Dec. 16, 1773: Behind the Boston Tea Party

By Chuck Springston
What led to the Boston Tea Party? Illustration:
What led to the Boston Tea Party? Illustration:
How the Boston Tea Party of 1773 set a standard for democratic protest.

     Think of the words “tea party” these days and you envision either dainty white teacups and crumpets or middle-aged protestors with teabags taped to baseball caps. But the real tea party occurred 240 years ago – and it is much misunderstood.  
     The tea party we know today arose in 2009 from anger over federal tax and budget polices. Its message is clear.
     But the message of the original tea party, the Boston Tea Party, has become obscured in a cloud of distortion and oversimplification. This year, the 240th anniversary of the event, is a good occasion to review the sequence of actions that culminated on Dec. 16, 1773, with 46 tons of tea steeping in Boston Harbor, making war with Great Britain all but inevitable.
     The story begins with the end of the French and Indian War in 1763. Britain, which had been fighting France in North America since 1754, won Canada and the rest of France’s territory east of the Mississippi River. But the victory came with a huge cost. Britain had doubled its debt and would incur additional expenses maintaining an army in the Colonies to protect the frontier from attack.
     Britain’s Parliament and king wanted the Colonies to help foot the bill.

     Tax protests: the start of an American tradition
     In April 1764, the British government’s Sugar Act gave customs officials additional powers to collect an earlier, often-evaded tax on sugar and molasses from French and Dutch islands in the Caribbean. The law also taxed imports of wine, silk, indigo dye, some types of cloth and other products.
     Then in March 1765 came the Stamp Act tax, which required colonists to have government revenue stamps on newspapers, pamphlets, playing cards, legal documents and other papers.
     Already troubled by the Sugar Act, Americans were infuriated by the Stamp Act. In both cases, they had no say about the taxes levied on them. There were cries of taxation without representation. Many of the protestors formed groups called the Sons of Liberty, secretive organizations throughout the Colonies that spearheaded opposition to the tax.
     Their tactics included propaganda printed in sympathetic newspapers, agreements among merchants to boycott British goods, efforts to prevent the offloading of stamps from ships, hanging effigies of local stamp distributors to frighten them into resigning and – among the most extreme members—damaging the homes of officials associated with the tax.
     In Boston, Sons of Liberty leaders included merchant John Hancock and Samuel Adams, a cousin of future President John Adams. A notable member was silversmith Paul Revere.
     Responding to the intensity of the protests, Britain repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766. That year the Sugar Act also was repealed and replaced with a lesser tax, which applied to molasses from Britain as well as from other countries.
     But in June 1767, Britain levied more taxes. Under the Townshend Revenue Act (named after Britain’s head of finance, Charles Townshend), Americans had to pay taxes on a variety imports from Britain. The colonists weren’t allowed to buy those products from other countries. The taxed imports included glass, lead, paper, paint—and tea.
     The Colonies returned fire using weapons similar to those deployed against the Stamp Act: organized boycotts, attacks on customs officials and threats to their homes. And once again Parliament relented. But this time, there wasn’t a complete repeal.  
     The repeal law of April 1770 kept the tea tax. Some in Parliament had argued for repeal of all the Townshend taxes, but King George III and the prime minister, Frederick North, said one tax had to stay on the books to remind the Colonies that London still maintained its “right” to tax them.

     A very British bailout
     Many Americans were still philosophically opposed to the tea tax, but it was relatively small—3 pence (pennies) per pound—and there was always lower-cost Dutch tea smuggled in from Caribbean islands. The Sons of Liberty and other strong advocates of no-taxation-without-representation had difficulty rousting into action a generally contented populous.
     But then the bumbling British government boosted the patriot cause with another legislative miscalculation. This time it was a law to save the struggling East India Co., a London-based stockholder-owned company chartered by the government in 1600 to trade with India and surrounding areas. It became a major supplier of tea from China.
     By the early 1770s, the company was sliding into bankruptcy through a combination of financial misfortunes, including troubles with its operations in India, heavy debts owed the Bank of England, corruption that drained profits, boycotts in the American Colonies during the tax protests and sales lost to smuggled Dutch tea. Some 17 million to 18 million pounds of unsold tea was stacked in company warehouses.
     The British government depended on the tea tax for revenue, and a collapse of the company, which had become a popular stock for speculators, could endanger financial markets across the globe. Another thing: Many of those stockholders were members of Parliament. The government had to find a way to keep East India alive.
     The solution was a government bailout, the Tea Act of May 1773. The law substantially changed the tea trade between Britain and its American Colonies.
     In the past, tea got to the Colonies this way: The East India Co. sent Chinese tea to Britain and was required by the government to sell it through auctions at the company’s London headquarters. Many of the purchasers were merchants from the Colonies who shipped the tea to Colonial ports and made a profit reselling it.
     Under the 1773 law, those businesses could no longer bid for the tea. After importing the Chinese tea to Britain, the East India Co. would now export it directly to America, bypassing the auction.
     Once the tea reached America, it would be delivered to a select few merchants, “consignees,” appointed by East India to resell it to the public. No one else could sell tea in the Colonies. Other merchants who had been selling it would lose business.
     Cutting out the auction also saved East India money because tea sold at auction was subject to tax. The Tea Act further reduced the company’s tax burden through exemptions and refunds of duties paid when tea was imported into Britain and then exported from there to other places.
     But while those taxes were cut, the 3 pence Townshend tax remained on tea sold in America. During the Tea Act debate in Parliament, Prime Minister North argued that the Colonies, because of all the trouble they had stirred up, were “so little deserving favour.” The British government had to continue asserting its control over taxes in the Colonies.
     It was a matter of principle.
     Besides, even with the tax in America still on the books, the price of East India tea would be less than the price of the smuggled Dutch tea because of the other tax breaks. American consumers would get cheaper tea. East India would get more customers. Everybody should have been happy.
     But everybody wasn’t happy. The slumbering anger in the Colonies awakened in a fighting mood when news of the Tea Act reached America in October 1773.
     Tea smuggling was widespread, and the smugglers could see disaster ahead for their businesses. Merchants who wanted to play by the rules also would suffer because only a limited number of consignees could sell tea, and those appointments would likely go to well-connected supporters of the king.
     The Sons of Liberty saw a perfect opportunity to reprise their tirade over taxation without representation. Sure, the price of tea had dropped. Sure, the tax was low. But American rights had been abridged.
     It was a matter of principle. 

     Party time
     On Sept. 27, 1773, the first of seven ships with East India tea left London on a sail to American ports. Four ships headed to Boston. Three others were bound for New York, Philadelphia and Charleston (then called Charles Towne), S.C.
     In each city, the Sons of Liberty and their allies, spewing threats and intimidation, clashed with consignees and ship captains, but only Boston did it with such flare.
     When the tea arrived in Charleston Dec. 3 on the ship London, frightened consignees had resigned and weren’t there to take it. The tea was unloaded and put in a building, where it stayed -- the taxes unpaid.
     In Philadelphia, the Sons of Liberty suggested that the captain of the Polly, which anchored Dec. 25, sail back to England and take the tea with him. He agreed it was a good idea. The ship Nancy, on its way to New York, was delayed by storms and didn’t land there until April 18, 1774. Again, the consignees would not accept the tea. The still-loaded ship returned to Britain.
     Either New York or Philadelphia -- not Boston -- would have seemed the most likely spot for a blowup over the Tea Act. All three cities were hotbeds of smuggling, but New York and Philadelphia outdid everyone else.
     Yet rising tensions in Boston between the king’s critics and the royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson, made the city a particularly volatile place when the Tea Act inflamed passions.
     Benjamin Franklin, working in London as an agent for Massachusetts’ interests, had obtained letters that Hutchinson sent a British official during the Townshend Act protests. In the letters, Hutchinson supported the British position and was willing to accept fewer rights for the Colonies. Franklin sent the letters in December 1772 to the Massachusetts legislature, which had them published in June 1773. Hutchinson quickly became one of the most despised men in the Colonies.
     East India’s decision to appoint two of Hutchinson’s sons as consignees for tea sales didn’t do anything to improve the governor’s popularity. The Hutchinson boys and other consignees in Boston were the only ones in the Colonies who did not resign when threatened by the Sons of Liberty.
     The Dartmouth, the first of four ships carrying East India tea destined for Massachusetts, arrived in Boston on Nov. 28. It was followed by the Eleanor and Beaver in December. The fourth ship, the William, ran aground on the rocks off Cape Cod on Dec. 10 during a storm.
     Under British customs law, within 20 days of a ship’s arrival the cargo had to be unloaded and the tax paid. If the deadline was missed, customs officials could seize the cargo and auction it off. The deadline for the Dartmouth was midnight, Dec. 16.
     Here is how the 20-day period for the Dartmouth played out.
     Sunday, Nov. 28: The Dartmouth entered Boston Harbor under the command of Capt. James Hall with 114 chests of black and green tea that East India had purchased from China. After the arrival the Sons of Liberty passed out announcements saying: “That worst of Plagues, the detested tea shipped for this port by the East India Company, is now arrived in the Harbor; the hour of destruction, or manly opposition to the machinations of Tyranny stares you in the Face.”
     Monday, Nov. 29: Men from nearly all social classes of Boston and neighboring towns gathered at the Old South Meeting House for a meeting organized by the Sons of Liberty and the Boston Committee on Correspondence, which communicated with groups formed in other Colonies to oppose British polices.
     Sam Adams, a leader in both organizations, wrote that the crowd numbered 5,000 to 6,000. One Boston merchant put the number closer to 2,500.
     The attendees resolved that “the tea shall not only be sent back but that no duty shall be paid thereon.” They also decided that 25 men would watch the ship to ensure no one tried to unload the tea. (Customs officials, meanwhile, put men on the ships to make sure no one tried to steal the tea.)
     Tuesday, Nov. 30: Another meeting was held at the Old South Meeting House, again attended by thousands. The tea consignees offered a counterproposal: The tea would be taken off the ship, inspected by the Sons of Liberty and put in storage while awaiting further instructions from London. Meeting participants knew that as soon as the tea was taken off the ship, the tax would have to be paid. The consignees’ proposal was shouted down.
     Before the meeting ended, the county sheriff, an appointed representative of the crown, entered with a proclamation from Hutchinson ordering everyone “to disperse and to surcease all further unlawful proceedings.” The order was ignored. The attendees issued a resolution “that the said tea never should be landed in this province.”
     Dec. 1-7: The Sons of Liberty met almost every day in small groups to develop a plan for action if the tea ships had not left by Dec. 16.
     Thursday, Dec. 2: The Eleanor, captained by James Bruce, arrived with 114 chests of tea.
     Tuesday, Dec. 7: The Beaver, loaded with 112 chests of tea, entered Boston Harbor, but a smallpox outbreak aboard put it under quarantine until Dec. 15, when Capt. Hezekiah Coffin docked it with the other ships at Griffin’s Wharf.
     Wednesday, Dec. 8: Determined that the tea would be offloaded and the tax paid, Hutchinson told Adm. John Montagu, leader of the British naval forces in Boston, to stop any ships that tried to leave the harbor without official clearance from the government. Army cannon at Castle William on an island at the entrance to the harbor were another threat to ships trying to get out illegally.  
     Tuesday, Dec. 14: Residents of towns throughout Massachusetts joined Bostonians at the Old South Meeting House. They “compelled” the owner of the Dartmouth—the Rotch family of Nantucket, Mass.—to apply at the customs house for clearance to return the ship to England and “appointed ten gentlemen to see it performed,” Adams wrote. The meeting was adjourned until Thursday.
     Thursday, Dec. 16, 10 a.m.: Some 5,000 to 7,000 people gathered in the Old South Meeting House on a cold and rainy day. They learned that Francis Rotch, a member of the family that owned the Dartmouth, met with customs officials. They denied the request for clearance.
     The meeting’s leaders then asked Rotch to make his request directly to the governor. Rotch rode out to see Hutchinson, who was staying at his country home about 10 miles away. The ship owner got nothing for his effort.
      About 6 p.m.: Rotch returned to the Old South Meeting Hall to deliver the bad news. Officials in Charleston, New York and Philadelphia were willing to wink at the law to avoid confrontation, but Hutchinson opted to stare down the protestors. For the ships of tea and the Sons of Liberty both, there was no turning back now.
     Adams addressed the crowd and reportedly said: This meeting can do nothing more to save the country”— a signal, according to Tea Party lore.
     We don’t know precisely what happened or was said in the confusion of the next minutes, but war whoops were shouted inside and outside the meetinghouse. There were also cries of “to the wharfs” and “Boston Harbor a teapot tonight” and “The Mohawks are come.”
     The rain had stopped, and from the doors and windows of the meetinghouse could be seen a group of men outside dressed as Native Americans. They were not wearing full-blown native attire. Typically, they wore blankets over their shoulders, stained their faces and hands with soot and carried tomahawks (hatchets). 
     On their way to the ships, those “Mohawks” were joined by others. Some had mustered nearby and, like a well-organized unit, marched two-by-two to the wharf. They were followed by a swarm of spectators, perhaps as many as 2,000.
     About a hundred men boarded the tea ships in the harbor. When they got to the wharf, leaders of the operation organized them into divisions.
     After boarding, the Mohawks asked the captains and customs officers to step aside. They demanded the keys to the hatches and went down into the holds that contained chests of loose-leaf tea. The largest tea-filled chests weighed about 400 pounds. Block and tackles were used to haul them to the deck, where they were split open with axes and hatchets. The tea was then tossed into the water, followed by the broken chests.
     Well-aware they would be denounced for destroying private property to make a political statement, the Sons of Liberty assiduously avoided other damage or looting that would make them look like a lawless mob. When a padlock belonging to one of the captains was broken, they replaced it.
     Some of the spectators, however, tried to scoop up scattered tea leaves. One man was seen stuffing his pockets and the lining of his coat with tea. To stop him, a Mohawk grabbed his coat, which ripped off as the man ran away. But as the thief raced through the crowd, he was kicked and hit.
     About 9 p.m. The last of the tea had been dumped into the harbor. In a document submitted to Parliament, East India calculated its losses from the roughly 46 tons of destroyed tea in 340 chests at 9,659 pounds sterling, about $2 million in current dollars.
     The men who had been on the ships quietly returned to their homes, not talking with each other or attempting to learn the identities of others they did not know.
     The exact number of men who planned and executed the tea destruction is still a mystery. They did their plotting in secret and afterward kept quiet to avoid arrest by British authorities or lawsuits from East India. Although some never talked, others revealed their roles in later years, particularly during the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
     Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum has a list of 116 participants on its website. A list of 98 participants is on the website of the Old South Meeting House.
     Future midnight rider Revere was one participant. Another was Thomas Melville, grandfather of Herman Melville, the author of “Moby Dick.”  The participants’ occupations included: doctor, merchant, newspaper publisher, bookseller, schoolteacher, baker, distiller, innkeeper, farmer, wharf operator, sailor, carpenter, mason, blacksmith, cabinetmaker, rope-maker, shoemaker, hatter and more.
     In response to the destruction of tea, Parliament punished Boston with a series of harsh measures that included closing the port, eliminating some elected positions and giving the royal governor more power. 
     In response to the harsh measures, the Colonies came together as a Continental Congress in September 1774, engaged in war with Britain and declared their independence in July 1776. But the legacy of the Boston Tea Party extends beyond its role in the Revolution.
     “The destruction of the tea was a quintessential rejection of authority that became a cherished American tradition,” writes Benjamin L. Carp., a history professor at Tufts University, in “Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America”[2011, Yale University Press]. “The Tea Party involved a relatively broad segment of the population, even though this was an era when only the elite were thought fit to rule and make decisions. Because of this, the destruction set a world standard for future democratic protest.”

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