Boston Tea Party Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A small group of protesters rallied against the British taxation of imported tea by dumping tens of thousands of pounds of tea from anchored British vessels into the Boston Harbor. The largely symbolic uprising had ushered in a series of events that led directly to war and, eventually, American independence.

Summary of Event

On the evening of December 16, 1773, three vessels lay at anchor in Boston Harbor. They carried 342 chests containing more than 90,000 pounds of dutiable tea worth about £9,000. Shortly after 6:00 p.m., between thirty and sixty men, calling themselves “Mohawks” and roughly disguised as American Indians, boarded the ships. Hundreds of silent onlookers at the wharf saw the men, organized into three groups, swiftly and systematically break open the tea chests and pour their contents into the sea. Because the water was only two or three feet deep, the tea began to pile up, forcing the men to rake it aside to allow room for the rest. In less than three hours, they had completed their work and disappeared into the darkness; to this day, the identities of most remain unknown. [kw]Boston Tea Party (Dec. 16, 1773) [kw]Party, Boston Tea (Dec. 16, 1773) [kw]Tea Party, Boston (Dec. 16, 1773) Boston Tea Party (1773) Taxation;colonial America Prerevolutionary America [g]American colonies;Dec. 16, 1773: Boston Tea Party[2050] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 16, 1773: Boston Tea Party[2050] [c]Economics;Dec. 16, 1773: Boston Tea Party[2050] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 16, 1773: Boston Tea Party[2050] Adams, Samuel Hancock, John Hutchinson, Thomas North, Lord

The “Destruction of the Tea,” exclaimed John Adams the next day, “is so bold, so daring . . . it must have so important Consequences and so lasting, that I cannot but consider it as an Epocha [sic] in History.” Eighteen months later, the colonists were locked in military combat with Great Britain.

The origins of the famous Tea Party are to be found in Parliament’s Parliament;British repeal, in 1770, of all the external taxes embodied in the controversial Townshend Revenue Act (1767) Townshend Revenue Act, except the tax on tea, which was to remain principally as a symbol of Great Britain’s right to extract cash from American purses. Although the colonists had won only a partial victory in their battle against the second British program of taxation, compared to a complete repeal of the earlier Stamp Act (1765) Stamp Act, the chances for an improvement in British-American relations seemed fairly bright in the years 1771-1773. The secretary of state for the colonies, Wills Hill, first earl of Hillsborough Hillsborough, first earl of and marquis of Downshire, soothed American tempers by announcing that the British government did not intend to propose any new taxes for the colonists.

Colonial American protestors, dressed as American Indians, boarded anchored British merchant ships in Boston Harbor and threw thousands of pounds of tea overboard to protest the British government’s tax on imported tea.

(Library of Congress)

These were years of renewed commercial prosperity, during which countless Americans drank the dutied brew, when all but a few ignored the frantic schemes of Samuel Adams and a radical minority to keep alive the old flames of resentment. There were, to be sure, occasional events that generated fresh ill will, such as the burning by Rhode Islanders of the royal revenue cutter Gaspee and the clandestine publication of Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson’s correspondence expressing stern criticism of the colony’s patriot Patriots;American Revolution leaders. However, it was Parliament’s Tea Act (1773) Tea Act of 1773 that brought the period of quiescence to an abrupt end throughout North America. Ironically, British politicians acted not with the purpose of disciplining the Americans but with the intention of boosting the sagging fortunes of the giant British East India Company British East India Company . After unsuccessful attempts to help the ailing corporation with huge investments in India, the prime minister of Great Britain, North, Lord Lord North, secured passage of the Tea Act. This allowed the East India Company to sell tea directly to America for the first time, and to do so through its own agents; previously, it had sold its product to English wholesale merchants, from whom the tea passed into the hands of American wholesalers and retailers. By removing the profits formerly obtained by English and American middlemen, and by the added provision eliminating English duties on tea exported to the New World possessions, the company hoped to undersell Dutch-smuggled leaves in America, even though the provincials would have to pay the remaining Townshend tax of three pence on each pound.

Everywhere in North America, Lord North’s move met stiff resistance. Merchants accused the ministry of giving the East India Company and its agents a monopoly on the local tea market, which would be followed in time by other monopolies in the American trade. More frightening to Americans was the constitutional threat; they were vulnerable already since the taxed herb had been purchased in America after 1770. Now, if they consumed even more of the dutied drink, they would implicitly admit the authority of Parliament to tax them. In fact, they saw in Lord North’s undertaking a cynical endeavor to get them to “barter liberty for luxury.” Consignees in New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston were persuaded to resign their commissions, as the stamp tax collectors previously had been made to do. The outcome was different in Boston, where Governor Hutchinson backed the consignees and refused to let the tea ships return to England without first unloading their cargo. Moreover, in Boston Samuel Adams and John Hancock effectively increased public sentiment against the tax.

The Tea Party was a form of symbolic protest—one step beyond random violence, one step short of organized, armed rebellion. The tea dumpers chose their symbols with utmost care. As the imported tea symbolized British tyranny and taxation, so the image of the American Indian, and the Mohawk disguise, represented its antithesis: a trademark of an emerging American identity and a voice for liberty in a new land. The image of the American Indian was figured into tea-dumpers’ disguises not only in Boston but also in cities all along the Atlantic seaboard. The Mohawks Mohawk symbol was not picked at random: It was used as a revolutionary symbol, counterpoising the tea tax.

The image of the American Indian (particularly the Mohawk) also appeared at about the same time, in the same context, in revolutionary songs, slogans, and engravings. Revere, Paul Paul Revere, whose midnight rides became legendary in the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, played a crucial role in forging this sense of identity, contributing to the revolutionary cause a set of remarkable engravings that cast as America’s first national symbol an American Indian woman, long before Uncle Sam came along.

Boston’s patriots were not known for their civility in the face of British authority, and it was Boston’s “Mohawks” who sparked physical confrontation over the tea tax. As they dumped the tea, the “Mohawks” exchanged words in a secret sign language using American Indian hand symbols, and sang,

Rally Mohawks, and bring your axes And tell King George we’ll pay no taxes on his foreign tea; His threats are vain, and vain to think To force our girls and wives to drink his vile Bohea! Then rally, boys, and hasten on To meet our chiefs at the Green Dragon! Our Warren’s here, and bold Revere With hands to do and words to cheer, for liberty and laws; Our country’s “braves” and firm defenders shall ne’er be left by true North Enders fighting freedom’s cause! Then rally, boys, and hasten on To meet our chiefs at the Green Dragon.
Significance

After the “Mohawks” had performed the task of unloading, Parliament’s response was one of unparalleled severity. It passed the Coercive Acts (1774) Coercive Acts in 1774 in order to bring rebellious Massachusetts to its knees, by closing the port of Boston, altering the structure of government in the colony, and allowing British officials and soldiers accused of capital offenses to be tried in England or, to avoid a hostile local jury, in a colony other than the one where the offense had occurred. The Coercive Acts also provided for the quartering of troops once more in the town of Boston, stoking the smoldering resentment of its citizens.

The Boston Tea Party is regarded by some as the first “battle” of the American Revolution, an economic one: In 1773, Britain exported 738,083 pounds of tea to the colonies. In 1774, the figure had fallen to 69,830 pounds. Imports of tea fell all along the seaboard: from 206,312 pounds to 30,161 in New England, 208,385 to 1,304 pounds in New York, and 208,191 pounds to none in Pennsylvania.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brant, Irving. James Madison: The Virginia Revolutionist. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1941. Provides one of the best accounts of the tea crisis in Virginia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Breen, T. H. The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Breen argues that colonists’ experience as consumers helped them develop new forms of social action, such as boycotts and “tea parties,” which ultimately resulted in revolution. Includes information about colonists’ tea boycotts, the Tea Act, and the Boston Tea Party.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chidsey, Donald Barr. The Great Separation: The Story of the Boston Tea Party and the Beginning of the American Revolution. New York: Crown, 1965. Written in a popular novelist’s style, this book brings to life the issues and actions surrounding the Boston Tea Party.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Griffith, Samuel B., II. The War for American Independence: From 1760 to the Surrender at Yorktown in 1781. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. This history of the American Revolution, first published in 1776 under another name, describes the causes and conditions that led colonists to rebel against the British. Includes information about the Boston Tea Party.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grinde, Donald A., Jr., and Bruce E. Johansen. “Mohawks, Axes, and Taxes.” In Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy. Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles, 1991. Describes the use of American Indian images during the Boston Tea Party and in the revolutionary propaganda of the American Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Griswold, Wesley S. The Night the Revolution Began: The Boston Tea Party, 1773. Brattleboro, Vt.: S. Greene Press, 1972. An outline account of the Tea Party and its context, published for its bicentennial.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Labaree, Benjamin W. The Boston Tea Party. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964. Labaree’s book remains the seminal work on the Tea Party and its political and economic context.
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    xlink:type="simple">Raphael, Ray. A People’s History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence. New York: New Press, 2001. Describes the role that farmers, laborers, women, and other “ordinary people” played in the revolution, and examines the Boston Tea Party.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Peter David Garner. Tea Party to Independence: The Third Phase of the American Revolution, 1773-1776. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1991. Describes events from the Tea Party to the Declaration of Independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Alfred E. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999. Young explores how memory preserves history by examining the life of George Robert Twelves Hewes, a shoemaker who participated in the Boston Tea Party. Includes Hewes’s recollections of the event and describes how he was later honored for being one the last surviving participants.

Stamp Act Crisis

Townshend Crisis

Boston Massacre

First Continental Congress

Battle of Lexington and Concord

Second Continental Congress

Declaration of Independence

U.S. Constitution Is Adopted

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John Adams; Samuel Adams; George III; John Hancock; Patrick Henry; Thomas Hutchinson; Lord North; Paul Revere; Mercy Otis Warren. Boston Tea Party (1773) Taxation;colonial America Prerevolutionary America

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