The Boston Tea Party

Word that a cargo of East India Company Tea was headed to Boston reached the city in August 1773. Newspapers such as Boston Post Boy and Boston Evening Post were soon reporting the delivery as part of an underhanded scheme by Lord North to "both designed to raise a revenue, and to establish parliamentary despotism in America." On October 21, the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence put the new system into action when it called on the other colonies to "be united" against the East India Company's attempt to unload British tyranny on American wharves. On November 5, 1773, the Boston Town Meeting met at Faneuil Hall and resolved that anyone involved in any attempt to unload the tea should be considered "an enemy to America."

The first of the tea ships, the Dartmouth, arrived in Boston on November 28 with 114 chests. The Eleanor and the Beaver arrived over the next two weeks. Massachusetts Bay's governor, Thomas Hutchinson, himself a native Bostonian, firmly believed that the landing the tea was not only a necessary example of Parliament's constitutional authority, it was also a personal matter because the tea had been consigned by the company to two of his sons for sale in Boston. It soon became clear that Boston's radicals would not allow the tea off the company's ships. Hutchinson therefore intended to invoke a law authorizing him to forcibly unload the cargo of any ship in the harbor that failed to pay the import taxes within three weeks. At the same time he would not clear the three ships to return to England. On the evening of December 16, when Samuel Adams learned of Hutchinson's final refusal to allows the ships to leave with the tea, he turned to a large crowd that had gathered at the Old South Meeting House and declared their meeting "can do nothing more to save the country." Right away, a group of men disguised as Mohawk warriors assembled outside and proceeded to Boston Harbor, where they boarded each of the ships and consigned the 342 casks of tea they carried, worth £10,000, to the water.

When news of the destruction of the tea reached Britain, the actions of the Boston radicals were almost universally condemned. Even America's friends in London could not condone the intemperate ruin of private property, especially in response to a law that had made tea more affordable for colonials. Some British Americans, such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, also thought that the Bostonians had gone too far. In no other colonial city had radicals acted with such harmful consequences. Their actions unintentionally accomplished what successive British ministries had attempted to do for more than a decade: isolate the Boston radicals as out of step with their fellow colonies and push them out of the driving seat of resistance to British authority.

Imperial policy makers, however, dramatically reversed Boston's isolation through a political mistake of epic proportions, although it could hardly be called a miscalculation. Lord North first intended only to address the criminal destruction of the tea, understanding full well that if the matter came under Parliament's consideration that its members would focus instead on settling the issue of constitutional sovereignty that Boston's radicals used to justify their recklessness, namely that Parliament had no authority to tax them. Unfortunately for Lord North, both the British attorney general and solicitor general reported that there was too little evidence to prosecute individuals for destroying the tea and the Crown's executive authority — as exercised by the ministers — did not extend to closing the Boston port or enacting any other punitive measure. If anything was to be done to teach Bostonians a lesson, it would have to be done by Parliament.

The result was the Coercive Acts of 1774—and the War for Independence.

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