What Prompted the Boston Tea Party? | History Hit

What Prompted the Boston Tea Party?

Amy Irvine

15 Dec 2023
Boston Tea Party
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Cornischong at lb.wikipedia / Public Domain

16 December 2023 marks 250 years since the Boston Tea PartyOnce dubbed the “most magnificent movement of all” by John Adams, the Boston Tea Party marked the first major act of defiance and challenge against British authority, demonstrating how Americans would not passively accept taxation and oppression.

The event ignited a spirit of resistance among patriots throughout the 13 colonies, galvanising their fight for independence and eventually leading to the American revolution. What factors led to the Boston Tea Party, and why did it have such significance?

On 16 December 1773, a band of American patriots quietly boarded three ships in Boston Harbour, under the cover of night. Armed with axes and hatchets, they pried open the crates on board and poured their contents into the ocean. The crates contained tea; black-leaved Bohea and green tea from China. Some 92,000 pounds of it cascaded over the side in protest of British taxation in the American colonies. These men were known as the Sons of Liberty, and they had just lit a powder keg that would lead to the explosive American revolution, and shake the British Empire to its core. In this Explainer episode, Dan takes us through the twists and turns of this foundational event in American and world history.
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Seven Years War (1756-1763)

Although the Seven Years War (known in the US more commonly as the French and Indian War) encompassed multiple nations, the main belligerents were the British and French Empires. Seeking territorial expansion across several continents, both suffered significant casualties and accumulated substantial debt to fund their protracted struggle for territorial dominance.

The most pivotal battleground was in North America, which in 1756 had been geographically split between the empires of the British, French and Spanish. Through costly yet key victories at Quebec and Fort Niagara, the British emerged triumphant, annexing substantial swathes of previously held French territory in Canada and the Mid-West via the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

While this British victory had eradicated the immediate French and Native Indian threat (to some extent) to Britain’s 13 American colonies, military and naval expenditures had nearly doubled Britain’s national debt to £133 million. Consequently, the British thought it fair to impose higher taxes on its 13 colonies, having accrued the debt fighting wars on the colonists’ behalf.

The colonists disagreed, and this colonial taxation brought about heightened economic hardship in the US, underscoring the cultural disparities and ideological differences between the colonists and the British mainland.

Taxes and duties

In 1765, Britain introduced the Stamp Act, which imposed a tax on printed materials – i.e. virtually every piece of paper used in the colonies. Colonists vehemently protested the imposition of new direct taxation on these, compelling the British Government to eventually repeal the legislation a year later. However, further taxes followed.

The rallying cry of “No taxation without representation” became an iconic slogan, succinctly summarising colonial outrage and objection at being taxed against their will and without representation in Parliament.

The introduction of the Townshend Duties in 1767 and 1768 imposed new forms of indirect taxation on imported goods such as glass, paint, paper, lead and tea. The revenue raised helped pay the salaries of colonial governors and judges – perceived by the colonists as the British buying their loyalty.

The imposition of these duties sparked fury in the colonies, becoming the main root of spontaneous and violent opposition. Fuelled by propaganda leaflets and posters, such as those created by Paul Revere, colonists engaged in riots and organised merchant boycotts. Eventually, the colonial response was met with severe repression, with British troops sent to enforce the duties.

Boston Massacre (1770)

Just a year after the imposition of the Townshend Duties, the governor of Massachusetts urged the remaining 12 colonies to join his state and unite in opposition against the British, advocating for a boycott of their goods. Simultaneously, a riot erupted in Boston over the seizure of a ship, aptly named Liberty, involved in smuggling.

Despite these signs of unrest, there was no indication that the colonies were seriously contemplating fighting their British rulers until the infamous Boston massacre.

In March 1770, a group of redcoats guarding the Boston Customs House were accosted by a large crowd in the city, and bombarded with snowballs and more dangerous missiles as the cold and irate townspeople vented their anger toward the British soldiers. Amidst the chaos, they suddenly opened fire after a soldier was knocked down, resulting in the British shooting dead 5 colonists and injuring 6 others.

The Boston Massacre, 1770

Image Credit: Paul Revere, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

While the Boston Massacre is often portrayed as the inevitable start of a revolution, it initially prompted the British government to retract the Townshend Duties, except the tea tax, briefly suggesting that the crisis had abated. However, radicals such as Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson sustained the simmering resentment, keeping the revolutionary fervour alive.

What happened at The Boston Tea Party?

The British government failed to make further political concessions, missing the chance to avert rebellion. Instead, increasing widespread agitation by organised groups became widespread. In 1772, a British ship enforcing unpopular trade regulations was set ablaze by enraged patriots, and Samuel Adams initiated the creation of Committees of Correspondence – a network of rebels across all 13 colonies. 

However, it was in December 1773 when the most iconic and blatant demonstration of anger and resistance took place.

In May 1773, the British parliament had passed the Tea Act, which permitted the British East India Company to sell tea to the colonies duty-free, and much cheaper than other tea companies, yet still tax the tea once it reached colonial ports. These rising duties and perceived assault on liberties exacerbated tensions.

In November and December that same year, the first shipments of tea arrived in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston. While most governors turned the ships around or unloaded the tea into a holding warehouse to deescalate tensions, Thomas Hutchinson, the Governor of Massachusetts, refused to allow the ships to return to Britain, demanding the tea be unloaded and sold with the duties collected.

“The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor”, lithograph depicting the 1773 Boston Tea Party

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Nathaniel Currier, 1896 / Public Domain

Subsequently, after a meeting of the Sons of Liberty network on the evening of 16 December 1773, a group of around 100 colonists, led by Samuel Adams, boarded the East India Company‘s 3 trade ships (the DartmouthEleanor, and the Beaver), that were docked at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston’s harbour, and poured 342 chests of British tea that belonged to the East India Company (weighing 46 tonnes and worth close to $1,700,000 in today’s currency) into the sea.

News of the dramatic yet largely peaceful incident spread quickly, and while in sympathy with the colonists, some prominent figures thought it wrong; George Washington believed private property was sacrosanct, and Benjamin Franklin insisted the British East India Company be reimbursed.

(The act itself, now famously termed the ‘Boston Tea Party’, wasn’t immediately known as such. The term was first used in print around 1826, but it took until the 1830s until it became a common way of describing the event – perhaps in a satirical manner, or to downplay any associations of violence.)

Dan Snow travels from Massachusetts to London to reveal the global story of the Boston Tea Party.
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Rather than appease the rebels, Britain’s parliament responded with a series of restrictive Coercive Acts (Intolerable Acts) on Massachusetts in early 1774, aimed at punishing Massachusetts. These measures – notably the Boston Port Act (which effectively shut down Boston’s port to all trade until the East India Company was reimbursed for the tea thrown in the harbour) – intensified colonial unity and led to the formation of the First Continental Congress in September 1774.

Here, delegates including George Washington, Samuel Adams and John Adams discussed countering Britain’s aggression, and how they could coordinate resistance against it. In the ensuing ‘Sussex Resolves’, citizens were ordered not to obey the ‘Intolerable Acts’, to boycott imported goods from Britain, and to raise a militia.

In April 1775 the first shots of the American War of Independence were fired as British troops clashed with militia men at the twin battles of Lexington and Concord. British reinforcements landed in Massachusetts and defeated the rebels at Bunker Hill in June – the first major battle. After the British withdrew into Boston, they were besieged by an army commanded by General, and future president, George Washington.

On 26 October 1775 King George III declared the American colonies to be in a state of rebellion, authorising the use of force against the rebels for the first time.

Declaration of Independence

Declaration of Independence, painted by John Trumbull.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

By 4 July 1776, the Second Continental Congress had adopted the Declaration of Independence, proclaiming the separation of 13 American British colonies from Britain. This enabled the colonists to solidify an official alliance with France, and obtain French assistance, paving the way for their future victory.

Amy Irvine