The Boston Tea Party was a political protest that took place on the night of December 16, 1773, at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston, Massachusetts. A mob organized by the Sons of Liberty raided three ships and threw all of the tea they were carrying into Boston Harbor. Parliament responded to the incident by passing the Coercive Acts, which led to the colonies holding the First Continental Congress.
Summary of the Boston Tea Party
In 1773, the British East India Company was in serious financial trouble, and almost bankrupt. Parliament decided to allow the company’s inventory of tea to be sold in the American Colonies at a discounted price. The company was basically given a monopoly on the sale of tea in the colonies and was also allowed to ship the tea without paying taxes on the tea. Further, the tea would be sold by specially selected agents, chosen by the East India Company.
The tea was shipped to the colonies in the fall of 1773 and headed to the major port cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. When the news reached New York on October 15, a meeting was held where it was agreed the tea would be rejected and sent back to London. On October 16, a similar meeting was held in Philadelphia, and it was agreed to send the tea back. On November 5, a town meeting was held in Boston where it was resolved that anyone “unloading receiving or vending the tea is an enemy to America.”
This illustration shows John Lamb, a leader of the New York Sons of Liberty, speaking out against the landing of the tea.
The Boston Tea Party was a political protest that took place on the night of December 16, 1773, at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston, Massachusetts. A mob of colonists, which had been organized by the Sons of Liberty, boarded three ships that were carrying tea owned by the East India Company. They smashed open more than 300 chests of tea and then dumped the tea into Boston Harbor.
The tea was rejected because people were sure the lower price on tea was nothing more than a trick to entice them to accept legislation passed by Parliament. Americans had been fighting against taxes and the enforcement of laws that they thought were violating their rights as Englishmen since the end of the French and Indian War.
End of the French and Indian War
At the end of the French and Indian War, Parliament was faced with two major issues. First, it was deep in debt and needed to find ways to raise money to pay off the debt. Second, as a result of the 1763 Treaty of Paris, Britain gained a significant amount of land in North America and needed to find a way to defend the new territory.
Navigation Acts and Sugar Act
Parliament decided to help pay down the debt by enforcing old trade laws known as the Navigation Acts and passing new legislation, which started with the Sugar Act in 1764. Before then, colonists had ignored most of the regulations of the Navigation Acts, or avoided them by smuggling and bribing customs officials. Unfortunately, the enforcement of the laws reinforced Britain’s old economic system that was based on Mercantilism, which created tension between Britain and the colonies.
Before the passage of the Sugar Act, Britain had an unofficial policy in place where Customs Officials were encouraged to neglect the enforcement of the Navigation Acts. Because of this policy — known as Salutary Neglect — American merchants became used to conducting business primarily as they saw fit, and with whomever they wanted.
Robert Walpole instituted Salutary Neglect during his time as Prime Minister.
Enforcement of Trade Laws
In order to raise revenue from the Navigation Acts and Sugar Act, Britain had to strictly enforce the regulations. Customs Officials were required to enforce the laws, which ended Salutary Neglect.
Colonial Reaction to Enforcement of Trade Laws
The enforcement of the Navigation Acts and the Sugar Act did not go over well with the colonists. Many people, including James Otis, Samuel Adams, and Stephen Hopkins, took notice of how the laws were passed and implemented and felt that they infringed on their rights as Englishmen. There was a sense that Parliament did not consider the citizenship of colonists living in the American Colonies as equal to that of people living in England. American merchants, including John Hancock, responded by finding loopholes in the laws and they increased smuggling.
Standing Army in North America
In order to defend the new western frontier of the existing American Colonies, Parliament decided to raise a new army for North America. Most of the army would be stationed in New York. At first, most of the soldiers were sent to forts on the frontier where they protected colonists from attacks by Native Tribes.
Quartering Act of 1765
Parliament did not have the money to cover all of the expenses of the new army, so it decided to have the colonies contribute. On March 24, 1765, Parliament passed the Quartering Act, which required the colonial legislatures to raise funds to pay for the expenses of the army, including housing and food.
Colonial Reaction to the Standing Army
At first, colonial legislatures refused to comply with the Quartering Act and to provide funds for the soldiers. Many Americans believed there were enough soldiers stationed in New York and throughout the colonies, and more was not necessary. The feeling among the colonists was the soldiers were not there to protect them, but rather to force them to submit to unpopular laws.
Stamp Act and Rise of the Sons of Liberty
The Stamp Act was passed on March 22, 1765. It required many legal documents and other printed materials, like newspapers, to be printed on special paper that had a stamp printed on it. The act was supposed to go into effect on November 1, 1765.
Over the course of the summer and early fall of 1765, opposition to the Stamp Act grew throughout the colonies. In Boston, the Sons of Liberty formed and were partially responsible for a riot that occurred in August, which targeted Andrew Oliver, the Stamp Distributor for Massachusetts. In New York, the Sons of Liberty forced Stamp Distributors to resign and implemented a boycott of British goods, which was implemented by many of the other colonies.
Ultimately, Parliament was unable to enforce the Stamp Act. It also received pressure from British merchants who were feeling the effects of the boycott. Parliament decided to repeal the Stamp Act but found another way to frustrate colonists. On the same day the Stamp Act was repealed, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act. The Declaratory Act stated that Parliament had the right to pass laws to govern the colonies.
In 1767 and 1768, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, which added taxes to glass, lead, paint, paper, and one very popular product in the colonies — tea.
Once again, the colonies responded with protests and a boycott on buying and selling British products. However, the Massachusetts Assembly took things further and sent a letter to the other colonial legislatures. The letter called for the colonies to unite to resist the continued attempts by Parliament to levy taxes on them.
The Assembly was ordered to rescind the letter but refused to do so. Governor Thomas Hutchinson responded by dissolving the legislature. British troops were sent to occupy Boston and to make sure the town complied with the laws.
Violence in New York and Boston
The presence of the soldiers was unwelcome and led to serious conflicts between colonists and soldiers. Many Americans were concerned it was only a matter of time before the British officials and soldiers resorted to using violence against them. Those concerns came to fruition in 1770.
In January 1770, a massive riot in New York occurred, where a mob clashed with British troops. The incident is known as the Battle of Golden Hill.
On February 22, 1770, a riot broke out in Boston. A mob attacked the home of a Loyalist named Ebeneezer Richardson. Richardson grabbed a gun and fired into the crowd, killing 11-year-old Christopher Seider.
On March 5, 1770, a street fight in Boston ended with British soldiers firing into a crowd, killing five people. Soon after, the Sons of Liberty referred to it as the Boston Massacre.
Sons of Liberty Protest the Tea Act
In 1773, Parliament relented and rescinded all of the Townshend Acts, except for the tax on tea, and passed the Tea Act. The Tea Act actually made the price of tea less expensive, but it also forced people to buy it through the British East India Company. The Sons of Liberty were skeptical that the cheaper tea was nothing more than a trick to get Americans to accept paying taxes levied by Parliament.
Tea is Shipped to the Colonies
By October 9, seven ships were on their way to the colonies, carrying East India Company tea in their holds. Four ships were headed to Boston, one to New York, one to Philadelphia, and one to Charleston.
The colonists referred to them as “tea ships” and the four ships headed to Boston were the Beaver, Dartmouth, Eleanor, and William.
The Beaver and Dartmouth were owned by Joseph Rotch, who operated out of Nantucket. Both ships had gone to London to deliver shipments of whale oil and the captains agreed to carry the tea back to Boston with them, unaware of the controversy it would cause.
The Eleanor was owned by John Rowe, a prominent Boston merchant, smuggler, and Selectman. He also owned his own warehouses and wharf.
Very little is known about the William other than it was carrying tea to Boston.
Once the tea ships entered Boston Harbor, they had 20 days to offload their cargo. If they failed to do so, then the cargo would be seized by British Customs Officials and auctioned off to pay the Customs Duties. Further, the ships could not leave the harbor with the cargo, unless they had special permission from Governor Thomas Hutchinson.
If any ship dared try to leave the harbor without permission, they would have to deal with men-of-war from the Royal Navy, the Active and the Kingfisher. The harbor was also guarded by Castle William, which stood on an island at the mouth of the harbor and was heavily armed with cannons.
The situation for the merchants who owned the ships was made more difficult by the Patriots in Boston. When the ships arrived, they were greeted by armed groups of men that prevented the crews from unloading the cargo.
Timeline of the Boston Tea Party
November 28, 1773 — First Shipment of Tea Arrives
The Dartmouth, under the command of Captain James Hall, arrived in Boston Harbor, carrying a shipment that included 114 chests of British East India Company tea. Hall tried to dock at Rowe’s Wharf, but John Rowe redirected the Dartmouth to Griffin’s Wharf.
November 29–30, 1773 — Boston Town Meeting Held
The day after the Dartmouth arrived, a meeting to discuss the “tea crisis” was held at Faneuil Hall. The meeting was organized by members of the Boston Committee of Correspondence and Sons of Liberty. Thousands of people gathered, and the meeting had to be moved to Old South Meeting House in order to accommodate all the people.
At the meeting, Samuel Adams said, “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!” This was met with the approval of the crowd.
A resolution was passed and it was decided that 25 members of the Sons of Liberty would stand watch on the dock to make sure the tea was not unloaded.
It was also decided to give the British East India Company’s tea agents an opportunity to respond to the meeting.
Thomas Hutchinson was the Governor of Massachusetts.
The meeting reconvened on December 30. The tea agents gave their proposal to John Singleton Copley, and he read it to the crowd. The agents proposed to unload the tea, so the ships could go about their business, and let the Sons of Liberty inspect the chests. The crowd roared its contempt because if the tea was unloaded the taxes would have to be paid on the shipment. The people were adamantly against it.
The meeting was interrupted by a message from Governor Hutchinson. Hutchinson ordered the people, “To disperse and to surcease all further unlawful proceedings at your utmost peril.” The warning was ignored and the people agreed to a resolution that “the said tea never should be landed in this province.”
December 2 — Second Shipment of Tea Arrives
The Eleanor, under the command of Captain Roy Bruce, arrived in Boston Harbor, carrying a shipment that included 114 chests of British East India Company tea. Captain Bruce was asked by the people to leave, and he said, “I am loath to stand the shot of 32 pounders from the Castle.”
December 5, 1773 — Abigail Adams Letter
On December 5, 1773, Abigail Adams wrote to Mercy Otis Warren and said, “The Tea that bainfull weed is arrived. Great and effectual opposition has been made to the landing of it. To the publick papers I must refer you for perticuliars. You will there find that the proceedings of our citizens have been united, spirited and firm. The flame is kindled and like lightening it catches from soul to soul. Great will be the devastation if not timely quenched or allayed by some more lenient measures.”
December 10 — The William Runs Aground
The William, carrying a shipment of tea headed to Boston, ran aground off Cape Cod during a storm. The ship was abandoned, but more than 50 chests of tea were salvaged.
December 15 — Final Shipment of Tea Arrives
The Beaver, under the command of Captain Hezekiah Coffin, arrived at Griffin’s Wharf, carrying a shipment that included 112 chests of British East India Company tea. The Beaver had been delayed by a smallpox outbreak and was quarantined for two weeks in the outer part of Boston Harbor before it was cleared to proceed.
December 16, 1773 — Town Meeting at the Old South Meeting House
Samuel Adams was a Patriot leader in Boston.
Around 10:00 in the morning, a meeting was held at the Old South Meeting House to discuss what to do with the tea. It is estimated that around 5,000 people attended the meeting, and possibly as many as 7,000. It was not only attended by citizens of Boston, but also by people who came in from the neighboring towns.
Francis Rotch was summoned and the people of Boston ordered him to petition Governor Hutchinson to allow the ships to leave the harbor and take the tea back to London. He told the people, “Gentlemen, I cannot. It is wholly impractical. It would cause my ruin.” Despite his objection, he decided it was in his best interest to meet with Hutchinson. As expected, Hutchinson denied the request.
Rotch returned to Old South and informed the meeting of the Governor’s reply. With the deadline looming for the Dartmouth to offload the cargo, the people asked him if he intended to offload the tea in Boston. He replied that he had “..no business doing so, but if I were called upon to do so by the proper persons, I would try to land it for my own security’s sake.”
People in attendance started shouting phrases that may have been signals for the Sons of Liberty to carry out a plan to destroy the tea, now that all legal avenues had been exhausted.
One yelled, “Who knows how tea will mingle with sea water!?”
John Rowe, the owner of Eleanor, is suspected of shouting, “Boston Harbor, a teapot tonight!” However, he may have covered up his involvement in the Tea Party by falsifying the entries in his diary.
And, finally, Samuel Adams gave one final signal when he said, “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!”
The Sons of Liberty who were in attendance left Old South and made their way toward Griffin’s Wharf. They were joined along the way by other members, who had been preparing themselves in their homes and taverns.
December 16, 1773 — Boston Tea Party
Somewhere between 60 to 90 men in disguise went to Griffin’s Wharf. The disguises were not elaborate — they blackened their faces and wore blankets or coats — but enough to hide their identities. The disguises were meant to mimic the appearance of Native American Indians.
Thousands of people watched the entire scene unfold, which started early in the evening, around 7:00. Everyone expected the Royal Navy to attack at any moment, but they did not intervene. In fact, Admiral John Montagu watched it all from a house near Griffin’s Wharf.
Captain Coffin of the Beaver was worried about the rest of his cargo, which was stacked on top of the tea chests. He was told that if he went to his cabin, quietly, without raising the alarm, the rest of the cargo would be safe. He did as he was told, and the mob left the rest of his cargo alone.
Destruction of the Tea by Paul Philippoteaux and Henri Théophile Hildibrand (New York Public Library).
The men were armed with hatchets and axes, which they used to open the chests of tea. Once they were open, they threw the tea into the water. By the time it was over, they had around 340 chests of tea, weighing roughly 92,000 pounds, into the harbor.
As the tide went out, the tea rose up above the shallow water. Young boys went into the harbor and spread the piles of tea out so that it would be carried away by the rising tide in the morning, which ensured none of the tea could be salvaged.
It took about three hours for the men to carry out their mission. The men shook the tea out of their shoes and swept the tea off the decks of the ships. Then they made the first mate for each ship swear the only cargo that had been damaged was the tea.
As the mob left, it marched past the house where Admiral Montague was. Someone played a fife as they went along. Montagu yelled “Well boys, you have had a fine, pleasant evening for your Indian caper, haven’t you? But mind, you have got to pay the fiddler yet!”
There was no harm done to any member of the crew of any of the ships, and none of the rest of the cargo was damaged. The only damage done to the ships during the whole affair happened on the Beaver when a padlock owned by Captain Coffin was broken. The padlock was replaced with a new one the next day.
On December 18, 1773, Boston merchant John Andrews wrote, “ten thousand pounds sterling of the East India Company’s tea was destroyed…the evening before last…” The British East India Company reported damages of 9,649 pounds.
More Protests Against the Tea Act
More tea parties, or similar events, occurred along the east coast, including a second tea party in Boston. In March 1774, 60 men boarded the Fortune in Boston Harbor and threw the contents of 30 chests of tea overboard. Demonstrations against the Tea Act also occurred in:
- New York
- Chestertown, Maryland
- Annapolis, Maryland
- York, Maine
- Edenton, North Carolina
- Wilmington, North Carolina
- Greenwich, New Jersey
Britain Responds with the Coercive Acts
Parliament responded to the Tea Party by passing several acts, known as the Coercive Acts, that were aimed at punishing the town of Boston and the colony of Massachusetts. One of the acts was the Boston Port Act, which closed the harbor and the port until the tea was paid for. Despite the hardship that it caused the people, they refused to pay for the tea.
Boston sent a letter to the other colonies to inform them about the Boston Port Act. Many of the other colonies responded by sending food and supplies to Boston overland.
Benjamin Franklin offered to pay for the tea but wanted Boston Harbor to be opened first. His offer was refused and the harbor remained closed.
Fate of the Ships that Carried the Tea
The William was wrecked. Samuel Adams wrote, “The only remaining vessel which was expected with this detested article, is by the act of righteous heaven cast on shore on the back of Cape Cod, which has often been the sad fate of many a more valuable cargo.”
Francis Rotch set sail for London on board the Dartmouth on January 9, 1774. When the ship arrived in London, Rotch, Captain Hall, and others were summoned by Lord Dartmouth to give their testimony of what they had witnessed on December 16. The Dartmouth foundered on the trip back to Boston, but the crew was rescued and they returned to Boston in November 1774.
The Beaver returned to London, but Captain Coffin died there and the ship was sold.
The fate of the Eleanor is unknown.
Origin of the Name Boston Tea Party
For many years, the event was referred to as “the destruction of the tea.” It was not until after 1820 that it was called the Boston Tea Party.
In 1835, a book was published called, “Traits of the Tea Party: Being a Memoir of George R.T. Hewes.” Hewes participated in the Tea Party. Hewes provided this account:
“The commander of the division to which I belonged… ordered me to go to the captain and demand of him the keys to the hatches and a dozen candles. I made the demand accordingly, and the captain promptly replied, and delivered the articles; but requested me at the same time to do no damage to the ship or rigging. We then were ordered by our commanders to open the hatches and take out all the chests of tea and throw them overboard, and we immediately proceeded to execute his orders, first cutting and splitting the chests with our tomahawks, so as thoroughly to expose them to the effects of the water. In about three hours from the time we went on board, we had thus broken and thrown overboard every tea chest to be found in the ship, while those in the other ships were disposing of the tea in the same way, at the same time. We were surrounded by British armed ships, but no attempt was made to resist us… During the time we were throwing the tea overboard, there were several attempts made by some of the citizens of Boston and its vicinity to carry off small quantities of it for their family use. To effect that object, they would watch their opportunity to snatch up a handful from the deck, where it became plentifully scattered, and put it into their pockets. One Captain O’Connor, whom I well knew, came on board for that purpose, and when he supposed he was not noticed, filled his pockets, and also the lining of his coat. But I had detected him and gave information to the captain of what he was doing. We were ordered to take him into custody, and just as he was stepping from the vessel, I seized him by the skirt of his coat, and in attempting to pull him back, I tore it off; but, springing forward, by a rapid effort he made his escape. He had, however, to run a gauntlet through the crowd upon the wharf, each one, as he passed, giving him a kick or a stroke. Another attempt was made to save a little tea from the ruins of the cargo by a tall, aged man who wore a large cocked hat and white wig, which was fashionable at that time. He had sleightly slipped a little into his pockets, but being detected, they seized him and, taking his hat and wig from his head, threw them, together with the tea, of which they had emptied his pockets into the water. In consideration of his advanced age, he was permitted to escape, with now and then a slight kick…”
Participants in the Boston Tea Party
In his memoir, Hewes identified many participants in the Tea Party. One of the prominent names listed is that of Paul Revere.
Sarah Bradlee Fulton — Legendary Mother of the Boston Tea Party
Sarah Bradlee Fulton was a prominent member of the Daughters of Liberty, a group of Patriot women who boycotted British goods. However, legend has it that she is the one who suggested the men disguise themselves when they raided the ships. Sarah’s future husband, John Fulton, and her three brothers, David, Josiah, and Nathaniel, all participated in the Tea Party.
The Boston Tea Party was significant because it showed the American Colonists were willing to take action. After a decade of trying to convince Parliament that they simply wanted to be represented in Parliament and afforded the same rights as other Englishmen, the people of Boston resorted to the destruction of the tea. Parliament responded by passing the Coercive Acts, which inflicted significant economic harm on Boston. However, the colonies rallied around the plight of Boston and called for the First Continental Congress.