Today is the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, probably one of the most famous acts of rebellion in the British North American colonies leading to the Revolutionary War. BUT . . . ask the average US citizen today the facts of the Tea Party and chances are the answers you’ll get will be wrong. So . . . “Where did it happen?” (Duh !!!! But . . . “Why Boston?”) “When did it happen?” “Why did it happen?” “What happened?” “Who were the participants?” etc. etc. etc. If you grew up and went to school in the U.S. pause now and see if you can answer these questions. Write down your answers on a sheet of paper and then read on to see how correct you are. Meanwhile I’m adding a spoiler pause here so you can’t cheat. When you are ready, page down for the answers – and more. Chances are the facts will surprise you.
Take your time, no peaking
Take your time, no peaking
Take your time, no peaking
Take your time, no peaking
Take your time, no peaking
Take your time, no peaking
Take your time, no peaking
Take your time, no peaking
Take your time, no peaking.
OK, we can get started. The short answer is that the Boston Tea Party took place in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 16, 1773. Did you know 1773? When did the Revolutionary War begin, by the way? It was not 1776.
The Boston Tea Party was a political protest by the Sons of Liberty. Some (not many) of the protestors disguised themselves as Native Americans and, in defiance of the Tea Act of May 10, 1773, destroyed an entire shipment of tea sent by the East India Company. They boarded the ships and threw the chests of tea into Boston Harbor. Maybe you don’t remember the dates, but the physical act of tossing the tea into Boston harbor is probably lodged firmly in memory. Let’s get to specifics, though. What was in the Tea Act and why was it so objectionable to the colonists? Here comes the history, and, chances are, it was not what you were taught. For starters, did you know that many colonial merchants objected to the Tea Act because it made imported tea too cheap? I’m willing to wager a fair amount of money that most of you didn’t (although there’s going to be a few smarty pants who did). You were told it was all about taxation of tea imports by the British government, but there the story gets really messy. Taxation of tea, per se, was not the main issue !!! Hold on, though, the story is complicated.
As Europeans developed a taste for tea in the 17th century, rival companies formed to import tea from China. In England, Parliament gave the East India Company a monopoly on the importation of tea in 1698. When tea became popular in the British colonies, Parliament sought to eliminate foreign competition by passing an act in 1721 that required colonists to import their tea only from Great Britain. The East India Company did not export tea to the colonies; by law, the company was required to sell its tea wholesale at auctions in England. British firms bought this tea and exported it to the colonies, where they resold it to merchants in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston.
Until 1767, the East India Company paid an ad valorem tax of about 25% on tea that it imported into Great Britain. Parliament laid additional taxes on tea sold for consumption in Britain. These high taxes, combined with the fact that tea imported into the Dutch Republic was not taxed by the Dutch government, meant that Britons and British Americans could buy smuggled Dutch tea at much cheaper prices. The biggest market for illicit tea was England — by the 1760s the East India Company was losing £400,000 per year to smugglers in Great Britain — but Dutch tea was also smuggled into British America in significant quantities.
In 1767, to help the East India Company compete with smuggled Dutch tea, Parliament passed the Indemnity Act, which lowered the tax on tea consumed in Great Britain, and gave the East India Company a refund of the 25% duty on tea that was re-exported to the colonies. To help offset this loss of government revenue, Parliament also passed the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767, which levied new taxes, including one on tea, in the colonies. Instead of solving the smuggling problem, however, the Townshend duties renewed a controversy about Parliament’s right to tax the colonies.
Controversy between Great Britain and the colonies arose in the 1760s when Parliament sought, for the first time, to impose a direct tax on the colonies for the purpose of raising revenue. Some colonists, known in the colonies as Whigs, objected to the new tax program, arguing that it was a violation of the British Constitution. Britons and British Americans agreed that, according to the constitution, British subjects could not be taxed without the consent of their elected representatives. In Great Britain, this meant that taxes could only be levied by Parliament. Colonists, however, did not elect members of Parliament, and so American Whigs argued that the colonies could not be taxed by that body. According to Whigs, colonists could be taxed only by their own colonial assemblies. Colonial protests resulted in the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, but in the 1766 Declaratory Act, Parliament continued to insist that it had the right to legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.”
When new taxes were levied in the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767, Whig colonists again responded with protests and boycotts. Merchants organized a non-importation agreement, and many colonists pledged to abstain from drinking British tea, with activists in New England promoting alternatives, such as domestic Labrador tea. Smuggling continued apace, especially in New York and Philadelphia, where tea smuggling had always been more extensive than in Boston. Taxed British tea continued to be imported into Boston, however, especially by Richard Clarke and the sons of Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson, until pressure from Massachusetts Whigs compelled them to abide by the non-importation agreement.
Parliament finally responded to the protests by repealing the Townshend taxes in 1770, except for the tea duty, which Prime Minister Lord North kept to assert, “the right of taxing the Americans.” This partial repeal of the taxes was enough to bring an end to the non-importation movement by October 1770. From 1771 to 1773, British tea was once again imported into the colonies in significant amounts, with merchants paying the Townshend duty of three pence per pound. Boston was the largest colonial importer of legal tea; smugglers still dominated the market in New York and Philadelphia.
The Indemnity Act of 1767, which gave the East India Company a refund of the duty on tea that was re-exported to the colonies, expired in 1772. Parliament passed a new act in 1772 that reduced this refund, effectively leaving a 10% duty on tea imported into Britain. The act also restored the tea taxes within Britain that had been repealed in 1767, and left in place the three pence Townshend duty in the colonies. With this new tax burden driving up the price of British tea, sales plummeted. The East India Company continued to import tea into Great Britain, however, amassing a huge surplus of product that no one would buy. For these and other reasons, by late 1772 the East India Company, one of Britain’s most important commercial institutions, was in a serious financial crisis. The severe famine in Bengal from 1769 to 1773 had drastically reduced the revenue of the East India Company from India bringing the Company to the verge of bankruptcy and the Tea Act of 1773 was enacted to help the East India Company.
Eliminating some of the taxes was one obvious solution to the crisis. The East India Company initially sought to have the Townshend duty repealed, but the North ministry was unwilling because such an action might be interpreted as a retreat from Parliament’s position that it had the right to tax the colonies. More importantly, the tax collected from the Townshend duty was used to pay the salaries of some colonial governors and judges. This was, in fact, the purpose of the Townshend tax: previously these officials had been paid by the colonial assemblies, but Parliament now paid their salaries to keep them dependent on the British government rather than allowing them to be accountable to the colonists.
Another possible solution for reducing the growing mound of tea in the East India Company warehouses was to sell it cheaply in Europe. This possibility was investigated, but it was determined that the tea would simply be smuggled back into Great Britain, where it would undersell the taxed product. The best market for the East India Company’s surplus tea, so it seemed, was the American colonies, if a way could be found to make it cheaper than the smuggled Dutch tea.
The North ministry’s solution was the Tea Act, which received the assent of king George III on May 10, 1773. This act restored the East India Company’s full refund on the duty for importing tea into Britain, and also permitted the company, for the first time, to export tea to the colonies on its own account. This would allow the company to reduce costs by eliminating the middlemen who bought the tea at wholesale auctions in London. Instead of selling to middlemen, the company now appointed colonial merchants to receive the tea on consignment; the consignees would in turn sell the tea for a commission. In July 1773, tea consignees were selected in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Charleston.
The Tea Act retained the three pence Townshend duty on tea imported to the colonies. Some members of Parliament wanted to eliminate this tax, arguing that there was no reason to provoke another colonial controversy. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer William Dowdeswell, for example, warned Lord North that the Americans would not accept the tea if the Townshend duty remained. But North did not want to give up the revenue from the Townshend tax, primarily because it was used to pay the salaries of colonial officials; maintaining the right of taxing the Americans was a secondary concern. Even with the Townshend duty in effect, the Tea Act would allow the East India Company to sell tea more cheaply than before, undercutting the prices offered by smugglers, but also undercutting colonial tea importers, who paid the tax and received no refund. In 1772, legally imported Bohea, the most common variety of tea, sold for about 3 shillings (3s) per pound. After the Tea Act, colonial consignees would be able to sell it for 2 shillings per pound (2s), just under the smugglers’ price of 2 shillings and 1 penny (2s 1d). Realizing that the payment of the Townshend duty was politically sensitive, the company hoped to conceal the tax by making arrangements to have it paid either in London once the tea was landed in the colonies, or have the consignees quietly pay the duties after the tea was sold. This effort to hide the tax from the colonists was unsuccessful.
In September and October 1773, seven ships carrying East India Company tea were sent to the colonies: four were bound for Boston, and one each for New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. In the ships were more than 2,000 chests containing nearly 600,000 pounds of tea. Americans learned the details of the Tea Act while the ships were en route, and opposition began to mount. Whigs, sometimes calling themselves Sons of Liberty, began a campaign to raise awareness and to convince or compel the consignees to resign, in the same way that stamp distributors had been forced to resign in the 1765 Stamp Act crisis.
The protest movement that culminated in the Boston Tea Party was not a dispute about high taxes. The price of legally imported tea was actually reduced by the Tea Act of 1773. Protesters were instead concerned with a variety of other issues. The familiar “no taxation without representation” argument, along with the question of the extent of Parliament’s authority in the colonies, remained prominent. Samuel Adams considered the British tea monopoly to be “equal to a tax” and to raise the same representation issue whether or not a tax was applied to it. Some regarded the purpose of the tax program—to make leading officials independent of colonial influence— a dangerous infringement of colonial rights. This was especially true in Massachusetts, the only colony where the Townshend program had been fully implemented.
Colonial merchants, some of them smugglers, played a significant role in the protests. Because the Tea Act made legally imported tea cheaper, it threatened to put smugglers of Dutch tea out of business. Legitimate tea importers who had not been named as consignees by the East India Company were also threatened with financial ruin by the Tea Act. Another major concern for merchants was that the Tea Act gave the East India Company a monopoly on the tea trade, and it was feared that this government-created monopoly might be extended in the future to include other goods.
South of Boston, protesters successfully compelled the tea consignees to resign. In Charleston, the consignees had been forced to resign by early December, and the unclaimed tea was seized by customs officials. There were mass protest meetings in Philadelphia. Benjamin Rush urged his fellow countrymen to oppose the landing of the tea, because the cargo contained “the seeds of slavery.” By early December, the Philadelphia consignees had resigned, and the tea ship returned to England with its cargo following a confrontation with the ship’s captain. The tea ship bound for New York City was delayed by bad weather; by the time it arrived, the consignees had resigned, and the ship returned to England with the tea.
In every colony except Massachusetts, protesters were able to force the tea consignees to resign or to return the tea to England. In Boston, however, Governor Hutchinson was determined to hold his ground. He convinced the tea consignees, two of whom were his sons, not to back down. When the tea ship Dartmouth, arrived in the Boston Harbor in late November, Whig leader Samuel Adams called for a mass meeting to be held at Faneuil Hall on November 29, 1773. Thousands of people arrived, so many that the meeting was moved to the larger Old South Meeting House. British law required the Dartmouth to unload and pay the duties within twenty days or customs officials could confiscate the cargo (i.e. unload it on to American soil). The mass meeting passed a resolution, introduced by Adams and based on a similar set of resolutions promulgated earlier in Philadelphia, urging the captain of the Dartmouth to send the ship back without paying the import duty. Meanwhile, the meeting assigned twenty-five men to watch the ship and prevent the tea—including a number of chests from Davison, Newman and Co. of London—from being unloaded.
Governor Hutchinson refused to grant permission for the Dartmouth to leave without paying the duty. Two more tea ships, the Eleanor and the Beaver, arrived in Boston Harbor (there was another tea ship headed for Boston, the William, but it encountered a storm and ran aground at Cape Cod, where the tea cargo was successfully landed, instead of at its intended destination. On December 16—the last day of the Dartmouth’s deadline—about 7,000 people had gathered around the Old South Meeting House. After receiving a report that Governor Hutchinson had again refused to let the ships leave, Adams announced that “This meeting can do nothing further to save the country.” According to a popular story, Adams’ statement was a prearranged signal for the “tea party” to begin. However, this claim did not appear in print until nearly a century after the event, in a biography of Adams written by his great-grandson, who apparently misinterpreted the evidence. According to eyewitness accounts, people did not leave the meeting until ten or fifteen minutes after Adams’s alleged “signal”, and Adams in fact tried to stop people from leaving because the meeting was not yet over.
While Samuel Adams tried to reassert control of the meeting, people poured out of the Old South Meeting House to prepare to take action. In some cases, this involved putting on what may have been elaborately prepared Mohawk costumes. While disguising their individual faces was imperative, because of the illegality of their protest, dressing as Mohawk warriors was a specific and symbolic choice. It showed that the Sons of Liberty identified with America, over their official status as subjects of Great Britain.
That evening, a group of 30 to 130 men, some dressed in the Mohawk warrior disguises, boarded the three vessels and, over the course of three hours, dumped all 342 chests of tea into the water. The precise location of the Griffin’s Wharf site of the Tea Party has been subject to prolonged uncertainty; a comprehensive study places it near the foot of Hutchinson Street (today’s Pearl Street).
Whether or not Samuel Adams helped plan the Boston Tea Party is disputed, but he immediately worked to publicize and defend it. He argued that the Tea Party was not the act of a lawless mob, but was instead a principled protest and the only remaining option the people had to defend their constitutional rights (by which he meant the British Bill of Rights; there was no US Constitution).
In his December 17, 1773 entry in his diary, John Adams wrote:
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.
I’m not going to continue with an account of the aftermath of the protest. I’ve already written too much. I will note, however, that the Boston Tea Party was not known as such until 1834, when it appeared in print for the first time. Before that time, the event was usually referred to as the “destruction of the tea.” US historians and political writers were, for many years, apparently reluctant to celebrate the destruction of property, and so the event was usually ignored in histories of the American Revolution. This began to change in the 1830s, however, especially with the publication of biographies of George Robert Twelves Hewes, one of the few still-living participants of the “tea party,” as it then became known. Furthermore, the issue was never the tax itself, but, rather, how the tax was passed without colonial American input. The United States Congress taxed tea from 1789 to 1872.
Maybe you want a Boston tea party of your own? As it happens, after the protest tea drinking fell into disfavor in the colonies and coffee drinking became more common, and remains so to this day. Afternoon tea has returned to favor in the US, in emulation of the English habit made popular by queen Victoria. In colonial times afternoon tea was not a thing in England or North America. But we have many cake recipes from colonial North America to call upon to have with a cuppa in the arvo. This “rich cake” recipe is near contemporary with the Boston Tea Party, although it was most likely something to bake for a wedding rather than afternoon tea. It is from Susannah Carter’s Frugal Housewife, or, Complete woman cook (1772). It was published in England but was apparently well known in the colonies. The book strongly influenced the first cookery book by a North American author, Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (1796), with parts copied almost word for word. I wouldn’t call this recipe “frugal.”
A Rich Cake
Take six pounds of the best fresh butter, work it to a cream with your hands; then throw in by degrees three pounds of double refined sugar well beat and sifted; Mix them well together; then work in three pounds of blanched almonds, and having them altogether till they are thick and look white. The add half a pint of French brandy, half a pint of sack, a small quantity of ginger, about two ounces of mace, cloves, and cinnamon each, and three large nutmegs all beaten in a mortar as fine as possible. Then shake in gradually four pounds of well dried and sifted flour; and when the oven is well prepared, and a thin hoop to bake it in, stir into this mixture (as you put it into the hoop) seven pounds of currants clean washed and rubbed, and such a quantity of candied orange, lemon, and citron in equal proportions, as shall be thought convenient. The oven must be quick, and the cake at least will take four hours to bake; Or you may make two or more cakes out of these ingredients, you must beat it with your hands, and the currants must be dried before the fire, and put into the cake warm.