Boston Tea Party (1773)

views updated May 23 2018


At nine o'clock on the night of December 16, 1773, a band of Bostonians disguised as Native Americans boarded the British merchant ship Dartmouth and two companion vessels anchored at Griffin's Wharf in Boston harbor. The Americans, who numbered around 70, shared a common aim: to destroy the ships' cargo of British East India Company tea. Many years later George Hewes, a 31yearold shoemaker and participant, recalled "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." Urged on by a crowd of cheering townspeople, the disguised Bostonians destroyed 342 chests of tea estimated to be worth between £10,000 and £18,000. Their actions, which became known as the Boston Tea Party, set in motion events that led directly to the American Revolution (177583).

The Boston Tea Party was one of a long series of conflicts between the American colonies and the English government after the British victory in the French and Indian War (175463). The French and Indian War was the last and most expensive of almost a century of colonial wars between France and England. Since a lot of this money was spent to protect the American colonists from French Canadians and their Native American allies, the British government felt the Americans should help pay for the war. They also wanted the colonists to pay some of the future costs of stationing soldiers at forts scattered over the new Western frontier. The Americans, for their part, saw little sense in sending money to England to pay for troops that were needed much closer to home.

During the 1760s Parliament passed a series of acts designed to reduce the British national debt and to finance the costs of keeping regular soldiers on the American frontier. The most notorious of these was the Stamp Act (1765), which placed a tax on almost every public piece of paper in the colonies, including newspapers, pamphlets, diplomas, licenses, packs of cards, almanacs, and dice. The colonists fiercely resisted these taxes, organizing public protests and intimidating tax collectors. The Stamp Act resistance was the most widespread and best organized intercolonial protest before the tea crisis of the 1770s. In the face of such widespread opposition the British Parliament backed down. It repealed the Stamp Act and its companion taxes in 1766.

The following year Parliament tried another means of raising money, through the Townshend Duties or Revenue Acts (1767), so named after Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles "Champagne Charlie" Townshend. Instead of placing a direct tax on materials that colonists bought and sold, these acts made certain important items such as lead, glass, paint, paper, and tea more expensive. The colonists responded by refusing to buy those products. Nonimportation agreements were signed throughout the American colonies. Citizens at all levels of society either refused to drink tea or bought black-market varieties that came from Dutch colonies. Faced with widespread American opposition, the British government backed down. The Townshend Duties were repealed on March 5, 1770, with the exception of a three penny duty on tea, kept to prove that Parliament had the right to tax the colonies. However, although this piece of legislation is credited with causing the Boston Tea Party, it had nothing to do with the American colonies.

The duty on tea mandated by the Townshend Duties act was meant to save the old British East India Company from bankruptcy. Until the Townshend Duties were first passed the Company had made much of its money transporting tea from India to England, where it was sold first to English wholesalers and then to American wholesalers before being sold to the colonial public. The American boycott of British tea, combined with intensive smuggling of Dutch tea, cut into Company profits. In an attempt to revive the East India Company, Prime Minister Lord Charles North(17701782) persuaded Parliament to pass the Tea Act (1773). This legislation effectively cut the wholesalers out and allowed the East India Company to sell tea directly to agents in America. It gave the Company a monopoly on the sale of tea in the colonies.

The monopoly hurt colonists at all levels of society. Because the Tea Act allowed the East India Company to name its own sales agents to distribute the tea in American ports, business for local merchants and middlemen decreased. The Act offended politicians and patriots, who saw it as an attempt by Parliament to tax them without their consent. Even smugglerswho included wealthy merchants such as John Hancock (17371793)were hurt because it made East India tea competitive with or cheaper than Dutch tea. Other Americans sought to profit from the Act. Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts (177174), for example, used his influence to get his sons Thomas and Elisha named East India Company sales agents.

In September of 1773 the East India Company readied 600,000 pounds of tea in 2,000 chests for shipment to the colonies. The cargoes arrived at major colonial ports a month and a half later and met with hostile receptions. In New York and Philadelphia angry crowds forced local officials to send the tea ships

back to England without unloading their cargoes. In Annapolis, Maryland, demonstrators burned a tea ship, and in New Jersey arsonists set fire to a warehouse where unloaded tea was stored. In Massachusetts, however, Governor Hutchinson decided to face down the demonstrators. When Boston citizens, led by patriot Samuel Adams (17221803), refused to allow the tea ships to unload, Hutchinson called on the Royal Navy to blockade Boston harbor so that the ships could not leave port. He knew that British law required a ship to unload its cargo after 20 days in port and he planned to use this law to sidestep Adams and his patriot followers.

The 20 day waiting period ended for the Dartmouth on December 16. On that day Sam Adams and his party tried to contact Governor Hutchinson to convince him to let the ships leave harbor. Hutchinson refused and, at five o'clock in the afternoon, the meeting of Boston citizens broke up. Some of them followed George Hewes' example, by dressing up as Native Americans. Carrying tomahawks and clubs, they marched to Griffin's Wharf. Hewes and his companions took great pains that nothing but the tea was destroyed and that no one profited from the destruction. "One Captain O'Connor, whom I well knew, came on board [to steal some tea], and when he supposed he was not noticed, filled his pockets, and also the lining of his coat," Hewes recalled. "But I had detected him and gave information to the captain of what he was doing. We were ordered to take him into custody, and just as he was stepping from the vessel, I seized him by the skirt of his coat, and in attempting to pull him back, I tore it off; but, springing forward by a rapid effort he made his escape."

The Boston Tea Party led almost directly to the American Revolution. To punish the city of Boston for its role in the destruction of so much East India Company property, the British Parliament passed a series of laws known collectively as the Coercive Acts (1774). These laws closed the port of Boston until the citizens paid for the destroyed tea, dismantled Massachusetts's colonial charter, expanded the powers of the king's governor, and made it harder to convict royal officials of crimes. In the Quebec Act (1774), Parliament also took away lands that had been claimed by the American colonies since their founding. In reply the Americans formed the First Continental Congress to organize and coordinate their response. Sixteen months after the tea finally sank in Boston harbor, the first shots of the American Revolution were fired.

See also: American Revolution, French and Indian War, John Hancock, Stamp Act, Townshend Act


Labaree, Benjamin Woods. The Boston Tea Party. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

McCusker, John J., and Menard, Russell R. The Economy of British North America, 16071789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,1985.

"Recollections of George Hewes," in A Retrospective of the Boston Tea Party, 1843. Reprinted in Commager, Henry Steele, and Morris, Richard B., editors. The Spirit of 'Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. Volume I. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1958.

in about three hours from the time we went on board, we had . . . 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.

george hewes, shoemaker and participant

Boston Tea Party

views updated May 23 2018

Boston Tea Party

On the evening of December 16, 1773, a group of angry Boston citizens boarded three ships belonging to the East India Company docked in Boston Harbor. In protest of the British Parliament's Tea Act (1773), the group quietly dumped more than ninety thousand pounds of tea into the harbor. The incident has become known as the Boston Tea Party. It triggered a series of events that led directly to war and eventually to independence for America.

Parliamentary acts

The Boston Tea Party represents the difficult relationship between England and the thirteen colonies following the French and Indian War (1754–63). The French and Indian War was the last and most expensive of the colonial wars between France and England. The cost of defending the American colonists throughout the war had wiped out the British treasury.

Thinking that the colonies should help pay for past war debts and for the future cost of keeping English soldiers for their defense, Parliament passed a series of acts to raise money from the colonies. Among the measures passed by Parliament, the Townshend Acts (1767) were most unpopular. Instead of placing a direct tax on materials the colonists bought and sold, these acts imposed duties on items imported into the colonies. This made certain important items such as lead, glass, paint, paper, and tea more expensive.

Citizens protested by refusing to buy the taxed products and by signing nonimportation agreements throughout the colonies. Faced with such widespread opposition, the British government repealed the Townshend duties (taxes) in March 1770. To prove that Parliament had the right to tax the colonies, however, it preserved a three-penny duty on tea.

Corporate affairs

Between 1771 and 1773, the relationship between the colonies and England seemed fairly calm. However, Parliament's passage of the Tea Act in 1773 brought the period of peace to an abrupt end. The Tea Act was not passed with the intention of disciplining the American colonies. It was instead an attempt to revive the struggling East India Company.

The legislation effectively cut wholesalers out of the tea trade by allowing the East India Company to sell tea directly to its own agents in America.

By avoiding the cost of using wholesalers, the East India Company was able to sell tea more cheaply than other tea companies could. This allowed the company to monopolize, or dominate, tea sales in the colonies. The monopoly angered colonists at all levels of society. Business for wholesalers and local merchants decreased. Tea smugglers were hurt by the competition of more affordable tea on the market.

In November of 1773, the first shipments of East India Company tea since the passage of the Tea Act began to arrive in ports throughout the colonies. They were met with hostile receptions. In New York and Philadelphia, angry crowds forced officials to send the tea ships back to England without unloading their cargoes. A tea ship was burned in Annapolis, Maryland , and arsonists in New Jersey burned a warehouse where unloaded tea was stored. The governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson (1711–1780), decided to face down the demonstrators in his colony.

Boston's tea

Three ships from the East India Company attempted to unload tea in Boston. A group of Boston citizens, led by revolutionary statesman Samuel Adams (1722–1803), refused to allow the tea to be taken off the ships. Governor Hutchinson called on the Royal Navy to blockade the harbor so the ships could not leave the port. Knowing that British law required ships to unload cargo after twenty days in port, the governor hoped to sidestep the demonstrators.

On December 16, the twenty-day period came to an end. Although Adams and others tried to convince Governor Hutchinson to allow the ships to return to England, he refused. Later that evening, a group of about seventy colonists disguised as American Indians silently boarded the ships. They broke open and dumped 342 chests of tea into the harbor.

In response to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passed a series of measures, known as the Intolerable Acts, to punish the citizens of Massachusetts. The punitive laws, however, served to unite the colonists, who soon organized the First Continental Congress to plan a strategy for dealing with England. (See Continental Congress, First .) The conflicts between England and the colonies soon escalated into violence and the American Revolution (1775–83).

Boston Tea Party

views updated Jun 08 2018


The Boston Tea Party of 16 December 1773 is an iconic event in American history, revealing the nature of American resistance and bringing severe retaliation from the ministry of Great Britain. The Tea Party was a brazen and radical action that demonstrated the organization and resilience of Boston's waterfront community. By precipitating the Intolerable Acts, the tea action helped to accelerate the dissolution of the British Empire in North America.

Boston was already in a ferment in 1773 over a proposal to pay the Massachusetts civil list from customs revenues and over the publication of royal governor Thomas Hutchinson's letters, which recommended curtailing American liberties. In the midst of this turmoil, the North American seaports learned of the passage in the spring of 1773 of the Tea Act, which granted the East India Company the ability to undersell its competitors (often American smugglers) while still paying the hated Townshend duty on tea shipped to America. As the seven ships bearing the East India Company tea sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, Boston and other seaports took steps to ensure that the dutied tea would not land.

Bostonians tried to force the tea consignees to resign their commissions and return the tea. By law, however, the tea could not be re-exported to England. On 28 November 1773, the Dartmouth was the first of three tea ships to arrive in the harbor. The following day the people of Boston crowded Faneuil Hall to plan a course of action, while the consignees fled to Castle William in the harbor for safety. Negotiations continued without success: the customs officers and the governor would not allow the tea to be sent back to England. If the duty was unpaid by 17 December, British customs officers could seize the tea and then sell it at auction.

Thus, on 16 December some five thousand people from Boston and its surrounding towns met at the Old South Meeting House. As day turned into evening, Governor Hutchinson refused one final time to allow the Dartmouth to leave the harbor. The crowd gave shouts of defiance, and a group of about 150 men hastened to Griffin's Wharf where the tea ships were docked. Under the guns of the Royal Navy, these men began heaving the tea into the harbor. Many disguised themselves as Indians or blackened their faces to avoid recognition. The men aboard the tea ships represented all ranks of society: apprentices and journeymen as well as artisans, merchants, and Patriot leaders. With speed, order, and discipline, they destroyed ninety thousand pounds of tea worth £9,659.

The Boston Tea Party aroused opposite reactions on the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Bostonians celebrated the action, as did many other American radicals. The British citizenry, meanwhile, saw this action by the rebellious Bostonians as a slap in the face. Although New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston had also prevented the dutied tea from landing, only in Boston had Americans taken the drastic step of destroying the East India Company tea, and so it was Boston that the ministry singled out. Since it proved impossible to name specific individual participants in the Tea Party, the ministry resolved to hold Bostonians collectively responsible for indemnifying the property of the East India Company. The Boston Tea Party demonstrated the government's loss of control over Boston, and the Boston Port Act of March 1774, in conjunction with the other Intolerable Acts of that year, aimed to reestablish parliamentary authority on a firmer footing in Massachusetts.

See alsoBoston; Intolerable Acts; Tea Act .


Labaree, Benjamin Woods. The Boston Tea Party. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Young, Alfred F. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution. Boston: Beacon, 1999.

Benjamin L. Carp

Boston Tea Party

views updated May 14 2018


BOSTON TEA PARTY. The British East India Company, facing severe financial reverses, convinced Parliament to allow them to sell tea in the American colonies at a price that would undercut even smuggled Dutch tea, and raise revenue while clearing their warehouses of a huge surplus. Unfortunately, this tea would still carry the despised three-pence per pound tax, which had remained as a token duty, and would be sold through only a handful of dealers in America. This high-handed policy united small merchants, left out of the deal, with patriot organizations that protested the tax. The arrival of the tea ships Eleanor, Dartmouth and Beaver sparked public protest in Boston, including public meetings, fliers and harassment of the consignees, who took shelter in Castle William to avoid the crowds.

The Sons of Liberty, led by Samuel Adams, decided on 13 December 1773 that the tea must not be unloaded, nor could it remain onboard twenty days and thus be seized for sale by customs officials. On 16 December, the night the Sons of Liberty planned their raid, a public protest at the Old South Meeting House turned rowdy after someone suggested dumping the tea in the harbor. As protesters stormed out of the meeting house, they met Sons of Liberty, costumed as Narragansett Indians, on their way to do the same thing. With a crowd of perhaps 1,000 Bostonians following, the "Indians" and volunteers stormed the three ships and in a three-hour fracas, broke open all 342 of the tea chests and dumped them into the harbor, which was at low tide.

The attackers were conscientious, and they damaged no ship or other cargo. Only one man was injured, knocked unconscious by a collapsing winch. However, they had ruined 18,000 pounds worth of tea and infuriated the British government, particularly the king. Despite arresting a barber named Francis Eckley, who had been caught bragging about his participation, the Boston authorities were unable to find anyone who could identify

the protestors. Patriots tarred and feathered Eckley's accuser in retaliation. George III specifically noted the Tea Party in his address to Parliament, and he and Prime Minister Lord North pushed through the Coercive Acts by April 1774. The Coercive Acts were designed to punish Boston and the colony of Massachusetts. They sparked further protests and eventually, war between Britain and her American colonies.

Although usually considered by itself, the Boston Tea Party was a natural growth of other protests against the British administration in Boston, centered on royal governor Thomas Hutchinson and his subordinates. Until the publication of Thomas Paine's Common Sense in 1776, these protests were notable in their careful avoidance of blaming George III, instead focusing on his council or colonial administrators. The costumes and violence of the Tea Party were also an outgrowth of regular crowd demonstrations in Boston, including burning Catholic figures in effigy, vandalizing administrator's homes or intimidating customs and tax inspectors. Even when not politically motivated, the apprentices and laborers of Boston also engaged in highly charged territorial contests that often ended in injuries and rowdy outbursts, and were led by men who took pains to hide their appearance using symbolic disguises. In all these respects, it was not the Tea Party itself that was unusual, but the British reaction to it.


Griswold, Wesley S. The Night the Revolution Began. Brattleboro, Vt.: The Stephen Green Press, 1972.

Labarre, Benjamin Woods. The Boston Tea Party. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Shaw, Peter. American Patriots and the Rituals of Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Margaret D.Sankey

See alsoSons of Liberty (American Revolution) ; Townshend Acts .

Boston Tea Party

views updated May 14 2018

Boston Tea Party

BOSTON TEA PARTY. 16 December 1773. The Dartmouth, the first of three ships carrying East Indian Company tea, arrived in Boston Harbor on 28 November 1773, and docked at Griffin's Wharf three days later. It was followed shortly thereafter by the Eleanor and the Bruce. While the agents to whom the tea had been consigned waited to see if the cargo could be landed safely, the Boston Committee of Correspondence organized several mass meetings to prevent any unloading. Governor Thomas Hutchinson refused to allow the ships to leave Boston. He seems to have assumed that, after twenty days when the law allowed customs officers to seize goods to pay the required duties (in this case, three pence per pound of tea as required by the Tea Act of 1773), the tea would be impounded, the agents would be able to pay the duty, and the principle of Parliament's right to collect revenue in the colonies would be upheld.

Hutchinson did not think that local Patriot leaders would destroy the East India Company's property. He was, therefore, surprised when, after a meeting at the Old South Meeting House on the evening of 16 December over which Samuel Adams presided, a crowd surrounded the wharf while a boarding party of between 40 and 50 men, "dressed and whooping like Indians," emptied 340 chests of tea into Boston harbor. In a notable display of controlled violence, the "Indians" destroyed nothing other than the tea and the chests in which it was contained. Although some people believed at the time that John Hancock had led the boarding party, the people who destroyed the tea have never been reliably identified. The East India Company never received restitution for its loss, valued at £9,000.

The "tea party" ratcheted up the level of confrontation between Britain and the colonies, and began a sequence of events that convinced activists across British North America that they had to cooperate more closely to resist what they believed to be imperial tyranny. In March 1774 Parliament retaliated for the "tea party" by passing the Boston Port Act, the first of the Intolerable Acts, which prohibited any ship from entering or leaving the port of Boston until restitution had been made for the cost of the tea and assurances had been given for payment of duties in the future. The activists reacted by calling the first Continental Congress to consider collective resistance.

SEE ALSO Adams, Samuel; Continental Congress; Hutchinson, Thomas; Intolerable (or Coercive) Acts; Tea Act.


Knollenberg, Bernard. Growth of the American Revolution, 1766–1775. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2002.

Labaree, Benjamin W. The Boston Tea Party. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

                              revised by Harold E. Selesky

Boston Tea Party

views updated May 11 2018

Boston Tea Party, 1773. This marked a distinct stage on the road from resistance to insurrection in North America. The unpopular tea duty was continued after the repeal of the other Townshend duties. In 1773 the East India Company was allowed to export dutied tea directly to America. The patriotic leadership in Boston failed to gain undertakings that tea would not be landed. A group of men disguised as ‘Mohawks or Indians’ ‘emptied every chest of tea’ on board three ships into Boston harbour on 16 December 1773. This unchecked attack on British property provoked the Intolerable Acts’ of 1774.

Richard C. Simmons

Boston Tea Party

views updated May 29 2018

Boston Tea Party (1773) Protest by a group of Massachusetts colonists, disguised as Mohawks and led by Samuel Adams, against the Tea Act and, more generally, against “taxation without representation”. The Tea Act (1773), passed by the British Parliament, withdrew duty on tea exported to the colonies. It enabled the East India Company to sell tea directly to the colonies without first going to Britain and resulted in colonial merchants being undersold. The protesters boarded three British ships and threw their cargo of tea into Boston harbour. The British retaliated by closing the harbour.

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