December, 1773: Boston Tea Party Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

On the evening of December 16, 1773, three merchant vessels lay at anchor in Boston Harbor. They carried 342 chests containing more than ninety thousand pounds of dutiable tea worth about nine thousand pounds sterling. Shortly after 6:00 p.m., between thirty and sixty men, calling themselves “Mohawks” and roughly disguised as Indians, boarded the ships. Hundreds of silent onlookers at the wharf saw the “Mohawks,” organized into three groups, swiftly and systematically break open the tea chests and pour their contents into the sea.

On the evening of December 16, 1773, three merchant vessels lay at anchor in Boston Harbor. They carried 342 chests containing more than ninety thousand pounds of dutiable tea worth about nine thousand pounds sterling. Shortly after 6:00 p.m., between thirty and sixty men, calling themselves “Mohawks” and roughly disguised as Indians, boarded the ships. Hundreds of silent onlookers at the wharf saw the “Mohawks,” 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. 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 Boston Tea Party had ushered in a series of events that led directly to war and, eventually, independence.

Background

The origins of the famous Tea Party are to be found in Parliament’s 1770 repeal of all the external taxes embodied in the controversial 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, the chances for an improvement in Anglo-American relations seemed fairly bright in the years 1771-l773. The secretary of state for the colonies, Wills Hill, earl of Hillsborough and marquis of Downshire, soothed American tempers by announcing that the British government did not intend to propose any new taxes for the colonists.

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 leaders. However, it was Parliament’s 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 East India Company. After unsuccessful attempts to help the ailing corporation with huge investments in India, the prime minister of Great Britain, Lord North, earl of Guilford, 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.

An 1846 depiction of the Boston Tea Party. (National Archives)

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.

Symbolic Protest

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 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 Indian was figured into tea-dumpers’ disguises not only in Boston but also in cities all along the Atlantic Seaboard. The Mohawk symbol was not picked at random. It was used as a revolutionary symbol, counterpoising the tea tax.

The image of the Indian (particularly the Mohawk) also appeared at about the same time, in the same context, in revolutionary songs, slogans, and engravings. 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 Indian hand symbols, and sang:

Rally Mohawks, and bring your axesAnd tell King George we’ll pay no taxeson his foreign tea;His threats are vain, and vain to thinkTo force our girls and wives to drinkhis vile Bohea!Then rally, boys, and hasten onTo meet our chiefs at the Green Dragon!Our Warren’s here, and bold RevereWith hands to do and words to cheer,for liberty and laws;Our country’s “braves” and firm defendersshall ne’er be left by true North Endersfighting freedom’s cause!Then rally, boys, and hasten onTo meet our chiefs at the Green Dragon.

After the “Mohawks” had performed the task of unloading, Parliament’s response was one of unparalleled severity. It passed the 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.

Legacy

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. 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.

Categories: History Content