Monday, December 17, 2018

Remembering the Boston Tea Party on its 245th Anniversary

On December 16, 1773, a third ship entered Boston Harbor carrying a load of tea courtesy of the British East India Company. The Beaver was the last to arrive, as the final ship William ran aground at Cape Cod several days before. The Dartmouth, which had arrived on November 28, and the Eleanor, which had arrived December 2, were still loaded with over 100 cases of tea each – and Bostonians were refusing to unload the tea and pay the required tax.

Parliament levying taxes on the colonies was no new issue. Especially since the end of the French and Indian War (1756–1763), the British government had been trying to find a way to raise revenue that would pay for the cost of running and defending their newly enlarged empire in the Americas. Earlier laws such as the Sugar Act (1764) and Stamp Act (1765) had been met with consternation, as the colonies believed they were being forced to pay taxes for which they and their representatives had not voted. While these previous acts caused such an uproar that they were subsequently repealed, Parliament bitterly passed the Declaratory Act in 1766, insisting they had the right to legislate the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.”

The town of Boston in New England by John Bonner (ca. 1723 – 1733)
courtesy of the Boston Public Library’s Norman B. Leventhal Map Center

The issue of “taxation without representation” revived with the passage of the Townshend Revenue Act in 1767, which placed taxes on glass, lead, painters' colors, tea, and paper and reaffirmed the legality of the writs of assistance to combat smuggling. Another act passed only days later, the Indemnity Act reduced taxes on the struggling British East India Company and allowed them to sell their tea more cheaply in the colonies. However, American merchants protested by organizing a non-importation agreement and discontent culminated in the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. That year, in the wake of this backlash, the Townshend Acts were also repealed except for the duty on tea.

The legislation in favor of the East India Company did not help the company get back in good standing, and by the time the Indemnity Act expired in 1772 it was in even more dire circumstances. Therefore, Parliament passed the Tea Act in 1773, which allowed the East India Company to ship directly to the colonies, who were now responsible for paying importation duties. The act also allowed the appointment of colonial merchants to receive the tea on consignment. These consignees were chosen by the royal governors, who often chose their favorites for their position. The Governor of Massachusetts Bay, Thomas Hutchinson, chose two of his own sons to be tea brokers. These terms were no better than those originally put in place by the Townshend Acts, and when the Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver arrived with their loads of tea, the people of Boston wanted them sent back to England.

Notice from the "Chairman of the Committee for Tarring and Feathering" in Boston who denounced the tea consignees as "traitors to their country" (1773)

Unfortunately, the only person who could send back the ships was Governor Hutchinson, whose sons were set to make a fortune as tea brokers. Governor Hutchinson refused to send the ships back and demanded that the ships be unloaded and the duties paid. With neither side willing to settle, the ships sat in the harbor awaiting the deadline when the taxes must be paid: December 17.

Several meetings occurred in the days leading up to the deadline, with citizens from across Massachusetts trying to figure out a way to prevent the East India Company ships from being unloaded. The ships’ owners, from Nantucket and Boston, and the captains did not want to risk their ships by trying to leave Boston Harbor without governmental permission. Hutchinson still refused to let the ships go. Finally on December 16, thousands had gathered first in the streets, then Faneuil Hall, and finally at the Old South Meeting House to await the final judgement.

During the meeting it was decided that Francis Rotch, owner of the Beaver and Dartmouth, and an accompanying committee would approach the Customs House and demand a pass for the ships to leave the harbor. As it was not under their authority to issue a pass, Rotch and the committee were forced to go out to Milton, Massachusetts, where Hutchinson was staying at his country estate. After traveling over ten miles for the meeting, Rotch and the committee were once again denied.

The other attendees of the meeting had been waiting for hours for Rotch and his committee to return with news. Unknown to many of them, the Sons of Liberty had secretly planned to take action. After the news of the final denial was delivered to the crowd at the Old South Meeting House, Sam Adams declared, “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!” With this signal, the Sons of Liberty emerged from the meeting house and marched to the Harbor.

Boston Tea Party by W.D. Cooper (1789) courtesy of the Library of Congress

The participants in the Boston Tea Party riot were described as disguised in “Indian dress,” though it seems unlikely that they would be mistaken for actual Native Americans. According to the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, the symbolism of the costumes is more likely to be a statement of citizenship, identifying the colonists as Americans rather than British subjects.  Numbering in the hundreds, these men climbed aboard the three ships and smashed open about 340 chests of tea, weighing over 92,000 pounds, dumping them into the Harbor. Curiously, the ships were not damaged, nor was anything other than the tea stolen or looted. The captains and their crew were not harmed.

After the Tea Party, many participants fled Boston to avoid arrest, and some participants remained anonymous for many years for fear of being arrested. Only one man, Francis Akeley, was caught and imprisoned for his participation. Still not all of the participants are known, but the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum has a list of men who took part on their website. What is remarkable about this list is that most of their names are not recognizable today. These everyday people were mostly of English descent, though men of Irish, Scottish, French, Portuguese, and African ancestry also made up the hundreds that participated that night. Recently, colonial reenactors working with the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum marked dozens of gravestones at the Central Burying Ground in Boston to indicate the final resting place of men who took part in the Boston Tea Party. This gesture will remind future visitors that the American Revolution and the creation of the United States took place because everyday people stood up to make a difference.

Tea leaves in glass bottle collected on the shore of Dorchester Neck the morning of 17 December 1773,
courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Alexandra Bernson
Reference staff