The Boston Tea Party was an organized political protest that took place in Boston during the American Revolution.
The following are some facts about the Boston Tea Party:
What Was the Boston Tea Party?
The Boston Tea Party was an act of protest against the Tea Act of 1773, which had been recently passed by the British Government.
“The Boston Tea Party – Destruction of the tea in Boston Harbor.” Illustration published in A Child’s History of the United States circa 1872
During the Boston Tea Party, several hundred participants, including Paul Revere, dressed in disguise, rowed in small boats out to three cargo ships anchored in Boston Harbor, climbed aboard and dumped 90,000 pounds of tea into Boston Harbor.
What Was the Date of the Boston Tea Party?
The Boston Tea Party took place on the night of December 16, 1773.
What Caused the Boston Tea Party?
Due to a series of costly wars, the British government was deeply in debt by the late 1700s and hoped to make some much needed money off the sale of British tea in the colonies.
Colonists were drinking 1.2 million pounds of tea a year and it became clear that adding a small tax to this tea could generate a lot of extra money for the government.
The British government passed and then repealed a few tea taxes before it finally passed the Townshend Act of 1767. The Townshend Act placed a tax on all tea sold in the colonies, among other goods.
The colonists resented the government’s attempts to make money off them and complained that it was unfair. To appease the colonists, the government repealed the tax on most goods sold in the colony except for the tea tax.
Boston Tea Party, engraving by W.D. Cooper, circa 1789
Then in May of 1773, the British government passed The Tea Act, which allowed for tea to be shipped by British companies duty-free to the North American colonies, thus allowing the companies to sell it for a cheaper price. The tax on tea for colonists still remained though.
One reason behind the tea act was to help save the floundering East India Company, whose tea sales dwindled after the colonists began boycotting British tea.
Another reason behind the tea act was that, since the tea tax was still in place, selling the colonists discounted British tea could be a subtle way to persuade them to comply with the unpopular tax.
The colonists, though, opposed the tax on a matter of principle, not financial cost, so they refused to comply.
Boston Tea Party Summary:
Still angry about the unfair tea tax, the colonists refused to let the Dartmouth, a merchant ship filled with tea, dock in Boston harbor at Griffin’s Wharf in November of 1773.
“Boston tea party.” Illustration published in From the Boston Massacre to the Surrender of Burgoyne, circa 1895
The colonists sent a message to the Custom house to send the ship away without any payment for the tea. The Collector of Customs refused.
Colonists held a meeting at Faneuil Hall on November 29, 1773 but it was moved to the Old South Meeting House to accommodate the large crowd.
At the meeting, the colonists all agreed that the tea should be sent back and the tax should not be paid. They assigned 25 men to guard the docks and prevent the ships from docking while they adjourned the meeting for the next day.
The following day, the colonists met again in the Old South Meeting House and listened to a message delivered via John Copley from the tea company.
The company suggested storing the tea in a warehouse until further instruction from Parliament. This idea was immediately rejected because it would mean paying the tax on the tea once it landed.
In the first week of December, two more tea ships arrived; the Eleanor and the Beaver. The meetings continued while colonists tried to find a way to prevent the ships from docking.
The last meeting was held on December 16 and included over 5,000 people. The colonists sent a message to the governor asking him to allow the ships to return to England without payment.
As the owner of one of the ships, Francis Rotch, left the Old South Meetinghouse to give the governor the message, the colonists waited. When Rotch returned hours later with the governor’s reply, a definite “no”, they realized they had run out of options.
Little did they know, the Sons of Liberty, a radical political group based in Boston, had anticipated this response and had a secret plan laid out.
Shortly after the governor’s reply was announced, members of the Sons of Liberty, sitting in the audience, stood up and shouted “Hurrah for Griffin’s Wharf!” and “Boston Harbor a Teapot Tonight!” as they began disguising themselves as Native Americans, and rushed out of the meetinghouse towards the harbor.
“Throwing over the tea.” Illustration published in a Pictorial History of the United States, circa 1857
Other people joined the Sons of Liberty along the way and together the mob rowed out to the ships and dumped 90,000 pounds of tea, about 1 million dollars worth in today’s money, into Boston Harbor.
What Happened After the Boston Tea Party?
The Boston Tea Party was a brave move that proved the colonists were not to be pushed around. The British government was furious over the protest, with Governor Thomas Hutchinson calling it “the boldest stroke that had been struck against British rule in America.”
“Tea floating in Boston Harbor.” Illustration published in From the Boston Massacre to the Surrender of Burgoyne, circa 1895
Parliament called it “vandalism” and England’s attorney generally officially charged a number of patriot leaders, including Samuel Adams and John Hancock, with the crime of high treason and high misdemeanor, even though there is no proof any of them participated in the protest.
John Adams also had not participated but was delighted when he saw the tea in Boston harbor the next morning, according to the book American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution:
“John Adams, who had been in court in Plymouth for a week and rode back into Boston the morning after the Tea Party, said he did not know any Tea Party participants. As he rode into town, he saw splintered tea chests and huge clots of tea leaves covering the water as far as his eyes could see. They washed ashore along a fifty-mile stretch of coastline as well as on the offshore islands. ‘This,’ he entered in his diary when he reached his home, ‘is the most magnificent movement of all….There is a dignity, a majesty, a sublimity in this last effort of the Patriots 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 cannot but consider it as an epocha [sic] in history.’”
Tea floating in Boston Harbor, illustration published in “The Boston Tea Party, December 1773,” by H.W. McVickar, Josephine Pollard, circa 1882
John Hancock wrote a letter to his London agent a few days later gleefully reporting that New York and Philadelphia were also refusing to let cargo ships carrying tea land there and declared that, “No circumstance could possibly have taken place more effectively to unite the colonies than this maneuver of the tea.”
Yet, not everyone was impressed by the Boston Tea Party, according to the book American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution:
“Not many American leaders in the South rallied to the defense of the Boston Tea Party Patriots. Far from uniting colonists, the Tea Party had alienated many property owners, who held private property to be sacrosanct and did not tolerate its destruction or violation. George Washington concluded that Bostonians were mad, and like other Virginians and most Britons, he condemned the Boston Tea Party as vandalism and wanton destruction of private property – an unholy disregard for property rights. After the repeal of the Townshend Acts, Virginians saw no reason to persist in boycotting their British countrymen, and they resumed drinking tea…”
There were, eventually, legal repercussions for the Boston Tea Party. It took a few months but Parliament soon cracked down on Boston, according to the book American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People:
“Several months passed before the colonists learned the extent of their punishment. In a series of statutes known as the Coercive Acts, Parliament – like so many other uncertain imperial powers over the centuries – decided that provocation of this sort justified an overwhelming show of toughness. The punitive legislation closed the port of Boston to all commerce except for coastal trade in basic supplies like firewood, restructured the Massachusetts government in ways that curtailed free speech in town meetings, and filled the colony’s council with Crown appointees determined to restore law and order to the troubled commonwealth. To enforce the new system, the Crown dispatched to Boston an army of occupation under the command of General Thomas Gage.”
Old South Meeting House, Washington, St., scene of the Boston Tea Party meetings in 1773, Boston, Mass. circa 1910
These “Coercive Acts” which consisted of several acts, including the Quebec Act, the Quartering Act and two additional Intolerable Acts, made life very difficult for Bostonians and Massachusetts residents.
Morale began to run low, food was scarce and some colonists began to wonder if paying for the destroyed tea might appease the British government.
Fortunately, the other colonies, including Nova Scotia, Georgia and even Virginia, began to send food and supplies to Boston to ease their suffering.
In February of 1775, the British Government passed the Conciliatory Resolution which stated that any colony that wanted to contribute its share of the “common defense” to parliament would be exempted from further taxes except for regulation of trade.
An attempt at reconciliation was made in 1778 when the British government repealed the tea tax with passage of the Taxation of Colonies Act 1778 but by then it was too late, the colonies were already in the middle of their Revolutionary War with Britain.
For more information on the Boston Tea Party, check out this timeline of the Boston Tea Party.
Boston Tea Party Quotes:
“We have been much agitated in consequence of the arrival of tea ships by the East India Company, and after every effort was made to induce the consignees to return it from whence it came and all proving ineffectual, in a very few hours the whole of the tea on board…was thrown into the salt water. The particulars I must refer you to Captain Scott for indeed I am not acquainted with them myself, so as to give detail. No one circumstance could possibly have taken place more effectively to unite the colonies than this maneuver of the tea.”– John Hancock, letter to his London agent, December 21, 1773
“This is the most magnificent movement of all….There is a dignity, a majesty, a sublimity in this last effort of the Patriots 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 cannot but consider it as an epocha [sic] in history.”– John Adams, diary, December 1773
“We then were ordered by our commander to open the hatches and take out all the chests of tea and throw them overboard, and we immediately proceeded to execute his orders, first cutting and splitting the chests with our tomahawks, so as thoroughly to expose them to the effects of the water. In about three hours from the time we went on board, we had thus broken and thrown overboard every tea chest to be found in the ship, while those in the other ships were disposing of the tea in the same way, at the same time. We were surrounded by British armed ships, but no attempt was made to resist us.”– George Hewes, Interview with James Hawkes, 1834
Sources:Unger, Harlow. G. American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution. Da Capo Press, 2011Breen. T.H. American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People. Hill and Wang. 2010“The Coercive Act.” Massachusetts Historical Society, www.masshist.org/revolution/coercive.php“George Robert Twelve Hewes.” American National Biography Online. Oxford University Press, www.anb.org/articles/20/20-01899.html