Last week I ended with the sons of liberty dumping three shiploads of tea into Boston Harbor. The immediate reaction to the Tea Party was mixed. First, I should point out that no one called it the "Boston Tea Party" at the time. At the time, references simply called it “the events in Boston” or the “destruction of the tea” The catchy name came decades later.
Reaction in Massachusetts
Also, none of the men involved in the destruction wanted to be identified. For years, the identities of participants remained a secret. The men had committed a crime and destroyed property. Even after independence, the East India Company could have brought suit for damages. Decades later, people have tried to put together lists based on recollections of some very old men in the early 1800’s who claimed to have participated. A few names stand out, like Ebenezer Mackintosh, William Molineux, and Paul Revere. Most of the men were minor merchants and craftsmen, not political leaders. Radical leaders like Thomas Cushing, John Hancock, Joseph Warren, Samuel and John Adams, stayed far away from the event and made sure they had alibis. No one wanted to be the fall guy for this.
Still, they could never identify any of the perpetrators. One man was arrested but had to be released for lack of evidence. Even Tories knew the consequences of snitching would not be good. Anyone who knew anything kept his mouth shut.
Gov. Hutchinson had to spend the next few weeks writing letters to officials and colleagues in London trying to explain why he could not prevent the events nor find anyone to punish.
Reaction in Other Colonies
Colonists in other towns seemed to support the actions in Boston. Paul Revere rode to New York to give the Sons of Liberty there an account of what happened. Other messengers carried the story to Philadelphia a few days later.
Unlike the Stamp Act riots or other earlier mob actions, most people throughout the colonies did not strongly condemn the events in Boston. The raid on the tea ships was not a reckless act of lawlessness. The men involved destroyed only the tea, protecting other property. They also made sure the tea was destroyed, not stolen. The attack only came after all other attempts to return the tea peacefully had been exhausted. The colonies had remained peaceful for several years as they petitioned London to repeal the Townshend Duties.
|"Liberty Triumphant" Political cartoon published in
Philadelphia or NY shortly after the Tea Party
(From Library of Congress)
Word had not reached Charleston by December 22. The ship London reached port on December 2 with 257 chests of tea. After twenty days, officials seized and offloaded the tea to be held by the customs officials. A few months later, the East India Company sent a request that it be sold at auction, but officials wisely ignored the request. The tea sat in storage for about two years. By some accounts, the tea was eventually found to be damaged and unsellable. Others say that the patriot legislature that took control in 1775 sold the tea, without taxes of course, to raise money for the patriot cause.
Philadelphia had heard about Boston when the ship Polly was spotted in the Delaware River with 598 chests of tea aboard. Since the consignees had already resigned, a group met with the Captain before he reached port in Philadelphia, warning him not to enter. The captain left his ship at anchor in the Delaware River and went to town himself to confer with the consignees and others. After two days, he returned to his ship, turned it around, and sailed back to England. Technically, his ship had been within the customs district controlled by Philadelphia. Governor Penn, however, wisely chose to ignore the fact that the ship turned around without filing any papers
The Nancy was the last of the ships to arrive. A storm blew the ship off course, causing it to land in Antigua in February 1774. There, the Captain learned about the fate of the other ships. Nevertheless, he headed to New York with his 698 chests of tea. He anchored his ship outside of the harbor and beyond the reach of the Customs officers and went ashore to confer with the locals. The consignees, who had already resigned, told him he was best off staying away. So like the Polly in Philadelphia, the Nancy turned around and returned to London with its tea still on board.
There was actually some tea from these shipments that did make it to market. Remember the William that ran aground on its way to Boston? Jonathan Clarke left Castle William, riding to Provincetown to examine the wreck. He was able to extract the ship’s 58 chests of tea and hired a fishing vessel to bring them back to Castle William. It is unclear what happened to all of the chests, but he sold two of them to a local justice of the peace in Provincetown. The remainder may have been smuggled out for sale at some point, but I cannot find any record of exactly what happened.
Fear that the tea might find its way to market probably contributed to the anti-tea hysteria that swept the colonies over the next few months. Originally, radicals had only objected to the tea tax. As time went on, opposition grew to all tea, even smuggled tea from Holland. Radicals confiscated tea from anyone selling or even possessing the leaf. They called on patriotic citizens to burn their tea and not buy any more of it.
The justification against Dutch tea was that it was impossible to differentiate it from British tea that had the duties paid on it. Prior to the tea party, some merchants who had purchased tea in London were selling it, claiming it was smuggled Dutch tea. The only way to block all tea imports was to stop the sale and drinking of all tea altogether.
|British Cartoon making fun of a colonial tea
boycott meeting (from Wikimedia)
Newspapers started publishing absurd articles that condemned tea drinking for a variety of reasons completely unrelated to taxation. Tea was really a poisonous herb. Tea contributed to the flea problem in America. Tea was packed in China by women stamping down the tea with their dirty feet. More commonly we see the argument that tea is a luxury. Its use was making Americans soft and dependent on outsiders. Some tea addicted parents were buying tea while their children did not have enough to eat. Tea became the "Reefer Madness" of its day.
Although the East India Company never tried to send any more tea directly after the first seven ships failed, other merchants continued to bring in tea, unaware of the anti-tea sentiment sweeping the colonies. Many of these were private chests of tea purchased at auction in London, as they had been for years without issue. When the Fortune arrived in Boston Harbor in March 1774 with 28 ½ chests aboard, it got caught in the same predicament faced by the earlier ships. Boston radicals would not allow the tea to be unloaded and Customs Officials would not allow it to leave without paying the duties. A few days later events repeated themselves as a band of men disguised as Indians boarded the vessel and dumped the tea into the harbor once again.
In April, the ship London arrived in New York with 18 quarter chests of tea for private sale. Local activists dumped this tea into New York Harbor, and forced the captain to abandon his ship and flee the scene.
Similar attempts to bring tea into Portsmouth New Hampshire, Greenwich New Jersey, York Virginia and several other towns led to tea either being destroyed or forcibly removed from the colony for transport elsewhere. In Annapolis, Maryland, a merchant imported and paid the duty on a few chests, only to face a mob which forced him to burn both the tea and the ship that imported it.
The issue of tea had finally unified colonial opposition in a way that nothing else had since the Stamp Tax a decade earlier. If Lord North in London had decided to set a precedent by forcing colonists to pay this tax, it completely backfired. The precedent set was that, no matter how small the tax, colonists would not tolerate any attempts to raise revenue without their consent.
Reaction in London
In London, Lord Dartmouth the Secretary for Colonial Affairs had been caught completely off guard by all of this. Lord North, had not even bothered to inform his brother of the plan to ship the East India Tea to the colonies. So when Dartmouth starting receiving word back from the Governors about all the problems, he was completely blindsided. Despite lack of notice, and despite the fact that Dartmouth had tried to be a pretty accommodating Secretary, the mass destruction of property and lawlessness had to be stopped.
By early January 1774, Dartmouth wrote to Gov. Tryon and Gen. Haldimand in New York, authorizing the use of troops to protect commerce and prevent mob action if necessary. A few weeks later, the first word of the tea dump in Boston reached London. A few days after that, the Polly reached London with her tea still on board. A few days later, word of Charleston’s tea impoundment arrived. Quickly it became clear that the colonies presented continent wide resistance to the tea plan.
The East India Company met with officials to see what could be done. The Company’s primary concern was compensation for the lost tea on Boston. It was also able to recover the tea on the Polly that had returned from Philadelphia. Although under the law, officials should have seized the tea, they did let the Company get it back. The Company then issued orders that any refused tea in the future should be sent to Halifax, where there was no objection. From there, many moderates figured inventive merchants and traders would find a way to move the tea south to consumers who still wanted their tea.
Beginning in late January and into February, officials in London met to discuss how to handle the problem in the colonies. Although many colonies had resisted, officials focused on Boston as the center of the problem. They agreed that the government had to issue a firm response, and that Boston had to suffer for its actions. Even at the initial meetings, Dartmouth proposed shutting down the customs house in Boston, and moving the colony’s capital far from the city. Further, measures must secure the dependence of the colonies on Britain. The Attorney General issued an opinion that the events in Boston constituted high treason, levying war against his majesty. Lord North discussed the idea of ordering the Navy to block all commerce in and out of Boston Harbor, effectively closing the Harbor to all commercial activity.
King George III was a part of these discussions and supported the idea of punitive actions against Boston. Many in the colonies still held to the fiction that they could be loyal to their benevolent King, and that they just needed to convince him that his Parliament and ministry were out of control. But the fact was, George was in full agreement with everything his government was doing.
British anger at colonial resistance was not limited to government either. Public opinion, while divided, seemed to be in favor of teaching the colonies a lesson. Newspapers blamed colonial misbehavior on leniency, starting with repeal of the Stamp Act. British desire to keep its colonies happy was being mistaken for weakness. Now the colonies thought they could simply do whatever they wanted without any repercussions. Everyone in England seemed to think Britain needed a firm response to show them who was boss. Gen. Gage, recently returned from America agreed. He said the colonists acted like lions because the British had behaved like lambs. If the British finally took tough action, the colonists would have to back down.
On February 19th, Francis Rotch, owner of the Dartmouth, and several other men from Boston gave testimony to the Privy Council regarding the events of November and December. Even that far removed from Boston, the witnesses refused to name names, and only spoke of the events generally. A frustrated Attorney General decided it would be impossible to indict any individuals for treason, or much of anything else.
Although the ministry could have taken many of the punitive measures without turning to Parliament, they decided to put the measures before Parliament in a bill. Although this might delay the response by a few weeks, it ensured that all of Parliament was aware of the government's response and that a majority approved of it.
As much as radicals in Boston argued that destruction was the result of Indians, or more plausibly that of a few bad apples which did not justify the punishment of the entire town, London thought otherwise. Testimony about the destruction of Clarke’s store, the illegal town meetings, and numerous other events convinced officials that all of Boston was out of control.
Now I'm going to get into all of the details about the legislative changes next week. But before I do that, I want to address one other issue that was happening at the same time.
Franklin Comes Under Fire
In the middle of all of this rancor over tea, Benjamin Franklin felt the wrath of London’s fury due to an unrelated matter. I mentioned back in Episode 37 that Franklin had sent a packet of confidential letters to the radicals back in Boston. These were confidential letters from Gov. Hutchinson to officials in the London establishment talking about the need to curtail colonial liberties if they ever wanted to restore order in the colony. Although Franklin requested the letters be kept confidential, the radicals published them in the newspaper, resulting in a spike in colonial outrage against Hutchinson. When those letters became public, the radical leaders in Massachusetts used them as part of a petition calling for the removal of Gov. Hutchinson and Lt. Gov. Oliver.
During the fall of 1773, British officials tried to figure out who had sent those letters to the colonies. Two officials in London each accused the other of sending the letters. They ended up in a duel, in which neither man was killed. After hearing that they planned to have a second duel, Franklin stepped up by writing a letter to the London Chronicle admitting that he had sent the letters.
A few weeks later, in early January 1774, Franklin appeared before the Privy Council to discuss the petition to remove Hutchinson. After some questioning, it became clear that the meeting was not so much about removing the Governor, but rather whether Franklin had committed a crime by releasing the letters.
|Franklin Appears before the Privy Council, 1774
(artist conception) (from: Boston1775)
At the time, Franklin actually expressed views similar to most Londoners. He condemned the violence in Boston, along with the destruction of private property. He argued that the East India Company was not an enemy of the Colonies and should not be treated as such. Even so, London newspapers raged at his behavior, for releasing private letters and cooperating with the radicals in Boston. Franklin even had to remove his name from the group still trying to get approval for the Vandalia colony, fearing his tarnished name would now potentially harm the group’s chances.
Franklin returned to the Privy Council on January 29, 1774. A packed house viewed the proceedings as a showdown. Even Lord Hillsborough showed up in the audience to watch his enemy Franklin get his comeuppance. Lord North arrived late and had to stand. The Solicitor General Lord Wedderburn gave a lengthy diatribe for over an hour, condemning Franklin’s violation of privacy in releasing private letters. Wedderburn then attempted to call Franklin as a witness. Franklin declined citing his right against self-incrimination. Wedderburn then continued to heap abuse on the silent Franklin, who stood quietly in front of the crowd, without betraying any emotion at the humiliating treatment. Finally, the Council got to the point of the meeting and rejected the petition to remove Gov. Hutchinson.
The following day, Franklin received notice that he had been fired as Postmaster General of North America. He spent a few days in hiding, fearing he might be arrested. Eventually he returned to his London home and began to receive visitors.
Still, his effectiveness as a lobbyist for the colonies in London was over. Franklin remained in London for another year, hoping to restore his reputation. That did not happen though. In 1775 though, he packed his bags and returned to Pennsylvania. Before these events, Franklin was not terribly associated with the Patriot cause. He had tried to remain neutral. Following the attack and the destruction of his reputation in London, Franklin became a committed Patriot.
Next Week: Parliament passes the Coercive Acts, putting Britain and her Colonies on the path to war.
Next Episode 42: The Coercive Acts of 1774
Previous Episode 40: The Boston Tea Party
Visit the American Revolution Podcast (https://amrev.podbean.com) for free downloads of all podcast episodes.
Various Tea Party Articles: http://www.bostonteapartyship.com
Boston Tea Party Historical Society: http://www.boston-tea-party.org
Massachusetts Historical Society: https://www.masshist.org/revolution/teaparty.php (includes images of primary documents from the event)
Benjamin Franklin: America’s First Whistleblower, by John L. Smith, Jr., Journal of the American Revolution: https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/12/benjamin-franklin-americas-first-whistleblower
VIDEO: Nick Bunker author of, An Empire on the Edge, discusses British perspective on the Tea Party, C-SPAN, 2014: https://www.c-span.org/video/?322077-1
(from archive.org unless noted)
Franklin before the Privy council, White Hall Chapel, London, 1774, reprint Philadelphia: John M. Butler, 1859.
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 Company" Political Science Quarterly, 1917, pp. 60-79 (available for free at jstor.org).
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 Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Carp, Benjamin Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.
Isaacson, Walter Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
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.