Sunday, April 15, 2018

Episode 040: The Boston Tea Party

We left off last week with seven tea-laden ships headed for the colonies in the fall of 1773.  Lord North seemed to think he was going to put an end to years of nonsense by forcing the colonies to accept Parliamentary taxes once and for all.

Cheap Tea with a Tiny Tax

He had minimized the amount of tax to a mere 3 pence per pound of tea.  By removing all the other taxes and many other costs that had been paid in transit, the price of tea was cheaper than ever before, in some cases cheaper or at least competitive with smuggled tea from Holland.  The non-importation agreements, in place now for nearly four years, had been faltering on their own.  These cheaper prices would surely break colonial resistance and get trade back to normal.

Boston Tea Party (artist's conception) (from Wikimedia)
But as any parent of a three year old knows, even if you have all the power and think you have all the carrots and sticks in place to compel certain behavior, the three year old can still throw a crazy tantrum that upsets all of your plans and forces you to overreact.  That is pretty much what is about to happen.

The Patriots had little time to react to all of this.  Parliament passed the Tea Act in May, 1773.  Since it took nearly two months for word to reach the colonies, it was the middle of summer before anyone heard about it in America.  Even then, there was considerable confusion about the details.  Some reports said that Parliament had removed all duties, which of course would have been a great victory for the Patriots.  Not until early September did colonial newspapers publish the full text of the Act, making clear that duties would still apply to tea.

By August, the East India Company had already designated consignees and was rounding up ships to carry tea to the colonies.  In late September, the ships had set sail.  By the time Patriots received a clear understanding of the Tea Act’s details, there was no time to send a response to England before the ships were in transit.

The new plan did not seem to set off alarm bells among the Sons of Liberty in Boston.  Committees of Correspondence in Massachusetts were still focused on changes to how their leaders were paid and the fact that the Governor was still forcing the Assembly to meet in Cambridge rather than Boston.  The new tea rules were mostly an afterthought.

Part of the reason may have been that there was really no change for the worse.  Parliament had not increased the tea tax or created any new taxes.  All that remained the same as it had been since 1767.  The only change was that the overall price of tea was getting cheaper.

Building up the Protest

The first people to push this issue were merchants in Philadelphia and New York.  Remember, these guys were making big money smuggling Dutch tea into the colonies.  With their competitors getting consignments, many merchant smugglers saw that their business was in real danger.

I think it is a bit cynical to blame this newly invigorated tea protest on a few disgruntled smugglers who would be losing money.  That may have provided some incentive.  But radicals still had an ideological opposition to paying any revenue duties to England, under the theory that once the colonies accepted any such tax, many more would be sure to follow.

British cartoon portraying colonial
treatment of tea tax collectors.
By late September, colonial newspapers announced that the East India Company was sending its first shipments to the colonies later that fall.  In early October, radicals in New York and Philadelphia began posting handbills and writing newspaper articles in opposition to the tea delivery.

New York protesters seemed most upset at the idea of the East India Company’s monopoly.  They raised concerns that if this monopoly could stand, the Company could soon get a monopoly on all sorts of trade goods.  This argument does not make any sense to me.  First, the East India Company had always had a monopoly on tea, ever since it introduced the leaf to the British Empire more than a century earlier.  Nothing about that was changing.  The only difference was that the tea was a little cheaper now because it did not have to be sold at auction in London and then resold in the colonies.

Perhaps that was their real concern.  Local merchants were being cut out of the process in favor of fixed contracts that greatly benefitted the Company.  Sure, colonial merchants were still free to go buy tea in England and ship it to the colonies.  Doing that though, would make their tea far more expensive than the Company selling it direct.  The other concern was for merchants who smuggled Dutch tea.  The legal English tea would now be about the same price, perhaps cheaper since legal shipment would be cheaper than smuggling, where there could be losses due to seizure, or increased costs do to offloading miles from port and transporting overland.

But the arguments about the Company’s monopoly or the fear of competition with smuggled tea really only concerned the colonial merchants.  The tea drinking public did not get hurt by this change.  In fact, the public would benefit from lower prices.

To further complicate forming a united opposition, consignees in New York ran a misinformation campaign, claiming that the new tea shipments were exempt from Townshend duties.  They argued the colonists had won and were getting duty-free tea.  It’s not clear if the consignees really believed this and were mistaken, or whether they were just trying to use what we might call today “fake news”  to allow the tea to land.  After all, only they would know that they had paid the tea tax.  The customers would have no idea.

The two sides fought over this point for several weeks.  Finally the consignees either received confirmation or conceded that the Townshend duty applied.

In Philadelphia, radicals met with the consignees, trying to get them to refuse to participate.  Here the consignees did not deny that the tea required duty, but expressed ignorance about the terms generally.  The Whartons gave assurances that if they had to pay a duty, they would not accept the tea. James & Drinker gave a more vague promise only that that they would have more to say once they received more details.  As a result, most of the wrath over the tea fell on James & Drinker.  They received threats that no one would do business with them, as well as general threats of violence.

Further, because a large ship needed a local pilot to bring it up the Delaware River to the Philadelphia port, radicals made known that any local pilot who brought the tea ship to Philadelphia could expect to be tarred and feathered.  Similar consequences would be due to any wharf owner who agreed to let the ship dock at his wharf.

By early November, the Philadelphia consignees received their detailed instructions, clarifying that they would have to pay duties on the tea.  Already seeing how much pressure they were facing, all of them agreed to resign and refuse acceptance of any tea.

Boston Joins the Protest

Boston was more difficult.  The consignees had been importing tea and refusing to participate in the non-importation agreements for years.  They were used to fighting with the radicals and did not see the latest tea shipment as anything different.  The radicals, of course objected to anyone paying the tea tax, but through September and early October, did not seem terribly upset about it.  In October, the Boston papers published some articles from Philadelphia and New York objecting to the tea imports.

Boston Broadside declaring consignees traitors to their
country. (from Wikimedia)
On October 21, the Boston Committee of Correspondence sent a letter to other cities, mostly complaining about the issue of the King paying the salaries of colonial officials.  It only mentioned the tea issue briefly at the end of the letter.  Boston seemed to have needed prompting from fellow radicals in New York and Philadelphia to work up the necessary level of outrage.

One of the Boston consignees, Richard Clarke, attempted to sway public opinion to his side, arguing in several articles that the tea was fine because they were paying the duty in London, not in Boston.  There had always been taxes on tea that were paid in London and this was no different.  He argued the protesters were just folks who smuggled illegal Dutch tea and did not want any competition.  His arguments did not seem to win him much support though.

By late October, the Boston radicals began to get in gear.  As in other cities, local Sons of Liberty tried to intimidate the consignees.  They wanted the consignees to refuse to accept the tea and to resign their positions as consignees.  Since the ships were already on their way, there was not much time to build up a movement.  Samuel Adams led the protest, but he did not want to dirty his hands by leading the street mobs.  That job fell to William Molineux, a local merchant with a thriving illegal trade with the Dutch.  Molineux had been an active street leader in the Stamp Act and Townshend Act protests and during the events surrounding the Boston Massacre.  He knew how to run a Boston street mob.

Liberty Tree, Boston (from Wikimedia)
At around 1:00 AM on November 2, a group of men pounded on Richard Clarke’s door demanding he receive a summons.  The note ordered Clarke to appear at the Liberty Tree on Wednesday to publicly renounce his consignment of tea.  When Clarke did not go, Molineux led a group of men to his shop.  The mob rushed in and destroyed everything.  Clarke and his companions were able to escape to the second floor where they could take refuge in a secure, reinforced room which held money and important papers.

Newspapers and broadsides condemned all the consignees and threatened them if they failed to resign.  On Nov. 5, Pope’s Day in Boston, leaders held a special town meeting in the morning before festivities began.  John Hancock led the meeting where he condemned the threats against merchants, but also got approval from the hundreds of men in attendance to continue steadfast opposition to the East India Company’s tea plan.  The Town Meeting sent notices to the consignees demanding their resignations.  To this more official command, the consignees pleaded ignorance.  They said they still did not know the exact details of the consignment agreement yet, and would let the Meeting know when they had all the information.  While the answer did not satisfy anyone, it seemed to buy them a few days as the radicals fumed but did nothing.

During this time someone published a document showing that more than 3000 pounds of tea had arrived in Boston since passage of the Townshend Acts, all paying the required duty.  Loyalists took this information to show that this new shipment was no big deal and nothing new.  Patriots argued it was evidence that they had been slacking far too much on the non-importation agreements and that they needed to step up their game.

On Nov. 17, one of Hancock’s ships arrived from London with news that four ships carrying the Company tea were headed for Boston.  Also arriving on the ship was Jonathan Clarke, one of the sons in the Richard Clarke and Sons company.  Jonathan had helped secure the tea consignment in London and had returned home.

That evening, a mob visited the Clarkes at their home yelling from the streets.  Now, given past patterns, I cannot imagine why he thought this was a good idea, but Clarke decided to disperse the mob by going up to a second floor window, brandishing a pistol and firing it into the air.  This, of course, enraged the mob, which began to throw rocks through the windows.

The next morning the town meeting again sent representatives to the Clarkes to see if Jonathan had brought the consignment details they needed.  The Clarkes again begged off, saying only that the terms of the agreement contained harsh penalties for resignation which they could not afford.

Realizing that the tea protests had moved to a level they had not anticipated, the consignees went to the Governor and Council.  They asked that the government take custody of the tea once it arrived in order to prevent destruction, and to release it once all this craziness ended.  The Council delayed acting on the petition for several weeks, not sure what to do.  In the meantime, the Governor ordered the Corps of Cadets to be prepared to restore order if necessary.  The Commander of the Corps, John Hancock made clear that yeah, that’s not going to happen.  The Governor could have called back the regiment of British regulars still stationed out at Castle William.  Doing that though, would just make things worse, and possibly bring back the occupation protests that had led to the Boston Massacre.  So, the government did nothing.  Consignees started leaving town at night for fear of mob action.

Tea Arrives

On Sunday November 28, the ship Dartmouth arrived in Boston Harbor with 114 chests of East India Company Tea aboard.  It was the first tea ship to reach America.

Patriots demanded the tea be returned to England.  But doing so was illegal.  If returned, the government would confiscate the tea and the consignees would be liable for the cost.  Further, the ship entering the harbor started another clock.  Someone had to pay the duties on the tea within 20 days.  Otherwise, officials would seize the tea, pay the duty, and sell it themselves.

Boston leaders held town meetings on Monday and Tuesday trying to find an acceptable solution, despite the fact that the Governor declared the meetings illegal and ordered them to disperse.  The Meeting wanted the tea returned to England.  The Consignees all fled Boston, some going to Castle William. Others left to stay in homes in other towns.  The radicals began to pressure Joseph Rotch, the owner of the Dartmouth.  Rotch just seemed to be looking for a way not to get his ship seized by authorities, but also not get tarred and feathered by an angry mob.

Map of Boston, Griffin's Wharf circled
(original unmarked from Digital Public Library)
Rotch attempted to get permission to leave port with the goods still on his ship.  However, customs officials said payment of duty was due as soon as the ship entered the harbor.  He could not leave until someone paid the tea duty.

Boston radicals sent several dozen volunteers to watch the ship day and night.  They claimed to be there to prevent any mob action.  Everyone knew though, that they were there to make sure no one took the tea off the ship.  The following week, the Eleanor and the Beaver both arrived carrying more tea.  Storms forced the fourth ship, the William to crash along the coast, so it never arrived.

The three tea ships remained stuck at Griffin’s Wharf.  Customs officials and the Governor refused to allow them to leave without paying the duty, with the British navy prepared to sink them if they tried to leave without permission.  On the other side, the radicals stood guard, preventing anyone from removing any tea from the ships.

British officials knew that time was on their side.  On December 17, twenty days would have passed since the arrival of the Dartmouth. At that point, officials could confiscate the tea and see that the tax was paid.  They only had to wait until that date passed.

The day before the deadline, December 16th, Boston held another meeting attended by nearly 5000, a huge number considering the adult male population was around 2500.  Many had come from the surrounding area to participate.  They understood that the consignees would almost certainly pay the duty the following day in order to avoid seizure.  At that point, they would find a way to remove the tea and eventually sell it to Bostonians who were demanding more tea.  A shortage of tea had already begun to increase prices.

Negotiations continued throughout the day with Rotch still trying to get permission from the Governor to allow his ship to remove the tea from the colony without paying the duty.  Hutchinson, however, remained adamant.  He was not going to back down.

Rotch finally returned to the meeting at around 5:45 PM, when it was already dark.  He announced that the Governor had refused his final request to leave the harbor.  I like to think the final debate called for a really futile and stupid gesture to put an end to this standoff.  But historians tell us Samuel Adams simply proclaimed that he could not see what they could do to save their country.  That was apparently a signal as dozens of men dressed as Mohawk Indians entered the meeting to loud war whoops.  The meeting dissolved and everyone headed down to Griffin’s Wharf.

Dumping the Tea

The Mohawk costumes were not designed to fool anyone.  Some said they symbolized the free man in a state of nature protecting his liberties.  Others thought the Indian clothing and face paint helped hide the identity of the men involved.  Even if people could recognize some of the men, they could use the excuse that they were dressed as Indians and wearing face paint to avoid making a positive identification to authorities.

Destruction of Tea in Boston (artist's conception)
(from Wikimedia)
The removal of 340 chests of tea, most chests over 400 pounds, from three ships was not an easy task.  Somewhere between 30 and 60 men boarded the three ships, overpowered the customs official on each ship, and set about breaking open the chests and dumping the tea into the harbor.  Hoisting and dumping that much tea without the assistance of machinery took the men about three hours.  The water levels were so low that piles of tea simply sat above the water.

A crowd of several hundred watched from the pier as the men went about their work.  The British Army and Navy sat a few hundred yards away, but never received any authority to intervene.   The Governor and Lt. Governor were out of town that night.  Admiral Montagu noted later that he could have fired on the attackers, but would also inevitably have hit the bystanders watching the events.  As a result, he made no attempt to stop them.

One member of the Mohawks was caught stuffing tea into his pockets.  The crowd beat him, stripped him and forced him to run home naked.  They wanted to make clear this was not an act of looting and lawlessness, but a political protest.

By 9:00 PM, the work was complete and everyone returned home to await the consequences.

Next Week: We’ll discuss those consequences.

Next Episode 41: Tea Party Aftermath

Previous Episode 39: The Politics of Tea

Visit the American Revolution Podcast ( for free downloads of all podcast episodes.

Further Reading

Web Sites

Various Tea Party Articles:

Tea Act of 1773 (full text)

Boston Tea Party Historical Society:

Massachusetts Historical Society: (includes images of primary documents from the event)

History of tea in Britain:

Covart, Liz, "The Politics of Tea"   Ben Franklin's World Podcast Episode 160:

Taylor, Thomas B. “The Philadelphia Counterpart of the Boston Tea Party” Bulletin of Friends' Historical Society of Philadelphia, 1909, pp. 21-49:

Online Videos:

Boston Tea Party Reenactment, C-Span, 2015:

Harlow Unger discusses his book American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked A Revolution, C-Span, 2011:

Nick Bunker author of, An Empire on the Edge, discusses British perspective on the Tea Party, C-Span 2014:

Benjamin Carp discusses his book: Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, C-Span 2010:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Cushing, Harry (ed) The writings of Samuel Adams, Vol. 3, New York: G.P. Putnum's Sons, 1907.

Drake, France (ed) Tea Leaves: Being a Collection of Letters and Documents Relating to the Shipment of Tea to the American Colonies in the Year 1773 by the East India Tea Company, Boston: A.O. Crane, 1884.

Hawkes, James A retrospect of the Boston tea-party, with a memoir of George R. T. Hewes, a survivor of the little band of patriots who drowned the tea in Boston harbour in 1773,  New York: S.S. Bliss,1834.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press 1943 (Based on date, I am not sure about the copyright status of this book.  Since it may get pulled, I have also included a link to Amazon below).

Schelsinger, Arthur "The Uprising Against the East India CompanyPolitical Science Quarterly, 1917, pp. 60-79 (available for free at

Thatcher, BB Traits of the tea party; being a memoir of George R. T. Hewes, one of the last of its survivors; with a history of that transaction; reminiscences of the massacre, and the siege, and other stories of old times, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1835.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Carp, Benjamin Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Cummins, Joseph Ten Tea Parties: Patriotic Protests that History Forgot, Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2012.

Knollenberg, Bernhard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775,  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1975.

Labaree, Benjamin W. The Boston Tea Party, Oxford University Press, 1964.

Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. 1, New York: McGraw-Hill 1976.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press (1943) (also available as a free eBook, see above).

Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. 1, New York: McGraw-Hill 1976.

Sutherland, Lucy The East India Company in 18th Century Politics Clarendon Press, 1952.

Unger, Harlow American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution, Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2011.

* (Book links to are for convenience.  They are not an endorsement of Amazon, nor does this site receive any compensation for any links).

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