OTD in History… December 16, 1773, American Colonists protest the Tea Act of 1773 with the Boston Tea Party
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history December 16, 1773, from seven to midnight nearly a hundred Massachusetts colonists disguised as Mohawk Indians dump 342 “chests of tea” into the Boston Harbor with thousands watching, creating the Boston Tea Party the biggest colonial revolt against British taxes on the colonies and one of the main events leading up to the American Revolution. Historian James M. Volo in his book, The Boston Tea Party: The Foundations of Revolution indicates, “The incident at Griffin’s Wharf has come to be known as the Boston Tea Party — one of the most iconic events in the history of the United States.” (Volo, 10) The raid was in response to British Parliament passage of the Tea Act earlier in the year. Beginning with the Stamp Act of 1765, American colonists began protesting against Britain policies of taxation without representation. The colonies fiercely opposed taxation without the approval of the colonial assemblies, while Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his successors believed in Parliament’s authority over the colonies leading to increased protests from colonists for each new tax introduced.
Future founding father and President John Adams’s second cousin, Samuel Adams, another future signer of the Declaration of Independence became the leader and “propagandist” of the colonial protesters. Volo referred to Adams as “a political radical and longtime colonial rabble-rouser.” (Volo, 8) Since his days at Harvard, Adams advocated colonial resistance to the British Parliament and once Parliament passed the Townsend Acts, Adams began practically advocating it as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In 1768, as a representative, he wrote the Massachusetts Circular Letter advocating resistance to British taxes, and he “called for the removal of the Massachusetts colonial governor.” The resistance led to Britain sending in troops and the violent confrontations resulting into the Boston Massacre in 1770. In 1772, Adams organized “Committees of Correspondence” for “intracolonial communication,” and he wrote “letters, pamphlets, and newspaper articles” in protest and support of the colonial cause. (Findling, 80)
Colonialists were becoming more violent in their opposition to Britain first the Boston Massacre in 1770, then in 1771 colonialists in Rhode Island, “set fire” to the British ship the Gaspee. Afterward, colonial protests calm down, until Britain passed the Tea Act on May 10, 1773, which charged a tax of three pennies on the pound of tea on the colonies. Parliament instituted the act to help the East India Company (EIC), who had an excess of tea, the act would remove duties to the colonies but would give the company a monopoly in sales. Parliament in aiding the EIC helped sped up a “world credit crisis” and then looked for the colonies to pay. Colonists opposed the act because the East India Company had contracts with only specific merchants, the company would not pay duties and it could “undersell” smuggled tea and could lead to Parliament granting the company a monopoly, colonists feared Parliament would do the same for other commodities. At the same time, Parliament also passed the East India Company Act, Regulating Act where £1.4 million of revenue from the colonies would prevent the EIC’s bankruptcy.
The colonies only discovered about the Tea Act after the ships with EIC’s tea were already on route to the colonies with four ships heading to Boston and one each to New York, Philadelphia, and Charlestown. In the colonies, protesters prevented the East India Company from unloading or selling their tea, with EIC’s consignees in New York, Philadelphia and Charlestown resigning. In Boston, Massachusetts, colonists took it a step further after the consignees repeatedly refused to resign they protested and rioted damaging the warehouse of one of the consignees. Two of the consignees were Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s sons, and one his son’s father-in-law.
At the first town hall meeting on November 5, at Faneuil Hall a 1,000 attended, two committees one headed by future Declaration of Independence signer John Hancock demanded the consignees resign. At the second town hall meeting on November 29 at the Old South Meeting House where over 1,000 attended, they resolved to send the ships and the tea back to Britain and not pay the duty. The crisis grew when the Dartmouth arrived at the end of November, with the Eleanor and Beaver arriving at the beginning of December. In mid-December, Governor Hutchinson claimed the duty would have to be paid before the return trip. At the town hall on December 14, Adams pressured for the Dartmouth to return with levying the duty wanted its owner Francis Rotch “to apply for port authority clearance” to return his ship. Hutchinson refused to allow the ship’s return. In a handbill, Adams branded “Whoever supports the unloading, the vending, or the receiving of the tea [is] an enemy to his country.”
On December 16, at a meeting at the Old South Meeting House with 5,000 to 7,000 colonists, half of Boston’s population in attendance, Adams indicated in a speech, “Friends! Brethren! Countrymen! That worst of plagues, the detested tea…is now arrived in this harbor” and ended his speech by declaring “This meeting can do nothing more to save our country!” As the meeting ended, between 60 and 200 men dressed as Mohawk Indians including Paul Revere joined by members of the Sons of Liberty and the Patriot Party invaded three ships, the Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver at the Boston Harbor, Griffin’s Wharf. The group organized by Adams overthrew 342 chests, £20,000 of tea into the water with thousands watching the spectacle, which became known as the Boston Tea Party.
Historian Harlow Giles Unger recounts in his book, American Tempest, How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution, “The Boston Tea Party provoked a reign of terror in Boston and other American cities, with Americans inflicting unimaginable barbarities on each other. Mobs dumped tea and burned tea ships in New York; Philadelphia; Charleston, South Carolina; and elsewhere — and Boston staged a second tea party a few months after the first one. The turmoil stripped tens of thousands of Americans of their dignity, homes, properties, and birthrights — all name of liberty and independence.” (Unger, 13)
John Adams noted in his diary on December 17, “Last Night 3 Cargoes of Bohea Tea were emptied into the Sea. This Morning a Man of War sails. This is the most magnificent Movement of all. There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity, in this last Effort of the Patriots, that 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 cant but consider it as an Epocha in History.” By 1774, throughout the colonies, colonists opposed the tea taxes.
None of the British troops or the governor intervened to stop the men. The local government refused to punish the protesters but in Britain, the House of Commons wanted to punish Massachusetts and assert power over the colonies. Lord Frederick North and the British Parliament reacted by enacting the four Coercive Acts of 1774. The Boston Port Act closed Boston Harbor until the cost of the tea was repaid. The Massachusetts Government Act took away their liberal democratic government, prevented town halls without the governor’s approval and legislators would no longer be elected by the public but appointed by the governor. The Administration of Justice Act, where British officials could not be tried in Massachusetts for capital offenses, the trials could only be held in another colony or sent back to Britain.
The Quartering Act required colonists to provide lodging in their homes without compensation to British troops when within 24 hours of their arrival in a local. The colonists also found the Quebec Act a punishment since it permanently established a French Catholic colony with French Civil Law to the north of the thirteen American colonies. Colonists saw this as a border to prevent further territorial growth to the North. To enforce the acts Parliament commissioned British General Thomas Gage and four regiments of Red Coats to Massachusetts where Gage was appointed the governor.
The Boston Tea Party was one of the key events leading to the convening of the First Continental Congress in September 1774, the start of the American Revolution in 1775 and a year later in 1776 where the thirteen American colonies declared independence from Britain. Historian James M. Volo notes, “The Tea Party was a brief incident among the many scenes composing an economic and political crisis that ultimately produced a revolution.” (Volo, 10) Despite its importance, historians consider the Boston Tea Party as an event leading up to the American Revolution and it does not receive them same historical treatment and neither does its leader Samuel Adams as opposed to his cousin John Adams.
Historian Henry E. Mattox writing in Events That Changed America in the Eighteenth Century points out the Boston Tea Party “lasting less than three hours, marked the beginning of the end of the American colonies’ dispute with the Crown…. There can be little question as to the importance of the Boston Tea Party in the countdown to the Revolution; virtually all historians of the era have remarked on its paramount significance as the spark that set off the powder train of events that turned the colonies from dissatisfaction and resistance to outright opposition and revolution.” (Findling, 83, 87)
Historian Benjamin L. Carp in his book Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, indicates, “The Boston Tea Party had revolutionary significance — it set the stage for an American rebellion and war that followed. The Tea Party was an expression of political ideology about taxes, rights, and authority. Just as important, it was a window onto American culture and society.” Carp explains, “From the British perspective, the Boston Tea Party was the culmination of a decade’s worth of flawed imperial policy, and the event certainly played a part in its imperial legacy. To Americans, the Tea Party became an emblem of their faith that a determined and organized group can accomplish momentous political change, culminating in independence.” (Carp)
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Carp, Benjamin L. Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & the Making of America. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 2011.
Findling, John E, and Frank W. Thackeray. Events That Changed America in the Eighteenth Century. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Maier, Pauline. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765–1776. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.
Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Unger, Harlow G. American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution. New York: Da Capo, 2012.
Volo, James M. The Boston Tea Party: The Foundations of Revolution. Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger, 2012.
Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has over a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.