Boston Tea Party

In the 1770s, tea was an immensely popular drink in America. Although supposedly boycotting tea as a part of the Non-Importation Agreement established in resistance to the Townshend Acts colonists in Boston actually imported large amounts from the British and smugglers. Parliament repealed the Townshend Acts and, on May 10, 1773, passed the Tea Act, which placed a tax of threepence on the beverage. Parliament also granted the East India Company a monopoly on the sale of tea in the colonies, which reduced the price of tea considerably. If colonists wanted to buy tea, they would have to buy it from the East India Company (through consignees at each colonial port), and they would have to pay the tax and acknowledge Parliament’s right to impose taxes on the colonies. On December 16, 1773, a band of patriots disguised as Mohawk Indians boarded three ships in Boston Harbor, broke open 342 chests of tea, and dumped the contents overboard to protest the Tea Act. Not until the nineteenth century was the event called the Boston Tea Party. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania) Unlike the cities of New York and Philadelphia, Boston had been unable to force the colonial governor to back down over the Tea Act. Governor Thomas Hutchinson supported the East India Company agents (two of his sons and a nephew were tea agents), and the Boston consignees refused to resign. The radicals, led by the Sons of Liberty, knew that if the tea was landed, it would make its way into the colonial market and be heartily consumed by the colonists, undermining their opposition to British authority. The radicals, led by Samuel Adams and John Hancock, cast the Tea Act as another parliamentary attempt at colonial oppression, an infringement on their fundamental rights, the forerunner of more destructive laws, and the beginning of the end of the colonial assemblies. The radicals began organizing mobs and threatening the local consignees with violence if they did not resign. The consignees fled to Castle William in Boston Harbor for safety. In November and December, the Sons of Liberty held several town meetings. On November 28, the Dartmouth arrived in the harbor with 114 chests of East India tea and anchored at Griffin’s Wharf. The radicals prevented the unloading of the tea but were pressed for time: Under British customs law, officers could seize dutiable goods if no payment had been made within twenty days. On December 17, the tea would be seized by the customs agents, who would be supported by royal arms if necessary. On November 29 and 30, meetings were held that drew about 5,000 people each. The committee agreed to set up a twenty-five-man guard to keep watch at the wharf, ostensibly to protect the ships from the mob, but in reality to make certain the tea was not unloaded. In early December, two other ships arrived with cargoes of tea, heightening the tension. The radicals tried to persuade the consignees to send the tea back to England. The agents either refused or pleaded their inability to contravene British law. Hutchinson refused to allow the ships to leave without unloading their cargo. The cannon at Castle William and on the ships of the Royal Navy would physically prevent such an illegal exit. On Thursday, December 16, in the freezing rain, over 5,000 people made their way to the Old South Church to support the radical leadership as they tried to force Francis Rotch, owner of the Dartmouth, to send the shipment back to England. The merchant pleaded that he could not gain clearance from customs, and therefore the ship could not leave the harbor. The radicals insisted he get a permit from Governor Hutchinson allowing safe passage past Castle William. Hutchinson refused. The weather had cleared when Rotch returned around six that evening to report the bad news. Samuel Adams gave the signal, and a small group of men crudely disguised as Mohawk Indians appeared and led a procession to Griffin’s Wharf. Along the way, more men appeared in disguise, with blackened faces, and carrying hatchets. They boarded the three ships resting at Griffin’s Wharf, removed the customs officers, and hoisted the tea chests from the ships’ holds, taking care not to damage the ships or any of their other cargo. The tea chests were broken open with hatchets and the contents dumped into the harbor. Over the course of three hours, while thousands watched quietly from the water’s edge, the Mohawks emptied 342 chests of tea, worth over 10,000 pounds. Although estimates of the number of participants range from twenty to sixty, their identities have remained a secret, with very few exceptions. Their actions did not become known as the Boston Tea Party until nineteenth-century writers created that moniker. The colonists’ act of resistance to parliamentary authority led to Parliament enacting the Boston Port Bill, which closed Boston Harbor. Other Americans rallied to Boston’s support, creating a greater sense of unity in the colonies against British oppression than had previously existed. Judkin Browning See also: Adams, Samuel; Boston; East India Company; Hancock, John; Politics and Government (Chronology); Politics and Government (Essay); Revolutionary War; Tea; Tea Act (1773). Bibliography Carp, Benjamin L. Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010. Labaree, Benjamin Woods. The Boston Tea Party. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964. Thomas, Peter D. G. Tea Party to Independence: The Third Phase of the American Revolution, 1773 1776. Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1991. Unger, Harlow Giles. American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2011. Young, Alfred F. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution. Boston: Beacon, 1999.

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