Boston Tea Party

Boston Tea Party

Boston Tea Party, 1773. In the contest between British Parliament and the American colonists before the Revolution, Parliament, when repealing the Townshend Acts, had retained the tea tax, partly as a symbol of its right to tax the colonies, partly to aid the financially embarrassed East India Company. The colonists tried to prevent the consignees from accepting taxed tea and were successful in New York and Philadelphia. At Charleston the tea was landed but was held in government warehouses. At Boston, three tea ships arrived and remained unloaded but Gov. Thomas Hutchinson refused to let the ships leave without first paying the duties. A group of indignant colonists, led by Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and others, disguised themselves as Native Americans, boarded the ships on the night of Dec. 16, 1773, and threw the tea into the harbor. In reply Parliament passed the Boston Port Bill (see Intolerable Acts).

See study by B. W. Labaree (1964).

The Boston Tea Party was an act of direct action protest by the American colonists against the British Government in which they destroyed many crates of tea belonging to the British East India Company on ships in Boston Harbor. The incident, which took place on Thursday, December 16, 1773, has been seen as helping to spark the American Revolution and remains to this day one of the most iconic events in American history.


The Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767 angered colonists regarding British decisions on taxing the colonies despite a lack of representation in the Westminster Parliament. One of the protesters was John Hancock, a wealthy Bostonian. In 1768, Hancock's ship Liberty was seized by customs officials, and he was charged with smuggling. He was defended by John Adams, and the charges were eventually dropped. However, Hancock later faced several hundred more indictments.

Hancock organized a boycott of tea from China sold by the British East India Company, whose sales in the colonies then fell from 320,000 pounds (145,000 kg) to 520 pounds (240 kg). By 1773, the company had large debts, huge stocks of tea in its warehouses and no prospect of selling it because smugglers, such as Hancock, were importing tea from the Netherlands without paying import taxes. In response to this the British government passed the Tea Act, which allowed the East India Company to sell tea to the colonies directly and without "payment of any customs or duties whatsoever" in Britain, instead paying the much lower American duty. This tax break allowed the East India Company to sell tea for half the old price and cheaper than the price of tea in England, enabling them to undercut the prices offered by the colonial merchants and smugglers.

Many American colonists, particularly the wealthy smugglers, resented this favored treatment of a major company, which employed lobbyists and wielded great influence in Parliament. Protests resulted in both Philadelphia and New York, but it was those in Boston that made their mark in history. Still reeling from the Hutchinson letters, Bostonians suspected the removal of the Tea Tax was simply another attempt by the British parliament to squash American freedom. Samuel Adams, wealthy smugglers, and others who had profited from the smuggled tea called for agents and consignees of the East India Company tea to abandon their positions; consignees who hesitated were terrorized through attacks on their warehouses and even their homes.

The first of many ships which arrived at the Boston harbor carrying the East India Company tea was Dartmouth arriving in late November 1773. A standoff ensued between the port authorities and the Sons of Liberty. Samuel Adams whipped up the growing crowd by demanding a series of protest meetings. Coming from both the city and outlying areas, thousands attended these meetings; every meeting larger than the one before. The crowds shouted defiance not only at the British Parliament, the East India Company, and Dartmouth but at Governor Thomas Hutchinson as well, who was still struggling to have the tea landed. On the night of December 16, the protest meeting, held at Boston's Old South Meeting House, was the largest yet seen. An estimated 8,000 people were said to have tipped the tea.

The owner of the Dartmouth and its captain agreed that the tea would be returned to England and similar promises were obtained from the owners of two more vessels en route, the Eleanor and the Beaver. However, Governor Hutchinson ordered the harbor to be blocked and he would not allow any tea-bearing vessels to leave until they had been unloaded. King George III was outraged.


On Thursday, December 16, 1773, the evening before the tea was due to be landed, Captain Roach appealed to Governor Hutchinson to allow his ship to leave without unloading its tea. When Roach returned and reported Hutchinson's refusal to a massive protest meeting, Samuel Adams said to the assembly "This meeting can do nothing more to save the country". As though on cue, the Sons of Liberty thinly disguised as either Mohawk or Narragansett Indians and armed with small hatchets and clubs, headed toward Griffin's Wharf (in Boston Harbor), where lay Dartmouth and the newly-arrived Beaver and Eleanour. Swiftly and efficiently, casks of tea were brought up from the hold to the deck, reasonable proof that some of the "Indians" were, in fact, longshoremen. The casks were opened and the tea dumped overboard; the work, lasting well into the night, was quick, thorough, and efficient. By dawn, over 342 casks or 90,000 lbs (45 tons) of tea worth an estimated £10,000 (£953,000, or $1.87 million USD in 2007 currency) had been consigned to waters of Boston harbor. Nothing else had been damaged or stolen, except a single padlock accidentally broken and anonymously replaced not long thereafter.

Tea washed up on the shores around Boston for weeks. Attempts were made by the citizens of Boston to carry off some of the tea. A small number of small boats were rowed where the tea was visible, then beating it with oars to render it unusable.

The fourth East India Company ship carrying tea did not arrive with the other three because it had run aground in Provincetown. All fifty-eight tea chests were salvaged and put onto a fishing schooner, which arrived safely in Boston and into Bostonians' teapots.


The tea party caused a crisis. Hutchinson had been urging London to take a hard line with the Sons of Liberty. If he had done what the other royal governors had done and let the ship owners and captains resolve the issue with the colonists, the Dartmouth, Eleanor, and the Beaver would have left without unloading any tea. Lord North said that if the colonists had stuck with nonimportation for another six months the tea tax would have been repealed. In February, 1775, Britain passed the Conciliatory Resolution which ended taxation for any colony which satisfactorily provided for the imperial defense and the upkeep of imperial officers. The Tea Act was repealed with the Taxation of Colonies Act 1778.

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 was an action which could not be unpunished and responded by closing the port of Boston and put in place other laws that were known as the "Intolerable Acts", also called the Coercive Acts, or Punitive Acts. In addition, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, and Benjamin Church were charged with the "Crime of High Treason".

In the colonies, Benjamin Franklin stated that the destroyed tea must be repaid. 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. A number of colonists were inspired 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 catalysts which led to the American Revolutionary War. At the very least, the Boston Tea Party and the reaction that followed served to rally support for revolutionaries in the thirteen colonies who were eventually successful in their fight for independence.

Many colonists, in Boston and elsewhere in the country, pledged to abstain from tea drinking as a protest, turning instead to "Balsamic hyperion" (made from raspberry leaves), other herbal infusions, and coffee. This social protest movement away from tea drinking, however, was not long-lived.


The Boston Tea Party is known around the world and has been inspirational to other noted activists and reform leaders. For example, Erik H. Erikson records in his book "Gandhi's Truths" that when Mahatma Gandhi met with the British viceroy in 1930 after the Indian salt protest campaign, Gandhi took some duty-free salt from his shawl and said, with a smile, that the salt was "to remind us of the famous Boston Tea Party."

American political activists have invoked the Tea Party as a symbol of rebellion against the establishment.

A Boston-based team in the defunct North American Soccer League called themselves the New England Tea Men. They were owned by the British company Lipton Tea, so the name was intended slightly ironically.

See also



Works cited

  • Andrews, "Letters", Mass. Hist. Soc. Proc. VIII, pg. 325-326
  • Hawkins, A Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party, pp. 39-31.
  • Ketchum, Richard, Divided Loyalties, How the American Revolution came to New York, 2002, ISBN 0805061207
  • Unger, Harlow, John Hancock, Merchant King and American Patroit, 2000, ISBN 0785820264

External links

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