PODCAST: The Boston Tea Party (Dan Snow’s History Hit)
On December 16th, 1773, a band of American patriots quietly boarded three ships in Boston Harbour, under the cover of night. Armed with axes and hatchets, they pried open the crates on board and poured their contents into the ocean. The crates contained tea; black-leaved Bohea and green tea from China. Some 92,000 pounds of it cascaded over the side in protest of British taxation in the American colonies.
These men were known as the Sons of Liberty, and they had just lit a powder keg that would lead to the explosive American revolution, and shake the British Empire to its core. In this Explainer episode, Dan takes us through the twists and turns of this foundational event in American and world history.
Produced by James Hickmann and edited by Dougal Patmore.
The Constitutional History of the Boston Tea Party: The significance of the Tea Party as the ignition spark that exploded the powder keg of the American Revolution cannot be overemphasized. (Hans Eicholz, 12/15/23, Law & Liberty)
Among the main points in the Patriot case, a point that none deny, was the irritation caused by Governor Hutchinson when he quietly chose to take his salary and the salaries of judicial officers, directly from this last remaining duty on tea. That decision threatened to place royal officials beyond the power of the assembly’s ability to control the government’s budget. But there was another aspect to the issue that linked the colonist’s constitutional arguments to the fear of monopoly, and this helped to prepare the way for Boston’s radical response.
Writing at the height of the controversy over the Townshend Duties, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania authored a series of widely influential pamphlets styled, Letters from a Farmer between 1767 and 1768 in which he took up the question raised earlier by Franklin in his deposition before Parliament: The distinction between internal and external taxation. This was not really the issue, Dickinson argued, but rather, internal versus external impositions.
Duties to prohibit a trade were one thing, he noted, but duties imposed on articles of trade that could only be acquired from a single source, namely Great Britain, were quite another. The former were meant to restrict trade in articles thought to be detrimental to the needs of the whole empire. The latter, however, were clearly and unquestionably meant to raise money and establish Parliament’s authority to do so.
Here, monopoly played the central part of the constitutional argument of the Patriot cause: “If you ONCE admit, that Great-Britain may lay duties upon her exportations to us, for the purpose of levying money on us only, she then will have nothing to do, but to lay those duties on the articles which she prohibits us to manufacture—and the tragedy of American liberty is complete.” Dickinson had specifically referenced such articles as “paper, etc.” but the application of the principle was the same with respect to tea. By levying a tax on a product supplied only by an official monopoly, no matter how small the rate or quantum charged, the precedent would be finally established of Parliament’s right to raise any degree of revenue thereafter.
The Tea Act did far more than simply lower the company’s operating costs in the distribution of its products. By opening trade directly with the colonies, it also made enforcement of its monopoly position more secure through exposing clearly who was operating as a consignee of the company and who was not. With the powerful presence of the British fleet, such enforcement was not to be doubted. But there was still more reason for the particularly radical turn taken by Bostonians.
Governor Hutchinson had himself directly influenced the appointment of the agents for the company, and these included his own sons.
The Many Myths of the Boston Tea Party (Meilan Solly, 12/15/23, Smithsonian)
The Tea Act of 1773 wasn’t the first tax-related legislation to attract the colonists’ ire. In 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which taxed paper goods like newspapers, deeds and playing cards. The first internal tax levied on the colonies by the British, the Stamp Act garnered criticism from colonists who saw it as “extremely burdensome and grievous,” especially when they had no representation in the legislative body across the Atlantic. Widespread opposition to the tax, including protests by the Sons of Liberty, a grassroots group that would later play a key role in the Tea Party, led Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act in 1766.
But other taxes followed, most prominently the 1767 Townshend Acts, which imposed duties on imported glass, china, lead, paint, paper and tea. Once again, the colonists objected to the measures, with the city of Boston emerging as a particular locus of resistance. Rising tensions between Bostonians and British troops brought in to quell the unrest culminated in the 1770 Boston Massacre, which left five colonists dead.
The events that preceded the Tea Party spoke to the larger “question of how the colonies were represented in the empire,” says Sheidley, “the imperial reforms that tried to concentrate decision-making and ensure that there were more uniform systems for governance across all the colonies.” In addition to covering the costs of the French and Indian War, the taxes paid for the administration of the American colonies.
Though the British government repealed the Townshend Acts shortly after the Boston Massacre, the tax on tea remained in place, and the underlying issue angering the colonists—their lack of parliamentary representation—came no closer to being resolved. At the time, Parliament was dominated by wealthy landowners who won their seats with support from powerful, often aristocratic patrons. The corrupt system meant that some sparsely populated British towns (known as rotten boroughs) had multiple members of Parliament, while bustling industrial centers like Birmingham and Manchester had none. “There was this slippery-slope argument,” economist Gustavo Torrens, co-author of a 2019 paper on the topic, told the Washington Post in 2016. “How could [Britain’s landed gentry] give representation to the Americans while many common people in London did not have proper representation?”
Eager to boycott any taxed British goods, colonists started drinking tea smuggled in by Dutch traders. Colonial merchants like John Hancock and Samuel Adams, both leaders of the Sons of Liberty, facilitated this illicit exchange, reaping profits at the expense of the British East India Company (EIC), which held the monopoly on the legal tea trade. By May 1773, the EIC was in such dire financial straits that Parliament stepped in to save it with the Tea Act, which allowed the trading corporation to ship tea directly to North America instead of routing it through England, where it was subject to additional taxes. This streamlined process lowered the price of legally imported tea but posed a whole new set of difficulties for colonists, who feared that “hand-picked middlemen” appointed by the EIC would undercut homegrown traders, says Carp, also a historian at Brooklyn College. By buying cheaper EIC tea, colonists would implicitly agree to taxation without representation, as they still had to pay the import duty introduced by the Townshend Acts.
As the EIC prepared to send its first shipments of tea to North America in the fall of 1773, anti-British colonists targeted the consignees chosen to receive and sell the goods, hoping to intimidate the agents into resigning from their posts. Patriots attacked consignees’ homes, published death threats against them and held public meetings to discuss how to respond to the tea ships’ arrival. “They are very much using the threat of violence” to make their point, says Sheidley.
In Philadelphia and New York, locals succeeded in stopping the vessels from landing. Worried their New England counterparts would fail to follow suit, a Philadelphia resident wrote an anonymous letter to a Boston newspaper, declaring, “Our tea consignees have all resigned, and you need not fear; the tea will not be landed here or at New York. All that we fear is that you will shrink at Boston.” The author closed by writing, “May God give you virtue enough to save the liberties of your country, and depend on it, it shall not betray them here.”
Remembering the Boston Tea Party (Gary Scott Smith, 12/15/23, Institute for Faith & Freedom)
John Adams asked Mercy Otis Warren, a poet, playwright, and satirist who had supported the boycott of British imports and the destruction of the tea, to write a poem about the incident.
Her February 1774 poem declared:
To aid the Bright Salacias [the female goddess of the sea] Gen’rous Care,
Poure’d a profusion of Delicious teas,
Which Wafte’d by a soft Favonian [relating to the west wind] Breeze,
Supplied the Wa’try Deities in spight,
Of all the Rage, of jealous Amphitrite [another goddess of the sea].
The Fair Salacia Victory, Victry sings
In spite of Heroes, demi Gods, And kings.
She bids Defiance: to the servile train,
The pimps, and sycophants, of George [the III’s] Reign.
Irate about the flagrant destruction of tea, members of Parliament enacted the Coercive Acts between March 25 and June 2, 1774 that closed Boston harbor to commercial traffic, established military rule in Massachusetts, prevented British officials from being criminally prosecuted in America, and forced colonists to house British troops.
Opposition to these actions increased the growing friction between the colonists and the British government. The Virginia House of Burgesses proclaimed that “an attack, made on one of our sister colonies, to compel submission to arbitrary taxes, is an attack made on all British America, and threatens ruin to the rights of all.” Delegates to the First Continental Congress issued The Declaration and Resolves in October 1774. They demanded the repeal of the Coercive Acts, called for a boycott of British products, argued that the colonies had a right to self-governance, and created and trained a colonial militia, preparing the way for the American Revolution.
The Boston Tea Party was a crime (Jeff Jacoby, 12/14/23, The Boston Globe)
I revere the founders of the American republic and rejoice in the independence they ultimately wrested from Great Britain. I have only disdain for the “woke” view of history that regards the United States, in the words of a 2017 essay in The New Yorker, as “a mistake from the start.” I am profoundly grateful that I had the good fortune to be born an American. But that doesn’t change the fact that destroying other people’s property to advance a political cause is wrong. It is wrong whether the cause is right-wing or left-wing. It is wrong whether the cause is racial equity, climate change, opposing a war, overturning an election, or denouncing Wall Street. It is wrong in 2023 and it was wrong in 1773.