1773 – Setting the Stage for the Boston Tea Party
The stage was set for the Boston Tea Party in 1773 when British tea sales in the Colonies plummeted by 70% following the enactment of the Townshend Acts in 1770.
In an ill-fated attempt to support the financially struggling British East India Company, which had a surplus of 18 million pounds of unsold tea in its warehouses, the British Parliament passed the Tea Act in May. Surprisingly, the Tea Act actually reduced the tax on tea, but it created a monopoly by mandating that the Colonists could only purchase tea from the East India Company.
This monopoly posed a problem because the East India Company bypassed the London merchants with whom the Colonists had existing trade agreements. Additionally, the Tea Act stipulated that only British-selected agents in the colonies could sell the tea, further diminishing the profits of local colonial merchants.
It seems the British miscalculated, thinking that the reduced tariff would overshadow the other provisions. They were mistaken.
What Was the Real Issue Between the Colonists & the British?
Were taxes the real issue, as many believed? Not quite. In fact, the Tea Act would have lowered taxes. The true concern for the Colonists was the impact on their profits, which would have been reduced by the Tea Act.
The terrible chain of events for the king began in September, when British ships carrying 500,000 tons of tea left England for the colonies.
Tensions Grow Stronger
To the Colonists, the tea tax became a test. They convinced themselves that by paying it, they would be acknowledging Britain’s right to tax them, despite the fact that they were already being heavily taxed. However, the true cost for the Colonists was the loss of free trade.
The English government declared that the tax would be owed the moment the Colonists unloaded the tea at the docks. In response, the Colonists resolved to prevent the tea from being unloaded altogether.
The British, thousands of miles away and out of touch with the sentiments in the colonies, mistakenly believed that the Tea Act would be welcomed by the colonists. Unaware of the extent of smuggling and without questioning their right to tax the colonists, they even thought that the colonists would be pleased to have their tea supply restored.
As a result, they were caught off guard by the intense anger of the colonists, an understatement to say the least.
The Colonists Send Back the Tea Ships
In Philadelphia and New York, colonists sent the tea ships back to London. In Annapolis, an enraged crowd compelled a frightened captain to burn his cargo and ship. However, British Governor Thomas Hutchinson in Boston decided to stand his ground.
On November 28th, the first tea ship, the Dartmouth, brought a cargo of Darjeeling tea to Boston. Two additional ships arrived shortly after. In a public display of resistance against British authority, Samuel Adams and the citizens of Boston stopped 60 tons of tea from being unloaded.
Governor Hutchinson, who happened to be related to the local British-appointed tea agents, responded by keeping the ships in Boston Harbor and insisting on taxing the cargo once it was brought ashore.
The Colonists Propose a Compromise – And the British Refuse
For three weeks leading up to December 16th, the Colonists held almost daily meetings in the Old South Meeting House in Boston, now a museum on the Freedom Trail. They aimed to find a legal way to avoid paying the tax.
The colonists voted to send the tea ships back to England and have their British-appointed tea agents refuse delivery of the tea. The tea agents, however, including relatives of Governor Hutchinson, flatly refused.
Francis Rotch, owner of the Dartmouth and a Nantucket Quaker, consented to return his ship to England on December 16th, the deadline for paying the taxes. He asked Hutchinson for permission to travel across Boston Harbor without interference. Governor Hutchinson did not approve the ship’s departure, which would have defused tensions.
Revolution against the British Begins
The Colonists Gather in the Old South Meeting House
More than five thousand colonists gathered at the Old South Meeting House on the night of December 16 to hear Hutchinson’s decision on whether or not to allow three British tea ships to leave Boston Harbor and return to England.
Among the packed crowd, scattered throughout men, women, and children, were members of the Sons of Liberty—a group of Colonists opposed to English rule and taxation.
As night fell, Rotch claimed that he had been unable to leave after meeting with Hutchinson. There, in the Old South Meeting House, Patriot Samuel Adams spoke the code words: “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!”
This predetermined signal prompted the Sons of Liberty into action.
Through careful planning, groups converged from at least 10 different locations: taverns, shops, clubs, and even houses. Hastily disguising themselves, some as Mohawk Indians, Samuel Adams and around 150 others rushed to Griffin’s Wharf, the site where the ships were anchored. Along the way, many other Patriots joined them.
Under the cover of darkness, they split into three groups, each boarding one of the three ships. Working swiftly and in close coordination, they unloaded and dumped 342 chests of tea, each weighing up to 360 pounds, into Boston Harbor. The tea, worth $1 million in today’s dollars, sank into the water while British warships hovered a mere 1,500 feet away.
On that fateful evening, the Colonists’ revolution against British rule began. This pivotal event in American Revolutionary history is now known as the “Boston Tea Party.”
Is the Boston Tea Party webpage still accessible today? Yes, although there isn’t much to see but a plaque on the InterContinental Hotel’s parking garage wall. The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum is close by and offers a more in-depth look at the event as well as some fun special events.
1774 – Retribution: What Happens after the Boston Tea Party?
After the Boston Tea Party, the British government passed a series of laws that the colonists quickly called “The Intolerable Acts.”
British troops were given the right to occupy any Massachusetts home without the permission of the owner, unapproved town meetings were outlawed, the Port of Boston was closed until the Colonists reimbursed the cost of the destroyed tea, and Salem was named the capital instead of Boston.
The Intolerable Acts were designed to crush the spirit of the colonists and financially punish the rebellious Bostonians. However, they instead ignited revolutionary fervor to an explosive level.
To the joy of the colonists, the Boston Tea Party did result in the swift departure of one unwelcome figure: Thomas Hutchinson was replaced by General Thomas Gage as the British Governor of Massachusetts.
Fun Fact about the Boston Tea Party
For the following 62 years, from 1773 onward, the events of December 16th were referred to as “The Destruction of the Tea.” It wasn’t until 1835 that the Sons of Liberty’s audacious actions became known as “The Boston Tea Party.”