December 16, 1773 was a pivotal day in American history. Three British East India Company ships, Beaver, Dartmouth, and Eleanor, were anchored in Boston Harbor carrying payloads of tea. Tax on that tea was to be paid at the time of unloading, and the deadline for the first tax collection was December 17. Since the first ship, Dartmouth, had arrived in late November, the Sons of Liberty, a revolutionary group seeking to combat unfair tax practices against the British colonists, had daily meetings calling for a rebellious act against the tea tax.
In an effort to protest peacefully, Patriots in Boston had offered the ships several opportunities to leave the harbor safely. Of course, none of the ships complied, resulting in illegal measures being taken. The Sons of Liberty planned for days. Many colonists petitioned Massachusetts lieutenant governor Thomas Hutchinson to force the ships to leave. However, Hutchinson refused to cede to the Patriots’ requests, and the Patriots took matters into their own hands.
Samuel Adams was likely a primary architect of the Boston Tea Party. The Sons of Liberty did not have a written manifesto of the event, but witnesses stated that at a Sons of Liberty meeting immediately before the Tea Party, Adams said, “This meeting can do nothing further to save the country!” That phrase was allegedly a signal to begin the actual destruction of tea. However, that claim has been disputed and remains unclear.
Around 7:00 p.m. on December 16, a group of men disguised as Mohawk Indians boarded the ships. They proceeded to dump all 342 cases of tea into Boston Harbor. Those 342 cases, comprising about 92,000 pounds of tea, had an inflation-adjusted value of about $1.7 million in today’s money. Interestingly, no one knows for sure how many men participated or the identities of those who did participate. Estimates range from 30 to 130 men, with the most common number being 60. The destruction took about three hours.
After the Boston Tea Party, Parliament was upset. Almost immediately (which in those days could be as many as two or three months after the event due to the slow nature of communication), Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, known as the Intolerable Acts in the Colonies. The Intolerable Acts essentially created martial law in Boston. Bostonians were forced to house occupying British soldiers without compensation. The other Acts closed Boston Harbor until the tea was paid for, and allowed accused royal administrators to be tried in Britain instead of the Colonies. Perhaps most egregiously, the Acts stripped Massachusetts of its status as a colony. All authority in Massachusetts was surrendered to British administrators.
Patriots continued to be subversive whenever they could. Samuel Adams publicly defended the actions of the Tea Party participants, though other Patriots such as Benjamin Franklin believed the East India Company should be paid for its loss. In fact, Franklin was in England at the time and was called to testify before Parliament.
Tea drinking became unpatriotic. In fact, the Boston Tea Party is almost solely responsible for the shift from tea to coffee in the States. The Boston Tea Party became a catalyst for both British oppression and colonial revolution. Ultimately the unrest would lead to a second, smaller tea destruction in 1774, the formation of the Continental Congress, and finally the Shot Heard ‘Round the World at Lexington and Concord in 1775.
Whatever the motives and whatever the merits to the Boston Tea Party, the result was ultimately positive. Britain tried several times between 1774 and 1779 to restore more autonomy to the colonies. However, fighting and revolution were too momentous, and the United States of America was born.
Celebrate today by enjoying a nice cup of hot coffee. Remember the Boston Tea Party. Remember the sacrifices made by colonists. And remember our country’s long heritage of individual responsibility and liberty.