This Day in History: The Boston Tea Party
On this day in 1773, a group of American colonists boards three ships in Boston Harbor and throws 46 tons of tea overboard. Yes, you guessed it. Today is the anniversary of the original Boston Tea Party!
These colonists were protesting the Tea Act of 1773, enacted by Britain earlier that year. Believe it or not, the Tea Act did not raise taxes on the colonists. Americans had been paying taxes on tea since 1767, when the infamous Townshend Acts were enacted. At the time, there had been so much furor over the Townshend Acts that most of its taxes—taxes on glass, lead, oil, paint, and paper—were repealed. Yet even after all those repeals, the tea tax remained. Britain wanted to prove that it had a right to tax the colonists. The colonists, of course, disagreed. They felt they should not be taxed when they had no representation in Parliament.
So what was new about the Tea Act? The measure was enacted to help bail out the British East India Company, which had 17 million pounds of surplus tea. The Tea Act effectively gave a monopoly to the British East India Company, and it severely undercut American merchants. Ultimately, all of these actions resurrected the old discontent: The colonists did not think that the taxes on tea were legitimate in the first place. And they did not intend to pay taxes on a forced monopoly.
The first load of tea arrived in Boston in late November. According to British law, taxes on tea were due within 20 days of a ship arriving in harbor. Two more ships arrived on December 2 and December 15. Boston residents wanted to reject the tea and send the ship back, but the governor (a Loyalist) would not allow the ships to leave the port. The taxes for the first ship had to be paid by December 17.
The colonists were upset, to say the least, and multiple town hall-type meetings were held. One was attended by as many as 7,000 individuals! A secret plan was set into motion among a smaller subset of these colonists, the Sons of Liberty.
On the night of December 16, more than 100 members of the Sons of Liberty dressed up as American Indians. (They dressed as Indians to express to the world that they were “Americans,” not British subjects.) The men boarded the three ships and emptied their cargoes of tea into the harbor. The protest was more orderly than you might think. No looting was allowed. The protestors worked hard not to harm anything aboard the ships (except the tea). In fact, the protestors swept the ships and put everything back into place. And they returned, later, to replace the only non-tea item that had been harmed: a padlock on one of the ships.
When they were done, the protestors returned home, without attempting to discover each other’s identities. One protestor, George Hewes, later recalled the events: “We then quietly retired to our several places of residence, without having any conversation with each other, or taking any measures to discover who were our associates….There appeared to be an understanding that each individual should volunteer his services, keep his own secret, and risk the consequence for himself. No disorder took place during that transaction, and it was observed at that time that the stillest night ensued that Boston had enjoyed for many months.”
The British government was irate when it learned about the Boston Tea Party, and it responded by passing a series of measures that would be known as the Intolerable Acts.
You could say that the Boston Tea Party was just one of the many dominoes that fell and moved America closer to Revolution. But it was much more than that. It was a “magnificent Movement,” as future President John Adams would write in his diary.
Indeed, the impact of that night still reverberates down the ages. Don’t you think?
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Boston Tea Party History (Boston Tea Party Museum website)
Harlow G. Unger, American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution (2011)
John Adams, Diary entry: December 17, 1773