The Boston Tea Party

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The Boston Tea Party

Book excerpt

By: George R.T. Hewes

Date: 1834

Source: Hawkes, James A. Retrospect of the Boston Tea Party, with a Memoir of George R. T. Hewes … New York: S. S. Bliss, 1834.

About the Author: George R. T. Hewes was a shoemaker who lived in Boston, Massachusetts, during the mid–1700s. He both witnessed and participated in several of the major revolutionary events of that time period, including the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party. He later provided historian James Hawkes with an account of his experiences.

INTRODUCTION

The Boston Tea Party was one of several events leading up to the start of the American Revolutionary War. In the 1760s, the British passed several laws that regulated taxes on the colonists, including the Sugar Act of 1764, taxing sugar, coffee, and wine; the Stamp Act of 1765, which taxed items such as newspapers and playing cards; and the Townshend Acts of 1767, which levied taxes on glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea. The money raised by the taxes was supposedly to cover the cost of governing the colonies. At the same time, colonists were denied representation in the British parliament.

This lack of representation led to numerous pre-Revolution protests, most notably that led by John Hancock (1737–1793). Hancock organized a boycott of tea provided by the East India Company, which was subject to an import tax, and helped to enforce the boycott by smuggling tea in so that the colonists would not go without their favored beverage. The result was the Tea Act, passed by the British to enable the East India Company to sell directly to the colonies. Most American ports refused to allow the ships bringing in the tea to land, however, the British-appointed governor in Boston, Governor Hutchinson, assisted the tea merchants. The tea would be brought ashore by force, and the British military docked at the wharf would provide backup. The Boston Tea Party resulted from the colonists' refusal to allow the British governor or the East India Company to force them to accept the merchandise.

PRIMARY SOURCE

The tea destroyed was contained in three ships, lying near each other at what was called at that time Griffin's wharf, and were surrounded by armed ships of war, the commanders of which had publicly declared that if the rebels, as they were pleased to style the Bostonians, should not withdraw their opposition to the landing of the tea before a certain day, the 17th day of December, 1773, they should on that day force it on shore, under the cover of their cannon's mouth.

On the day preceding the seventeenth, there was a meeting of the citizens of the county of Suffolk, convened at one of the churches in Boston, for the purpose of consulting on what measures might be considered expedient to prevent the landing of the tea, or secure the people from the collection of the duty. At that meeting a committee was appointed to wait on Governor Hutchinson, and request him to inform them whether he would take any measures to satisfy the people on the object of the meeting.

To the first application of this committee, the Governor told them he would give them a definite answer by five o'clock in the afternoon. At the hour appointed, the committee again repaired to the Governor's house, and on inquiry found he had gone to his country seat at Milton, a distance of about six miles. When the committee returned and informed the meeting of the absence of the Governor, there was a confused murmur among the members, and the meeting was immediately dissolved, many of them crying out, "Let every man do his duty, and be true to his country"; and there was a general huzza for Griffin's wharf.

It was now evening, and I immediately dressed myself in the costume of an Indian, equipped with a small hatchet, which I and my associates denominated the tomahawk, with which, and a club, after having painted my face and hands with coal dust in the shop of a blacksmith, I repaired to Griffin's wharf, where the ships lay that contained the tea. When I first appeared in the street after being thus disguised, I fell in with many who were dressed, equipped and painted as I was, and who fell in with me and marched in order to the place of our destination.

When we arrived at the wharf, there were three of our number who assumed an authority to direct our operations, to which we readily submitted. They divided us into three parties, for the purpose of boarding the three ships which contained the tea at the same time. The name of him who commanded the division to which I was assigned was Leonard Pitt. The names of the other commanders I never knew.

We were immediately ordered by the respective commanders to board all the ships at the same time, which we promptly obeyed. The commander of the division to which I belonged, as soon as we were on board the ship appointed me boatswain, and ordered me to go to the captain and demand of him the keys to the hatches and a dozen candles. I made the demand accordingly, and the captain promptly replied, and delivered the articles; but requested me at the same time to do no damage to the ship or rigging.

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.

We then quietly retired to our several places of residence, without having any conversation with each other, or taking any measures to discover who were our associates; nor do I recollect of our having had the knowledge of the name of a single individual concerned in that affair, except that of Leonard Pitt, the commander of my division, whom I have mentioned. There appeared to be an understanding that each individual should volunteer his services, keep his own secret, and risk the consequence for himself. No disorder took place during that transaction, and it was observed at that time that the stillest night ensued that Boston had enjoyed for many months.

During the time we were throwing the tea overboard, there were several attempts made by some of the citizens of Boston and its vicinity to carry off small quantities of it for their family use. To effect that object, they would watch their opportunity to snatch up a handful from the deck, where it became plentifully scattered, and put it into their pockets.

One Captain O'Connor, whom I well knew, came on board for that purpose, and when he supposed he was not noticed, filled his pockets, and also the lining of his coat. 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. He had, however, to run a gauntlet through the crowd upon the wharf nine each one, as he passed, giving him a kick or a stroke.

Another attempt was made to save a little tea from the ruins of the cargo by a tall, aged man who wore a large cocked hat and white wig, which was fashionable at that time. He had sleightly slipped a little into his pocket, but being detected, they seized him and, taking his hat and wig from his head, threw them, together with the tea, of which they had emptied his pockets, into the water. In consideration of his advanced age, he was permitted to escape, with now and then a slight kick.

The next morning, after we had cleared the ships of the tea, it was discovered that very considerable quantities of it were floating upon the surface of the water; and to prevent the possibility of any of its being saved for use, a number of small boats were manned by sailors and citizens, who rowed them into those parts of the harbor wherever the tea was visible, and by beating it with oars and paddles so thoroughly drenched it as to render its entire destruction inevitable.

SIGNIFICANCE

Compared to many of the other events leading up to the start of the Revolutionary War, the Boston Tea Party was a peaceful, quiet protest—no one was injured or killed and damage was minimal. In addition, the action was the colonists' last resort, following their attempts to go through proper channels by appealing to Governor Hutchinson to intervene regarding the threatened unloading of the tea. Only after this attempt failed did the colonists finally decide to take matters into their own hands. The colonists gathered at the South Meeting House before heading to the wharf. Although it has not been proved, Samuel Adams (1722–1803) is rumored to have been the organizing force behind the protest. The participants, known as the Sons of Liberty, dressed as Mohawk Indians as a way to disguise their identities rather than attempting to actually impersonate Indians or to appear more frightening. During the event itself, they remained focused on their task, destroying the tea by throwing it off of the ships in the harbor. A total of forty-five tons of tea was dumped off of the three ships. The colonists carefully guarded against theft for personal gain or any other type of illegal activity, their goal being to make a political statement, not to be labeled as criminals.

The Boston Tea Party engendered mixed reactions. Some colonists felt that vandalism of any sort, even the destruction of the tea, was inappropriate behavior. Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) went so far as to offer to compensate the East India Company for their monetary loss. Prior to the protest, the East India Company had been experiencing financial difficulties due to mismanagement and corruption. This was a part of the reason that the company had been so anxious to maintain a monopoly on tea sales to the colonies. The British labeled the colonists as criminals and accused them of behaving as spoiled children. They retaliated by enacting the Coercive Acts, also known as the Intolerable Acts, by way of punishment. These acts included a bill that banned the port in Boston from loading or unloading any ship in Boston harbor. Any royal official in Massachusetts was offered protection, and any court cases dealing with the suppression of riots or tax collection were remanded to England. As a final blow, the British took over the appointment of Massachusetts' government officials, essentially stripping the colony of its government charter.

Not all of the results were negative, however. Other colonial ports took note of the events of the Boston Tea Party and, sympathizing with the Boston colonists, began taking a stronger stand in their own harbors. Tax collectors working for the British governors found it more difficult than ever to collect revenue, and some were even tarred and feathered. Tension escalated as the colonists resisted the stricter edicts set by the British government. This led to more protests and, eventually, to the formation of the First Continental Congress as a means of organizing the colonies to present a unified front in their rebellion against Britain. After that it was only a matter of months before the colonists went to war against the British.

FURTHER RESOURCES

Books

Young, Alfred F. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 2000.

Web sites

Boston Tea Party Historical Society. "The Boston Tea Party." <http://www.boston-tea-party.org/> (accessed May 24, 2006).

University of Virginia. Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. "Resistance to Revolution." <http://www.iath.virginia.edu/seminar/unit1/mob.html> (accessed May 24, 2006).