Three ships loaded with tea sat anchored in Boston harbor.
The Patriots were determined to prevent the tea on these ships from
being landed on American soil, because if it were, a tax would be due
upon it. Parliament had passed a new law, the Tea Act of 1773, which
kept a small tax of three pence on all English tea brought into the
American colonies. This shipment of tea was from the East India Company,
and it would be consigned, or sold, only to seven Boston merchants
selected by the East India Company. They were all loyal to the British
How did all
this trouble over tea begin?
The 1773 Tea Act
The tea ship Dartmouth arrives in Boston
Meetings at Old South Meeting House
Meetings of the “Body of the People”
The tea ships Eleanor and Beaver arrive at Griffin’s Wharf
December 16, 1773: The Boston Tea Party
Tea was imported regularly to the American Colonies starting in the
early 1720s. By the 1760’s, colonists were consuming 1.2 million pounds
of tea a year. Both men and women had come to enjoy it as an everyday
beverage, although it was most popular among the ladies of cosmopolitan
communities such as Boston.
England soon realized that it could make more money on the tea trade
by imposing new taxes. This made English tea very expensive. In response
to the increase in the price of English tea, colonists began smuggling
cheaper tea from Holland. While Parliament knew about the smuggling, it
had a hard time enforcing the law. There were not enough customs
officials in the colonies, and the nooks and crannies of the American
coastline made it easy to find ways to smuggle goods into the colonies.
In 1767 Parliament responded to smuggling by passing the Indemnity
Act. This repealed the duty on tea and made English the same price as
Dutch tea. This pleased both the English East India Company and
law-abiding colonial merchants. However, Parliament also passed the
Townshend Acts in 1767, which once again put a tax on tea.
The colonists protested against the taxes for many reasons. They
believed that Britain was unfairly using the taxes to help pay for
British troops sent to America during the French and Indian War
(1754-1763). Perhaps most importantly, they felt that Parliament did not
have the right to tax them because the American colonies had no
representative in Parliament. The colonists believed that only taxes
they were able to vote on were legal.
The Sons of Liberty, a group of colonists organized to protest
English rule, warned merchants, artisans, and others that more unjust
laws would follow. Colonists began to boycott British goods to protest
taxes. As tea was the most common and widely used of the newly taxed
items, attention was focused on the tea tax. The anti-British movement
and the boycott of British goods were successful. In the spring of 1770,
Parliament repealed the Townshend Acts and the duties on all items –
On May 10, 1773, the British Parliament passed the
Tea Act of 1773. This act allowed the English East India Company to sell
tea in the American colonies at bargain prices – but there was still a
tax on the tea. Patriot leaders believed the cheap tea was a ploy to get
them to accept Parliament’s right to tax the colonies.
Under the Tea
Act, the East India Company could ship tea directly to the American
colonies, where it would be sold by a specific group of merchants. These
merchants were called tea consignees, and were the only merchants in the
colonies who would be allowed to sell the tea. All of these merchants
The tea, which today would be valued at over $1 million,
was due to arrive in Boston in late November of 1773. The Patriots tried
to persuade the consignees to refuse the tea through public
embarrassment and harassment. The tea consignees refused.
In the ports
of Philadelphia and New York, the local Sons of Liberty had successfully
demanded that the tea consignees resign. But in Boston, the tea
consignees refused, ignoring a summons to the Liberty Tree.
On Sunday, November 28 the Dartmouth arrived
in Boston Harbor. The ship was loaded with East India Company tea and
duty was payable the moment the tea was landed. If the duty was not paid
within 20 days of the ships arrival, the authorities could seize both
the cargo and the ship. The deadline for paying the tax was midnight,
Broadsides quickly were printed and plastered all over
Boston, announcing a meeting:
Friends! Brethren! Countrymen! That worst
of Plagues, the detested tea shipped for this port by the East India
Company, is now arrived in the Harbor; the hour of destruction, or manly
opposition to the machinations of Tyranny stares you in the Face…
On November 29, 1773, thousands of
people gathered at old Faneuil Hall, but it was so crowded that the
meeting moved to the Old South Meeting House.
The Old South Meeting
House was the largest building in colonial Boston and was well known as
a meeting place for the Patriots. Boston residents had previously
flocked to mass meetings at Old South to protest the Boston Massacre.
Led by Samuel Adams, the angry assembly had forced Acting Royal Governor
Hutchinson to remove the British troops from Boston and onto an island
fort in the harbor. In 1772 and 1773, speakers at Old South Meeting
house delivered fiery orations decrying the Boston Massacre. These
speeches, attended by huge crowds including men, women and children,
helped to keep outrage over the Boston Massacre alive, and made the Old
South Meeting House a notorious hotbed of patriot resistance to British
The crowd at Old South
Meeting House included those not normally in attendance at Boston town
meetings, such as men from surrounding towns and those without voting
privileges. In order to vote at an official town meeting, a colonist had
to be a male property owner over 21 years of age. In contrast, Governor
Hutchinson described the meetings at Old South Meeting House as
including “principally of the lower ranks of the people and even
journeymen tradesmen were brought in to increase the number, and the
rabble were not excluded.” The meetings were called “The Body of the
People”, with resolves from the meetings signed, simply, “The people”.
Samuel Adams described the meeting on November 29 in a letter to a
…the people met in Faneuil hall, without observing the rules
prescribed by law for calling them together…they were soon obliged for
the want of room to adjourn to the Old South Meeting House; where were
assembled upon this important occasion 5000, some say 6000 men,
consisting of the respectable inhabitants of this and the adjacent
towns. The business of the meeting was conducted with decency,
unanimity, and spirit.
At that meeting, Samuel Adams introduced a
resolution that was met with approval:
“Whether it is the firm
resolution of this body that the tea shall not only be sent back but
that no duty shall be paid thereon?”
The meeting voted to put a guard of
25 men on the Dartmouth to ensure that the tea would not be landed. The
meeting adjourned until the following day to allow the tea consignees
time to make a proposal.
At 9:00 on Tuesday, November 30, thousands of
colonists again crowded into the Old South Meeting House. The famed
portrait painter John Singleton Copley, who was married to one of the
tea consignee’s daughters, tried to help reach an agreement with the tea
consignees. He read a message from them to the meeting. The consignees
offered to store the tea subject to inspection until they received
further instructions from London. This was not acceptable to the
meeting, since it meant that the tea would be landed, and the tax would
Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf interrupted the meeting with a
proclamation from Governor Hutchinson demanding that the assembly “to
disperse and to surcease all further unlawful proceedings at your utmost
peril.” The meeting resoundingly refused to comply with the
It was solemnly voted by the body of the people of this
and the neighboring towns assembled at the Old South meeting-house on
Tuesday, the 30th day of November that the said tea never should be
landed in this province … [Signed] The people.
Abigail Adams described
the meetings at Old South in a letter to her friend Mercy Otis Warren:
“The tea that bainfull weed is arrived. Great and effectual opposition
has been made to the landing of it…the proceedings of our citizens have
been united, spirited and firm. The flame is kindled and like lightening
it catches from soul to soul…”
The second tea ship, the Eleanor, arrived in Boston
on December 2 and the last tea ship, the Beaver, arrived December 7.
Resistance to the tea was mounting in Boston. On December 8 Governor
Hutchinson ordered Admiral Montagu not to let any vessel leave the
harbor without a pass.
For almost three weeks, mass meetings at Old
South Meeting House tried to find a way to prevent the tea from being
unloaded. Francis Rotch, a Quaker from Nantucket Island, owned the
Dartmouth. He was under great pressure by both the Patriots and the
Royal Governor of the colony, Thomas Hutchinson. The Patriots wanted
Rotch to turn his ship around and sail it back to England with the tea
still on board. Hutchinson, on the other hand, wanted that tea unloaded
and the tax paid. The deadline was fast approaching.
On the morning of
December 14 a handbill was plastered throughout Boston:
Brethren! Countrymen! The perfidious act of your reckless enemies to
render ineffectual the late resolves of the body of the people, demands
your assembling at the Old South Meeting House, precisely at ten o’clock
this day, at which time the bells will ring.
Samuel Savage of Weston was
chosen as moderator of this mass meeting at the Old South Meeting House.
Samuel Adams called on the Committees of Correspondence from surrounding
towns to “be in readiness in the most resolute manner to assist this
Town in their efforts for saving this oppressed country.” All the towns
surrounding Boston sent resolutions of support to the Boston meeting.
Samuel Adams described the meeting:
… the people met again at the Old
South church, and having ascertained the owner, they COMPELLED him to
apply at the custom house for a clearance for his ship to London with
the tea on board, and appointed ten gentlemen to see it performed; after
which they adjourned till Thursday the 16th.
No one in the government
would give Mr. Rotch permission to leave Boston until he unloaded the
tea. Rotch did not want to sail the ship back to England without
governmental permission, as the ship would most likely be fired upon
from the armed fort at the entrance to Boston harbor. He could not risk
his ship becoming damaged, or even destroyed. So the Dartmouth sat,
anchored at Griffin's Wharf in Boston Harbor, ready to be unloaded.
At 10 o'clock in the morning on
December 16, 1773, thousands of colonists gathered at the Old South
Meeting House for a last meeting to decide what to do about the tea.
Over 5,000 people, more than a third of Boston’s entire population,
crowded into the meeting house.
During the meeting, the Patriot leaders
asked Francis Rotch to make a personal plea to Governor Hutchinson for
permission to leave the harbor without unloading the tea. The Patriots
were seeking a legal way to refuse the unwanted tea. Mr. Rotch left the
meeting and made the long trip to where the Governor was staying in
Milton, Massachusetts. Rotch asked the Governor to grant him a pass to
sail the Dartmouth out of Boston harbor, safely past all the guns in the
harbor, so that the tea could be returned to England. The Governor
refused his request.
Thousands of people waited at the Old South Meeting
House for Francis Rotch to return with the Governor's answer. It was
near evening when he finally came back. Candles had been lit in Old
South. Mr. Rotch reported that he had not received a pass and that he
would not attempt to leave the harbor without the Governor's permission.
With the Governor's refusal, the only legal way the Patriots had to keep
the ship from unloading had failed. At that moment Patriot Samuel Adams
declared: "This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!" This
was a pre-arranged signal to the Sons of liberty to put a surprising
plan into action.
Cries of "Hurrah for Griffin's Wharf!” and "Boston
Harbor a Teapot Tonight!" were heard. At that point members of the Sons
of Liberty began to disguise themselves, some as Mohawk Indians, and
made their way down to the harbor. Joined by many more people along the
way, these participants dumped 340 chests of tea into Boston Harbor, in
the event now known as the Boston Tea Party.
The Committee of
Correspondence sent word to New York, describing the events of that
….we had a greater Meeting of the Body than ever. The Country
coming in from Twenty Miles round, and every Step was taken that was
practicable for returning the Teas. The Moment it was known out of
Doors, that Mr. Rotch could not obtain a Pass for his Ship by the
Castle, a Number of People huzza'd in the Street, and in a very little
Time, every Ounce of the Teas on board of Capt. Hall, Bruce, and Coffin,
was immersed in the Bay, without the least Injury to private Property.
The Spirit of the People on this Occasion surprised all Parties, who
viewed the Scene.
The day after the Boston Tea Party, John Adams wrote
in his journal that “This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring,
so intrepid and so inflexible, and it must have so important
consequences and so lasting that I can’t but consider it an epoch in
And so it was. The Boston Tea Party was the turning point in
the colonists’ resistance to British rule. Today it remains a compelling
image of protest for people all over the world.
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