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The Boston Tea Party

Written by: Bill of Rights Institute

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain how British colonial policies regarding North America led to the Revolutionary War

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative with the Stamp Act Resistance Narrative and The Boston Massacre Narrative following the Acts of Parliament Lesson to show the growing tensions between England and the colonies.

After a couple of years of relative calm following the repeal of the Townshend Acts, tension between the British and their colonies escalated when Parliament passed the Tea Act in 1773. This act, which granted the British East India Company a monopoly on tea sales in the colonies, was intended to bail out the financially faltering company, whose failure would have upset the entire imperial economy. Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, told Parliament that the goal of this act was as much to retain the power to tax the colonies on British goods as it was to collect revenue from the existing tax on tea.

The colonists resisted the Tea Act more because it violated the constitutional principle of self-government by consent than because they could not afford the tax, which had existed since the passage of the 1767 Townshend Revenue Act. As George Washington explained, “What is it we are contending against? Is it against paying the duty of [three pence per pound] on tea because [it is] burdensome? No, it is the right only . . . that, as Englishmen, we could not be deprived of this essential and valuable part of our constitution.”

In the ports of New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, citizens prevented British tea from being unloaded, threatened tax collectors into resigning, and protested taxation without representation. In Boston, political organizer Samuel Adams oversaw the adoption of resolutions calling on the tea agents to resign, but they refused. On November 28, however, the Dartmouth dropped anchor in Boston Harbor loaded with 114 crates of British tea. Its colonial owner, Francis Rotch of Nantucket Island, had a great deal of money invested in the cargo and wanted it unloaded, but Patriot leaders wanted to use the landing of the tea to galvanize the people against the British. They also feared that if the tea were landed and sold at cheaper prices, people would continue buying it and ruin the boycott.

The following day, a crowd of five or six thousand people warned Rotch that landing the tea would be at his “peril,” posted a guard around the ship, and demanded that it return to England. But Thomas Hutchinson, a staunch Loyalist who now served as royal governor, refused to allow the Dartmouth‘s departure. With twenty days to either unload the cargo and pay taxes or forfeit both the tea and the ship, Rotch found himself in a terrible position.

Over the next week, two more ships laden with tea berthed beside the Dartmouth at Griffin’s Wharf. Many people predicted imminent violence. As Abigail Adams wrote, “The flame is kindled . . . Great will be the devastation if not timely quenched or allayed by some more lenient measures.” On December 14, thousands again demanded that Rotch seek clearance for a return voyage to England, but Hutchinson again refused the request. Three British warships now stood in the harbor ready to enforce his order. Matters were coming to a head.

On December 16, one day before the deadline for the landing of the tea, more than seven thousand gathered in the Old South Meeting House, Boston’s largest building. When Samuel Adams announced that nothing more could be done to save their country, dozens of colonists, dressed like Indians as a symbol of American freedom and to disguise their identities from British authorities, entered the assembly with piercing war whoops. The crowd went into a frenzy, screaming, “The Mohawks are come!” John Hancock called on his countrymen to do their patriotic duty: “Let every man do what is right in his own eyes.” Thousands of citizens spilled into the streets and watched as the band of Mohawk impersonators boarded the three ships and dumped into the harbor ninety thousand pounds of tea worth £10,000 (millions of dollars today). The crowd then slowly dispersed into the night while the disguised participants went home with their identities still concealed.

An image shows the Boston Tea party. Colonists disguised as Indians are shown on a boat, throwing boxes into the harbor while other colonists cheer from the surrounding docks.

To protest the Tea Act of 1773, colonists disguised as Mohawks raided ships and dumped ninety thousand pounds of tea into Boston Harbor. The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor (1846), a lithograph by Nathaniel Currier, includes cheering crowds to emphasize public support for this protest.

Although some colonists saw the Boston Tea Party as a destructive mob action, most praised the protest. “This is the most magnificent movement of all,” John Adams rejoiced. “This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring . . . and so lasting, that I cannot but consider it as an epoch in history.” He thought the colonists had had no choice: “To let it be landed, would be giving up the principle of taxation by parliamentary authority, against which the continent has struggled for ten years.”

Most members of the British Parliament were furious when they learned of the Boston Tea Party. Their response was swift and harsh. In early 1774, Parliament passed several acts collectively known as the Coercive Acts. The Boston Port Act closed the harbor to trade until restitution was made for the tea. The Massachusetts Government Act banned town meetings and placed the legislature under greater royal control. The Impartial Administration of Justice Act allowed British officials to be tried in England for capital crimes, escaping colonial justice and local juries. The Quartering Act required the housing of troops in unoccupied buildings and homes. Although not officially a Coercive Act, the Quebec Act gave French Canada the land between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, revoking colonists’ claims on the frontier and raising the specter of a Roman Catholic enemy to their west, which many Protestant colonists equated with civil and religious absolutism because it granted freedom of worship to Catholics. Finally, British general Thomas Gage replaced Hutchinson, a Boston-born civilian, as governor of Massachusetts. Gage’s instructions were to enforce the acts and prosecute the leaders of the resistance.

The colonists labeled the new laws the “Intolerable Acts,” for they systematically abridged the liberties they held sacred and inviolable. If the destruction of the tea was against the law, then the individuals responsible should have been brought to trial. Group punishment was unacceptable and completely abhorrent to the rule of law. The Coercive Acts trampled on their economic liberty, their right of self-government by their own consent and elections, their right to a trial by jury, and their right to property. All along, the colonists had insisted on enjoying the full liberties of free English people. Now, however, it seemed they were being ruled, like the Irish, as conquered foreigners.

From New England to the lower South, the Coercive Acts galvanized colonists against a common foe. As Washington asserted, “the cause of Boston . . . now is and ever will be considered as the cause of America.” The members of the Virginia House of Burgesses concurred. Despite their Williamsburg assembly being dissolved by their royal governor, Lord Dunmore, they reconvened down the street at Raleigh Tavern, declaring themselves the people’s representatives and announcing 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.” They called for a boycott on British imports and asked the other colonies to send delegates to a Continental Congress. Representatives from twelve colonies met at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia that autumn to declare their rights and refuse British trade.

Review Questions

1. All the following constitutional principles directly prompted the colonists to participate in the Boston Tea Party except

  1. federalism
  2. self-government
  3. republicanism
  4. consent of the governed

2. Which of the following best explains the justification for Parliament to pass the Intolerable Acts, or Coercive Acts?

  1. Parliament was seeking financial retribution for the Seven Years’ War and the damages done to the colonies.
  2. The laws would ensure that customs officials would be treated with respect and deference.
  3. Parliament claimed the laws were necessary to punish the city for mob action and loss of property as a warning to other cities that Parliament would not be resisted.
  4. Parliament wanted to model proper British taxation laws and practices that the colonies would, in turn, adopt themselves.

3. Which of the following was the colonists’ primary reason for protesting the Tea Act?

  1. Taxes were so high they couldn’t afford to buy tea.
  2. They felt the act violated the concept of representative government.
  3. Patriots desired to prove their strength and unity throughout the colonies.
  4. Colonists wanted to prevent American Indians from assimilating to city life.

4. Which of the following best describes a significant change in British North America after the Boston Tea Party and retaliatory Coercive Acts?

  1. Loyalists began leaving the colonies, fleeing to safety in Canada.
  2. Patriots coordinated intercolonial bodies and began articulating an American identity and cause.
  3. American Indians allied with the colonists in protest of Britain’s taxes and forceful presence.
  4. Parliament realized the taxes were unfair and repealed the majority of them.

5. Which of the following acts of legislation was not part of the Coercive Acts?

  1. The Quartering Act, which required colonists to house and provide for British troops
  2. The Quebec Act, which allowed freedom of religion to newly British French-Canadian colonists
  3. The Declaratory Act, which asserted the British right to govern the colonists in any way they saw fit
  4. The Boston Port Act, which required the harbor to close until the cost of the destroyed tea was reimbursed

6. Which of the following best describes Patriotic upheaval in Boston?

  1. Despite the swell of protest, Boston’s population was primarily merchants who relied on Great Britain for trade and, therefore, remained loyal to the crown.
  2. The increased tension in the city resulted in ordinary citizens and charismatic leaders erupting in protest.
  3. An influx of American Indians undermined the order established in the city by dumping tea into the harbor, which escalated the situation.
  4. Outspoken women published pamphlets in support of the crown, urging their husbands and brothers to prevent further violence and conflict.

Free Response Questions

  1. Were the protests in Boston an expression of popular sentiment or caused by the leadership of the elites? Explain your answer.
  2. Explain how the colonists’ belief in individual and political rights and liberties influenced their resistance to the Coercive Acts. What was the British response?

AP Practice Questions

“But let us coolly enquire, what is the reason of this unheard of innovation [the Coercive Acts]. Is it to make them peaceable? My lords, it will make them mad. Will they be better governed if we introduce this change? Will they be more our friends? The least that such a measure can do, is to make them hate us. And would to God, my lords, we had governed ourselves with as much economy, integrity and prudence, as they have done. Let them continue to enjoy the liberty our fathers gave them. Gave them, did I say? They are co-heirs of liberty with ourselves; and their portion of the inheritance has been much better looked after than ours. . . . Instead of hoping that their constitution may receive improvement from our skill in government, the most useful wish I can form in their favor, is that Heaven may long preserve them from our vices and our politics.”

Speech of the Bishop of St. Asaph (Jonathan Shipley), September 1774

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. Which group would most likely agree with the sentiments expressed in the excerpt provided?

  1. Loyalists who supported the Crown and respected its authority
  2. Patriots who believed their local governments should have jurisdiction over them
  3. Quakers who were adamant Pacifists
  4. Those who were neutral and unwilling to take a side in the debates

2. The Bishop of St. Asaph, Jonathan Shipley, would support which of the following statements?

  1. Liberty is a natural right.
  2. Liberty is a right provided by government.
  3. The British government should better regulate the colonies for economic gain.
  4. The colonists’ experience in self-government has been a failure.

“I immediately dressed myself in the costume of an Indian, equipped with a small hatchet, which I and my associates denominated the tomahawk, with which, and a club, after having painted my face and hands with coal dust in the shop of a blacksmith, I repaired to Griffin’s wharf, where the ships lay that contained the tea. . . .

We were immediately ordered by the respective commanders to board all the ships at the same time. . . .

We then were ordered by our commander 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.

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. . . . 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.”

George Hewes, eyewitness account of the Boston Tea Party, 1773

Refer to the excerpt provided.

3. Which of the following best describes the reason for the colonists to dress as American Indians for this protest?

  1. Bostonians dressed like American Indians because of fashion trends celebrating the exotic.
  2. Citizens wanted to protect their identity because their actions were treasonous and punishable by the British.
  3. Colonists actually allied with American Indians to create a diverse group of protestors carefully targeting unfair taxes from which both groups suffered.
  4. Women were not allowed to voice their opinions in public, let alone act in public protests, so the costume was an effort to shield them from punishment.

4. The sentiments that inspired the act of protest described in the passage provided are best reflected in which of the following events in U.S. history?

  1. Bacon’s Rebellion, in which former indentured servants and slaves allied to defend themselves from American Indians and protest for the government’s protection
  2. Shays’ Rebellion, in which American citizens protested high state taxes by forcibly closing courts and protesting in town squares
  3. Stono Rebellion, in which enslaved people violently attacked their owners, demanded and achieved freedom, but were ultimately caught and punished for the actions
  4. Pontiac’s Rebellion, in which an allied group of American Indians resisted the encroachment of their land by using offensive attacks on British frontier posts

5. A direct result of the actions described in the excerpt provided was

  1. the decision to write the Declaration of Independence and sever all ties with Great Britain
  2. legislation passed by the British to punish the citizens of Boston and make an example of them
  3. an Olive Branch Petition sent to the king asking for forgiveness and a return to peaceful relations
  4. the monthly arrival of tea rations the citizens of Boston were forced to purchase while paying the tax

Primary Sources

Able Doctor, or America Swallowing the Bitter Draught[political cartoon]. London: London Magazine, May and June 1774.

Suggested Resources

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

Labaree, Benjamin Woods. The Boston Tea Party. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1979.

McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Unger, Harlow Giles. American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution. New York: DaCapo, 2011.

Young, Alfred F. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.

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