have referred to themselves as historical successors to the Boston protest of 1773.
The Tea Party was the culmination of a resistance movement throughout British America against the Tea Act, which had been passed by the British Parliament in 1773. Colonists objected to the Tea Act because they believed that it violated their rights as Englishmen to “no taxation without representation”, that is, to be taxed only by their own elected representatives and not by a British parliament in which they were not represented. In addition, the well-connected East India Company had been granted competitive advantages over colonial tea importers, who resented the move and feared additional infringement on their business. Protesters had successfully prevented the unloading of tea in three other colonies, but in Boston, embattled Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson refused to allow the tea to be returned to Britain.
The Boston Tea Party was a significant event in the growth of the American Revolution. Parliament responded in 1774 with the Intolerable Acts, or Coercive Acts, which, among other provisions, ended local self-government in Massachusetts and closed Boston’s commerce. Colonists up and down the Thirteen Colonies in turn responded to the Intolerable Acts with additional acts of protest, and by convening the First Continental Congress, which petitioned the British monarch for repeal of the acts and coordinated colonial resistance to them. The crisis escalated, and the American Revolutionary War began near Boston in 1775.
The Boston Tea Party arose from two issues confronting the British Empire in 1765: the financial problems of the British East India Company; and an ongoing dispute about the extent of Parliament’s authority, if any, over the British American colonies without seating any elected representation. The North Ministry’s attempt to resolve these issues produced a showdown that would eventually result in revolution.
Tea Trade to 1767
As Europeans developed a taste for tea in the 17th century, rival companies were formed to import the product from China. In England, Parliament gave the East India Company a monopoly on the importation of tea in 1698. When tea became popular in the British colonies, Parliament sought to eliminate foreign competition by passing an act in 1721 that required colonists to import their tea only from Great Britain. The East India Company did not export tea to the colonies; by law, the company was required to sell its tea wholesale at auctions in England. British firms bought this tea and exported it to the colonies, where they resold it to merchants in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston.
Until 1767, the East India Company paid an ad valorem tax of about 25% on tea that it imported into Great Britain. Parliament laid additional taxes on tea sold for consumption in Britain. These high taxes, combined with the fact that tea imported into the Dutch Republic was not taxed by the Dutch government, meant that Britons and British Americans could buy smuggled Dutch tea at much cheaper prices. The biggest market for illicit tea was England—by the 1760s the East India Company was losing £400,000 per year to smugglers in Great Britain—but Dutch tea was also smuggled into British America in significant quantities.
In 1767, to help the East India Company compete with smuggled Dutch tea, Parliament passed the Indemnity Act, which lowered the tax on tea consumed in Great Britain, and gave the East India Company a refund of the 25% duty on tea that was re-exported to the colonies. To help offset this loss of government revenue, Parliament also passed the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767, which levied new taxes, including one on tea, in the colonies. Instead of solving the smuggling problem, however, the Townshend duties renewed a controversy about Parliament’s right to tax the colonies.
In every colony except Massachusetts, protesters were able to force the tea consignees to resign or to return the tea to England. In Boston, however, Governor Hutchinson was determined to hold his ground. He convinced the tea consignees, two of whom were his sons, not to back down.
This notice from the “Chairman of the Committee for Tarring and Feathering” in Boston denounced the tea consignees as “traitors to their country”. When the tea ship Dartmouth, arrived in the Boston Harbor in late November, Whig leader Samuel Adams called for a mass meeting to be held at Faneuil Hall on November 29, 1773. Thousands of people arrived, so many that the meeting was moved to the larger Old South Meeting House. British law required Dartmouth to unload and pay the duties within twenty days or customs officials could confiscate the cargo (i.e. unload it onto American soil). The mass meeting passed a resolution, introduced by Adams and based on a similar set of resolutions promulgated earlier in Philadelphia, urging the captain of Dartmouth to send the ship back without paying the import duty. Meanwhile, the meeting assigned twenty-five men to watch the ship and prevent the tea – including a number of chests from Davison, Newman and Co. of London – from being unloaded.
Governor Hutchinson refused to grant permission for Dartmouth to leave without paying the duty. Two more tea ships, Eleanor and Beaver, arrived in Boston Harbor. On December 16 – the last day of Dartmouth’s deadline – roughly 5,000 to 7,000 people out of a population of roughly 16,000 had gathered around the Old South Meeting House. After receiving a report that Governor Hutchinson had again refused to let the ships leave, Adams announced that “This meeting can do nothing further to save the country.” According to a popular story, Adams’s statement was a prearranged signal for the “tea party” to begin. However, this claim did not appear in print until nearly a century after the event, in a biography of Adams written by his great-grandson, who apparently misinterpreted the evidence. According to eyewitness accounts, people did not leave the meeting until ten or fifteen minutes after Adams’s alleged “signal”, and Adams in fact tried to stop people from leaving because the meeting was not yet over.
While Samuel Adams tried to reassert control of the meeting, people poured out of the Old South Meeting House to prepare to take action. In some cases, this involved donning what may have been elaborately prepared Mohawk costumes. While disguising their individual faces was imperative, because of the illegality of their protest, dressing as Mohawk warriors was a specific and symbolic choice. It showed that the Sons of Liberty identified with America, over their official status as subjects of Great Britain.
That evening, a group of 30 to 130 men, some dressed in the Mohawk warrior disguises, boarded the three vessels and, over the course of three hours, dumped all 342 chests of tea into the water. The property damage amounted to the destruction of 92,000 pounds or 340 chests of tea, reported by the British East India Company worth £9,659 worth, or $1,700,000 dollars in today’s money. The owner of the two of the three ships was William Rotch, a Nantucket-born colonist and merchant.
Another tea ship intended for Boston, the William, had run aground at Cape Cod in December 1773, and its tea was taxed and sold to private parties. In March 1774, the Sons of Liberty received information that this tea was being held in a warehouse in Boston, entered the warehouse and destroyed all they could find. Some of it had already been sold to Davison, Newman and Co. and was being held in their shop. On March 7, Sons of Liberty once again dressed as Mohawks, broke into the shop, and dumped the last remaining tea into the harbor.
Whether or not Samuel Adams helped plan the Boston Tea Party is disputed, but he immediately worked to publicize and defend it. He argued that the Tea Party was not the act of a lawless mob, but was instead a principled protest and the only remaining option the people had to defend their constitutional rights.
In Britain, even those politicians considered friends of the colonies were appalled and this act united all parties there against the colonies. The Prime Minister Lord North said, “Whatever may be the consequence, we must risk something; if we do not, all is over”. The British government felt this action could not remain unpunished, and responded by closing the port of Boston and putting in place other laws known as the “Intolerable Acts.” Benjamin Franklin stated that the East India Company should be paid for the destroyed tea, all ninety thousand pounds (which, at two shillings per pound, came to £9,000, or £1.15 million [2014, approx. $1.7 million US]). Robert Murray, a New York merchant, went to Lord North with three other merchants and offered to pay for the losses, but the offer was turned down.
The incident resulted in a similar effect in America when news of the Boston Tea Party reached London in January and Parliament responded with a series of acts known collectively in the colonies as the Intolerable Acts. These were intended to punish Boston for the destruction of private property, restore British authority in Massachusetts, and otherwise reform colonial government in America. Although the first three, the Boston Port Act the Massachusetts Government Act and the Administration of Justice Act, applied only to Massachusetts, colonists outside that colony feared that their governments could now also be changed by legislative fiat in England. The Intolerable Acts were viewed as a violation of constitutional rights, natural rights, and colonial charters, and united many colonists throughout America, exemplified by the calling of the First Continental Congress in September 1774.
A number of colonists were inspired by the Boston Tea Party to carry out similar acts, such as the burning of the Peggy Stewart. The Boston Tea Party eventually proved to be one of the many reactions that led to the American Revolutionary War. In his December 17, 1773 entry in his diary, John Adams wrote:
Last Night 3 Cargoes of Bohea Tea were emptied into the Sea. This Morning a Man of War sails. This is the most magnificent Movement of all. There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity, in this last Effort of the Patriots, that I greatly admire. The People should never rise, without doing something to be remembered—something notable And striking. This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences, and so lasting, that I cant but consider it as an Epocha in History.
In February 1775, Britain passed the Conciliatory Resolution, which ended taxation for any colony that satisfactorily provided for the imperial defense and the upkeep of imperial officers. The tax on tea was repealed with the Taxation of Colonies Act of 1778, part of another Parliamentary attempt at conciliation that failed.
Legacy of the Tea Party
John Adams and many other Americans considered tea drinking to be unpatriotic following the Boston Tea Party. Tea drinking declined during and after the Revolution, resulting in a shift to coffee as the preferred hot drink.
According to historian Alfred Young, the term “Boston Tea Party” did not appear in print until 1834. Before that time, the event was usually referred to as the “destruction of the tea”. According to Young, American writers were for many years apparently reluctant to celebrate the destruction of property, and so the event was usually ignored in histories of the American Revolution. This began to change in the 1830s, however, especially with the publication of biographies of George Robert Twelves Hewes, one of the few still-living participants of the “tea party”, as it then became known.
- The 1773 committee for tarring and feathering invites you to a Tea Party. (2012, June 17). BOOKTRYST. https://www.booktryst.com/2012/06/1773-committee-for-tarring-and.html
- Boston harbour tea from the mark T. Wendell tea company :: History. (n.d.). Boston Harbour Tea from the Mark T. Wendell Tea Company. https://bostonharbourtea.com/history/
- Boston Tea Party. (2001, August 14). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved January 10, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_Tea_Party
- The Boston Tea Party. (2015, December 17). America’s 1st Freedom | Official Journal Of The NRA. https://www.americas1stfreedom.org/articles/2015/12/17/the-boston-tea-party/
- A broadside reporting a meeting of the people of Boston at Faneuil hall on November 29, 1773 to prevent the sale of East India Company tea. (n.d.). Digital Public Library of America. https://dp.la/primary-source-sets/the-boston-tea-party/sources/1186
- George Robert twelves Hewes and the politics of historical pedagogy. (2014, November 6). The Junto. https://earlyamericanists.com/2014/11/05/alfred-young-roundtable-george-robert-twelves-hewes-and-the-politics-of-historical-pedagogy/
- Indemnity Act of 1767. (n.d.). Revolutionary War and Beyond. https://www.revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com/indemnity-act-of-1767-text.html
- Old South meeting house | The freedom trail. (n.d.). | The Freedom Trail. https://www.thefreedomtrail.org/trail-sites/old-south-meeting-house
- Quaker, whaler, coward, spy!: William rotch and the age of revolutions. (2020, December 15). Age of Revolutions. https://ageofrevolutions.com/2016/03/28/quaker-whaler-coward-spy-william-rotch-and-the-age-of-revolutions/
- Rebellious anniversary: Burning the Peggy Stewart ended Annapolis’ golden era. (2016, October 14). capitalgazette.com. https://www.capitalgazette.com/maryland/annapolis/ph-ac-cn-peggy-stuart-1014-20161014-story.html
- Ships of the Boston Tea Party: Eleanor, beaver, and Dartmouth. (2019, October 17). Nantucket Historical Association. https://nha.org/research/nantucket-history/history-topics/ships-of-the-boston-tea-party-eleanor-beaver-and-dartmouth/
- (n.d.). UR Scholarship Repository | University of Richmond Research. https://scholarship.richmond.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1906&context=masters-theses