Object of the Month

"Boston Harbor a tea-pot tonight"

Tea leaves in glass bottle collected on the shore of Dorchester Neck the morning of 17 December 1773 Glass bottle containing tea

Tea leaves in glass bottle collected on the shore of Dorchester Neck the morning of 17 December 1773

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This small glass bottle contains tea leaves gathered on the shore of Dorchester Neck, across the harbor from Boston, on 17 December 1773, the morning after the Boston Tea Party. This is one of five relics of the Boston Tea Party (including tea caddies said to have been emptied at the Tea Party, and a china punch bowl from which participants are said to have drunk) in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Tea Act of 1773

The seeds of the Boston Tea Party were sown in the spring of 1773, when Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773 in an attempt to prevent the East India Company from going bankrupt. This act authorized the company to sell a half million pounds of tea directly to the colonies, without paying the usual duties and tariffs. This meant that the East India Company could undersell anyone, including smugglers, whose tea colonists had been drinking almost exclusively since the passage of the Townshend Acts that placed taxes on everyday items like glass, paper, and tea in 1767 (all the Townshend Acts except that on tea had been repealed in 1770). Parliament reasoned that if the colonists could buy East India Company tea more cheaply than any other, they would begin drinking it again, thus saving the company. Instead, the act revived the colonists' old argument about taxation without representation and led to the events of 16 December.

Destruction of the tea in Boston Harbor

On the night of 16 December 1773, a party of marauding "Indians" boarded three vessels--Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver--that were moored at Griffin's Wharf in Boston, intending to destroy their cargoes of East India Company tea. This act was the culmination of many days of posturing, threats, and counter-threats among the merchants and government officials and the radical colonists. Incensed at the landing of three ships carrying East India Company tea in late November, colonists had been blocking the unloading of the tea and convening meetings of their local Committees of Correspondence, which demanded that the tea be returned to England without delay.

Earlier that day, a mass meeting at the Old South Church attracted thousands of people from Boston and the surrounding towns, including patriots Samuel Adams, James Warren, and Josiah Quincy, Jr. After a day of inflammatory discourse, Governor Thomas Hutchinson's refusal to allow the ships in port to leave without discharging their cargoes of tea was apparently the last straw. Samuel Adams rose, announcing that he did not see what more the inhabitants could to do save their country. At this, war-whoops filled the hall, and between 30 and 60 men, disguised as Indians, rushed out of the hall and into the streets of Boston, heading for Griffin's Wharf and its three tea-laden ships. In all, 340 large wooden chests containing some 90,000 pounds of tea were dumped into Boston Harbor that night. To this day the identities of the participants in the "tea party" are shrouded in mystery, but historian Benjamin W. Labaree identifies members of the Sons of Liberty, freemasons, and members of local Committees of Correspondence as the most likely "Indians." (Please see our online presentation of the Boston Sons of Liberty in 1769.)

The End of the Empire

Although the Boston Tea Party did not attract the level of empathy and support from the other colonies that radical Bostonians might have wished, the punishment for the destruction of the tea certainly did. In 1774, Parliament passed the so-called "Coercive" or "Intolerable Acts": the Quartering Act (originally passed in 1765, but expanded in 1774); the Boston Port Bill (which closed the port of Boston entirely until damages were paid); the Administration of Justice Act (which indemnified officials of the Crown from prosecution in the colonies); the Massachusetts Government Act (annulling the charter of the colony, returning control to England, and banning town meetings); and the Quebec Act (although not passed in reaction to the destruction of the tea, the Quebec Act was very unpopular in America). Although largely aimed directly at Massachusetts, these restrictive acts bound the American colonies together in a way that King George and Parliament never predicted, leading to the formation of the first Continental Congress and the American Revolution.

Suggestions for further reading:

Hart, Albert Bushnell, ed. Commonwealth History of Massachusetts: Volume Second, Province of Massachusetts 1689-1775 (New York: Russell & Russell, 1966).

Labaree, Benjamin Woods. The Boston Tea Party (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1979).

Labaree, Benjamin Woods. Colonial Massachusetts: A History. (Millwood, New York: KTO Press, 1979).

Young, Alfred F. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).