Some of the most-well known acts of defiance in the lead-up to the American Revolution were colonial protests of the 1773 Tea Act and the infamous Boston Tea Party.
The American colonists had a long list of grievances with the British in the decades before the outbreak of the revolution. From the Proclamation of 1763 to the 1765 Stamp Act, colonists were incensed at what they increasingly saw as unjust policies from their British overlords.
Despite the British repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, the Declaratory Act issued by Parliament that same year reaffirmed Britain’s ability to issue taxes on the colonies. This Act was largely ignored by colonists, many of whom rejected the notion that Parliament could directly issue taxes on the colonies.
Since the colonies were not represented in British Parliament, the rallying cry “no taxation without representation” echoed throughout the Americas as many colonists sought to protect their rights as English citizens.
As Parliament enacted further taxes such as the Townshend Acts, colonists continued to organize protests and boycott any goods that were subject to taxes. Tensions continued to rise, especially after the events surrounding the Boston Massacre in 1770 where five colonists were killed by British soldiers.
By 1773, a tax on tea remained despite a years-long boycott. That year Parliament passed the Tea Act to help save the British East India Company from failure by giving them a monopoly over the tea trade in the colonies.
The passage of the Tea Act would directly lead to the infamous Boston Tea Party of 1773.
The Tea Act and the 1773 Boston Tea Party
The city of Boston is often portrayed as the most rebellious city in British North America prior to the American Revolution. However, in some ways other major city centers eclipsed Boston and even pressured Bostonians to resist British policies.
In response to the Townshend Acts of 1767, the cities of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City all signed non-importation agreements to boycott British goods and prevent them from importing into the colonies.
However, these agreements were short-lived primarily because the city of Boston failed to hold up its end of the bargain. Many prominent Boston merchants did not comply with the non-importation agreements, including some closely associated with the patriot group the Sons of Liberty like John Hancock.1
Despite the failure of the non-importation acts, the passage of the Tea Act in 1773 reignited colonial resistance to British policies including the tax on tea.
The primary purpose of the 1773 Tea Act was to help the British East India Company stave off bankruptcy by giving it a monopoly on the tea trade in the Americas. Instead of raising taxes, the monopoly on the tea trade allowed the East India Company to lower prices, even with the existing tax on tea from the Townshend Acts included.
The prices were so low in fact, that it was designed to undercut American smugglers that illegally imported tea via trade with the Dutch. At the time, Dutch tea smuggled into the colonies accounted for as high as 90% of all tea consumed.1
The lowering of the price of British imported tea worried the Sons of Liberty as they feared colonists would waver and pay the unjust taxes simply because of the low price of tea.1
When the East India Company sent several ships to the Americas loaded down with tea, it set off a series of events culminating in the 1773 Boston Tea Party.
What Happened at the Boston Tea Party?
The Boston Tea Party is well-known as the event where Boston colonists dumped hundreds of chests of British tea into the Boston harbor in a show of rebellion against British policies.
When colonists heard the news that British ships carrying tea were on their way, the chief port cities all reacted in different ways.
In Charleston, the ships were allowed to enter, but then the tea was promptly allowed to rot in warehouses. In New York City the ships were warned not to land and the captain steered clear of the harbor. Finally, in Philadelphia, the captain was not allowed to enter, but the colonists gave him money and supplies for the return journey to Britain.2
Despite the rebellious nature of the other port cities’ reactions, it is typically the Boston Tea Party that receives historical attention.
When the East India Company tea ship Dartmouth arrived outside Boston, it was permitted to enter the harbor. Two more ships showed up in the following weeks carrying a large amount of tea in their holds.
The Boston Sons of Liberty received a lot of pressure from the other colonies to prevent the unloading of the tea. Colonial leaders knew that if British tea was allowed to be unloaded even at just one port, it would saturate the colonial tea market with tea at cheaper prices than the smuggled Dutch tea.3
One Philadelphian wrote, “You need not fear; the Tea will not be landed here or at New York. All we fear is that you will shrink at Boston.”1
A power struggle ensued whereby colonial protestors urged the ships to return to Britain while the Massachusetts Governor refused to allow the ships to leave without paying the import duty.
December 16, 1773 was the final day that Dartmouth could remain in the harbor without having its holds seized by customs agents.
With the standoff continuing, Boston protesters took matters into their own hands. Roughly 30-130 men, some dressed as Native Americans, marched to the harbor, boarded the three British tea ships, and proceeded to dump 342 chests of tea into the Boston harbor.4
This tea was valued at 9,659 pounds, or roughly $1.6 million in 2021 dollars.5
Who Led the Boston Tea Party?
Most historical accounts point to the Boston Sons of Liberty group as the leaders of the Boston Tea Party.
The Boston Sons of Liberty featured prominent members of Boston society at the time including John Adams, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and Dr. James Warren among others. Warren would later die at the Battle of Bunker Hill, a significant blow to the American cause.
Samuel Adams in particular is often mentioned as an inciter of the Boston Tea Party. Adams and the Sons of Liberty called a meeting on the morning of December 16 at the Old South Meeting House in Boston. A large number of colonists showed up—nearly 5,000—to discuss how to proceed next.
It is not conclusive whether Adams and the Sons of Liberty directed some of these protesters to don disguises (native dress) and destroy the tea. However, following the event the Sons of Liberty certainly defended the actions of the protesters as right and just.
In reality, behind the scenes the Boston Sons of Liberty was receiving enormous pressure from their counterparts in New York and Philadelphia to prevent the tea from unloading. If they failed, they would lose face with their correspondents and their entire movement would be in jeopardy.
Thus, one could argue that the real leaders behind the Boston Tea Party were, in fact, the Dutch tea smugglers and influential merchants from the middle colonies that wielded great power.
Without the enormous pressure placed upon the Bostonians to comply with their demands, The Boston Tea Party likely may not have occurred.1
Why Was the Boston Tea Party Seen as an Act of Rebellion?
The King of England and Parliament were appalled when news of the Boston Tea Party reached the British Isles. Even the few colonial supporters in Parliament could not support such a brazen display of rebellion.
Even in the Americas, colonists’ opinions of the event were divided. While many backed the defiance of the British, others simply could not support the blatant destruction of property.6
The Boston Tea Party was hardly the only act of rebellious behavior in the colonies.
In Edenton, North Carolina, fifty-one women met to support the colony’s resistance to the Tea Act. A meeting like this was unheard of at the time and is widely-considered the first organized women’s political meeting in British North America.4
Between the tea party and other acts of rebellion against the Townshend Acts and Tea Act, Parliament had a growing impression of lawlessness in the colonies.
To combat this lawlessness, Parliament resolved to come down hard on Boston. Boston was seen as the forefront of rebellion in the Americas that set a bad precedence for the other colonies.
Ironically, the opposite was true, as it is well-known that Boston was far less strict on the non-importation of British goods than other colonies.
This reaction led directly to Parliament’s passage of the Intolerable Acts, or Coercive Acts in 1774.
Colonists quickly forgot their hesitation towards the tea party and were nearly united in their opposition to these harsh acts. While most of these were targeted specifically at Massachusetts, other colonies were concerned Britain could eventually extend these unjust laws towards their own colonies.
The Tea Act and Boston Tea Party as well as the corresponding British response played an outsized role in escalating the conflicts that led directly to the American Revolution.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) CARP, BENJAMIN L. “Did Dutch Smugglers Provoke the Boston Tea Party?” Early American Studies, vol. 10, no. 2, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012, pp. 335–59, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23547671.
2) TAYLOR, THOMAS B. “THE PHILADELPHIA COUNTERPART OF THE BOSTON TEA PARTY.” Bulletin of Friends’ Historical Society of Philadelphia, vol. 2, no. 3, Friends Historical Association, 1908, pp. 86–110, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41944817.
3) Bell, Richard. Journal of Social History, vol. 45, no. 4, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 1158–60, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41678966.
4) Mead, Walter Russell. “The Tea Party and American Foreign Policy: What Populism Means for Globalism.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 90, no. 2, Council on Foreign Relations, 2011, pp. 28–44, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25800455.
5) Eric W. Nye, Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency, accessed Monday, December 06, 2021, https://www.uwyo.edu/numimage/currency.htm.
6) McDonnell, Michael A. “HISTORY, MYTH, AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA.” Reviews in American History, vol. 40, no. 2, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012, pp. 215–21, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41678550.