Every young student of the American Revolution knows the story of the Boston Tea Party. The dastardly British imposed yet another tax on the colonists, this one on the importation of tea. Enraged by this affront to their liberty, the colonists rose up in rebellion. On Dec. 16, 1773, a large group of patriots, most from the Sons of Liberty, dressed themselves as Indians. They boarded British ships carrying government tea in Boston Harbor. Then they threw chests of tea overboard in violent protest.
The action instantly became a cause celebre that led directly to the events at Lexington and Concord two years later.
American history is rife with such myths as well as outright fiction. Much of that “knowledge” originated in the 19th century. Then it got carried forward into the 20th and 21st centuries. The culprits: poor historical research, sensational dime novels and acceptance as fact by the public without question. Plymouth Rock, the first Thanksgiving, and Paul Revere’s Ride are but three of countless skewed histories that have become “fact” through bad historical writing.
The Story of the Boston Tea Party
It is a wonderful, rabble-rousing story, and as with much popular history, it even has a grain of truth. The problem is that the real truth was much more complicated, and the history as most Americans know it was more myth than reality. Historical myths usually arise because the truth is either less glamourous, or less flattering. Like movie directors, 19th and 20th century historians never let truth get in the way of telling a good story.
Let’s start with something simple –- the event name. Of course, Bostonians immediately began to call it the “Boston Tea Party” and the name spread throughout the colonies. Except that they didn’t, and it didn’t. For 50 years after the event, it was known as “the destruction of the tea in Boston Harbor,” or variations. Not exactly a rallying cry for rebellion.
It wasn’t until 1825 that a newspaper reported that W. P. Hawes, at a dinner celebrating the landing of the Pilgrims, raised a toast to “The Boston Tea-party.” By the time the name became popular, and into modern times, most people assume that “party” means a “blast,” a “bash” or some type of celebratory event. “Party” served as a play on words to heighten the insult to the Crown.
In fact, even when Hawes coined the phrase, “party” referred to the group of men involved, not the event. When Nicholas Campbell died in 1829, his obituary referred to him as “…one of the ever memorable Boston Tea Party.” Careless use of a phrase created out of thin air has been repeated by historians who failed to do due diligence. That poor history then found its way, among other places, into school history books.
Regardless of the name, a pillar of the story is that colonists dressed as Indians. That must be true, right? Well…sort of, but not exactly! Some dressed as Indians, with a few histories claiming they dressed as Mohawks. But New Englanders didn’t know much about Mohawks, located mostly in the New York area. More likely, many men did dress as Indians, but probably more in a generic form than tribe specific. Many others simply took on any convenient disguise.
Remember, this was a highly illegal action. If caught, the perpetrators were destined for jail and hefty fines. The underlying text of the myth makes much of the Indian disguise. But it conveniently glosses over the essential fact that it was a disguise, including blackened faces, much as a robber wears a mask to hide his identity. The actions taken that day were criminal. As with most criminals, they went to great lengths to ensure they were not recognized. Of the hundreds of male participants in the act, only 116 have been identified by name. Most did not want their name associated with the action, even after the end of the Revolution.
Those Boxes of Tea
At least the image of men throwing chest of tea overboard is accurate. Boston Tea Party tours have often portrayed people throwing small boxes overboard (tied to ropes for recovery!) to reenact the event. But the real boxes filled with loose tea weighed 400 pounds! While we like to think of our ancestors as big and bold, they were not big enough to lift 400-pound boxes. Remember, this was an illegal act, and time was not on their side. They did dump tea into the harbor, however. They took the simple expedient of breaking open the crates and throwing the loose tea overboard. Unfortunately, many of the later popular illustrations of the event depict men throwing over boxes of tea intact.
What about the fact that they were attacking a King’s ship transporting the King’s tea? Surely that part of the story is true. Unfortunately, none of that is true. The three ships bringing tea into Boston Harbor, the Dartmouth, Eleanor and Beaver, were privately owned, colonial-built, colonial captained and crewed ships. They were transporting tea belonging to the East India Company, not the British government. The British government lost nothing monetarily. The government’s loss was solely to their honor. The monetary loss fell to the ships’ colonial owners and East India Company.
Throughout history, the loss of the tea to the owners comes as an afterthought. After all, how much could it have cost them? In fact, the loss was substantial. The colonists destroyed 340 chests of tea. The private owners of the tea, the East India Company, suffered a loss in today’s value of from $1.5 million to $2 million! They never recovered from the loss.
The ships’ owners would have also suffered a substantial loss since they were stuck with the remnants of a cargo they could not deliver. Therefore, they could not get paid for the trip. The act went well beyond simple vandalism. Mob mentality ruled the day, and among the losers at the time were their own colonial brothers.
The meeting that led to the destruction of the tea was chaired by Samuel Adams at the Old South Meeting House. It was largely in response to Massachusetts Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s refusal to let the tea ships leave without paying the duty. That is, Hutchinson wouldn’t let them leave without unloading but still paying the duty as though they had unloaded their cargo.
Almost half the population of Boston, 6,000 to 7,000 people, attended the meeting. It is difficult to know if Adams meant specifically for a mob to form and attack the tea ships. But his speech that day led just to that outcome.
The actions of the mob were, as most mob actions, not planned. But certainly, some of the Sons of Liberty must have been planning some action since people don’t normally have quick availability to disguises. In fact, of the thousands at the meeting, only a few hundred took part in any way in the actual dumping of the tea. While Adams may or may not have planned the destruction of the cargo, he had no problem immediately defending the actions of the mob. Proving that recreating history is not a modern invention, he claimed the act was not lawlessness. Instead, he argued, citizens legally protested the infringement of their rights.
Story of the Boston Tea Party Rallying Cry
Regardless of all the inaccuracies, surely the action was lauded by all the colonists and used as a rallying cry for eventual Revolution. That is a modern retelling rife with untruth. At the time, most condemned the action, and other similar, less violent ones that took place at New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Men such as George Washington did not support the action at Boston, and Benjamin Franklin even suggested that Massachusetts repay the East India Company. The fact that the participants hid their identities from everyone speaks volumes for their unpopularity.
Of course, the mainstay of the story of the Boston Tea Party is that this was yet another tax burden for the colonists, who were now saddled with higher prices for a necessary commodity. No wonder they rose in opposition. Sorry, completely false. There was no tax imposed or increased.
What the Tea Act did was to refund the East India Company’s 25 percent duty on importing tea into Britain. It also allowed them to export tea directly to the North American colonies through their own colonial merchants, cutting out the cost of the middleman. The Tea Act amounted to a buyout for the East India Company, which suffered losses on the tea they imported from India. It gave then a practical monopoly on tea because they could always undersell their competitors.
This effectively allowed the East India Company to undercut colonial importers and smugglers. It hurt the legal importers of tea who still had to pay the tax but had no recourse to a refund as did the East India Company. Therefore, they had to charge higher prices. But it especially hurt men such as Samuel Adams, John Hancock and others who had a thriving business smuggling Dutch East Indian tea. They could still smuggle the tea, but the prices they could charge were now higher, or at best equal to, the price the East India Company could charge.
Taxation Without Representation
Adams, Hancock and numerous others were the same merchants who coincidently belonged to the Sons of Liberty who staged the whole affair. They had a vested monetary interest in opposing the tax break given to the East India Company. Somehow, the merchant base of the Sons of Liberty, whose pockets were the most affected by the new Tea Act, managed to change the reality of cheaper tea for the consumer into an affront on their liberty.
The protest essentially became one of taxation without representation, always a hot-button issue in the colonies. In the past, this cause had a lot of merit, particularly when tied to the Parliamentary acts that taxed the colonies for multiple items, essentially to raise money for colonial governance. The Townsend Revenue Act of 1767 imposed yet another tax on tea and other commodities in the colonies, and it sparked widespread protest. By 1770, however, Parliament repealed the Act, except for the tax on tea. But the repeal of the act was enough to quell colonial protests.
Thus, it was not a tax hike, but a tax break to a competitor, that led to the dumping of the tea. The unrest due to taxation without representation still lay simmering below the surface. Some colonial leaders could easily stoke the fire with a little skewed propaganda. In reality, the 1773 protest against the importation of tea had little to do with this issue. It was not a colonial cause celebre.
An Alternate Story of the Boston Tea Party?
It is hard to “what-if” history. But it is interesting to speculate what would have happened if the British did not overdramatize an event that, at the time, did not have widespread support. That support came only after the British government overreacted by instituting the Coercive Acts of 1774. Only then did the dumping of the tea in Boston Harbor begin to gain popular appeal as a rallying cry against real and perceived wrongs.
Images: Brig Beaver at Boston Tea Party Museum By City of Boston Archives from West Roxbury, United States – Brig Beaver and Boston Tea Party Museum, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37036640. East India coat of arms By This W3C-unspecified vector image was created with Inkscape . – Own work, based upon , CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15648243.