Boston 1773: The Destruction of the Tea
Inquiry Question 1: How did social, economic, and political factors contribute to the events of the Boston Tea Party?
Inquiry Question 2: How did the reactions to the Boston Tea Party demonstrate the growing divisions between the various interested parties in the political and economic future of the American colonies?
Background reading for students
December 16, 1773: The Destruction of the Tea
On the night of December 16, 1773, around 150 patriots, most of whom were members of a group known as the Sons of Liberty, walked to Boston Harbor. They waited until nightfall and wore disguises – costuming themselves as Native Americans – to hide their identities. The men boarded three British ships – the Beaver, the Eleanor, and the Dartmouth – which were docked in the harbor and dumped 340 crates of valuable tea, owned by the East India Company. The protestors were quietly cheered on by a large group of colonists who watched the event.
Though several armed British soldiers witnessed the scene, they made no attempt to arrest the patriots. No shots were fired, but the event became one of the most significant of the American Revolution.
What led to this event? In 1770, the British eliminated taxes on everything but tea. Parliament retained the tea tax to show the colonists that England had the right to tax them. Colonists began a boycott of English tea, and some colonists stopped drinking tea altogether. Consumption of tea in the colonies fell from 900,000 pounds of tea in 1769 to 237,000 pounds of tea in 1772. English tea stacked up in warehouses and the East India Tea Company faced financial disaster.
Parliament passed the Tea Act in 1773, which made the price of English tea lower than the price from other tea merchants. Colonists still refused to buy English tea because the tax tea still existed. The colonists saw the Tea Act as yet another law passed by King George III designed to increase control over the colonies.
The Boston Tea Party helped unite the colonists and inspired them to push for increased American independence. King George and Parliament were furious with the colonists and punished them with yet more acts, known together as the Coercive Acts. The people of Boston did not give in to British pressure. Instead, the colonies grew even more united in their hatred of the British policies that were imposed upon them. "NO TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION" became the motto of the colonists.
“Let every man do his duty, and be true to his country!”
Duty: a tariff; a payment charged on the import, export, manufacture, or sale of goods. This increases the cost of these items to consumers. In this case, the British government collected the duties charged on certain products and then got to choose how that money was spent. The colonists viewed this as taxation without the political representation to voice how that money was then spent.
Loyalists: Americans who supported the British government, rather than the Sons of Liberty or other patriots advocating for significant changes in British policies in colonial America.
Nonconsumption: a form of protest or dissent where certain products or services are not purchased and not used for a specific reason. Today, we call it a 'boycott.'
Nonimportation: a form of protest or dissent where certain products are not imported into a country either done by a group of merchants / traders (as in the case for the Boston Tea Party), or it can also be done by a country as a whole.
Analyzing Point of View and Purpose
As you read the sources, consider:
Who is telling this account of the events surrounding the Boston Tea Party?
What is the relationship between the source creator and the events at the Boston Tea Party?
Who is the intended audience of this source?
How does that impact the credibility or reliability of the source?
What overall message does this source give about the Boston Tea Party?
Created by MHS staff, Abigail Portu, Kate Bowen, and J.L. Bell
Throw aside your Bohea, and your Green Hyson Tea,
And all things with a new fashion duty ;
Procure a good store of the choice Labradore,
For there'll soon be enough here to suit ye.
Printed in 1767, this poem printed in a Boston area newspaper demonstrated early colonist dissent to the duties Parliament was placing on the sale of British goods in the colonies, specifically the Townshend Act taxing glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea. Citizens protested these examples of “taxation without representation” through boycotts, or nonconsumption, of British goods. Because women handled many of the family purchases, this verse was geared toward them and encouraged buying colonial-made products and local Labradore herbal tea versus other imported varieties. While Parliament repealed the Townshend Acts in 1770, the tax on tea remained. Colonists' protests resulted in increased British military presence in MA, which in turn compelled patriots to push for nonimportation and place greater economic pressure on Great Britain.
Citation: "Address to the Ladies," Verse from page 3 of The Boston Post-Boy & Advertiser, Number 535, 16 November 1767, Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/380.
You are hereby advised and warned by no means to be taken in by the deceitful Bait of those who falsely stile themselves Friends of Liberty.
On 10 May 1773, British Parliament authorized the Tea Act. The duty on tea would no longer be charged to the East India Company for shipping tea into the colonies, but instead customs officials would tax the tea as it was unloaded from ships at the port. Tea agents, who were given exclusive rights to wholesale the East India Company’s tea in North America, paid the tariff and factored it into their selling prices. Thus, tea would be more expensive for consumers.
In November 1773, colonists knew tea was on its way and Boston patriots called a “tea meeting,” and demanded that the tea agents (including Governor Hutchinson's two sons) attend and publicly resign from their commissions. This November 1773 broadside supported the rights of merchants in colonial America to import British tea and pay the tariff, despite the calls for nonimportation. Signed by the “True Sons of Liberty,” this broadside did little to stop growing frustrations in Boston, or the mobs that would soon begin storming tea agent firms and organizing the Boston Tea Party.
Citation: Tradesmen Protest the Tea Meetings, Broadside , 3 November 1773, Boston: printed by E. Russell, 1773, Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/database/398.
Tea that was gathered up on the shore of Dorchester Neck on the morning after the destruction of the three cargos at Boston December 17, 1773
Tea culture played an important role in colonial society. Colonists of all classes consumed tea daily, including at meals. The majority of tea was imported from China by the East India Company, and many colonists also bought porcelain tea sets imported from China, further demonstrating the global reach of the British Empire. A porcelain punch bowl owned by the Edes family (a patriot and newspaper publisher) was used in a gathering in the hours before they went down to Griffin’s Wharf to dump the tea into Boston Harbor. The small glass bottle filled with tea leaves was collected on the shore of Dorchester Neck (on Boston Harbor) on 17 December 1773, the morning after the Boston Tea Party, by a citizen who wanted a souvenir of the event.
Citation: "Tea leaves in glass bottle collected on the shore of Dorchester Neck the morning of 17 December 1773," Glass bottle containing tea, Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/database/231.
they Opend the Hatches hoisted
Out the Tea & flung it Overboard -
this might I beleive have been prevented
I am sincerely sorry for the Event
John Rowe was a British-born merchant well-known and well-connected in colonial Boston. He co-owned the Eleanor, one of the ships whose tea was thrown overboard at the Boston Tea Party. Though he had no financial interest in the tea itself, he did not want his ship itself to be damaged or confiscated. Many witnesses attested to seeing Rowe at Old South Meeting House on 16 December 1773 and he is recorded to have said to the crowd, “Perhaps salt water and tea will mix tonight!” However, Rowe was a “trimmer” who metaphorically adjusted his sails to whatever was popular or to his advantage. His diary does not reflect the same sentiment as his verbal comments earlier in the night.
Citation: John Rowe diary 10, 16 December 1773, page 1727, Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/database/525.
This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences, and so lasting, that I cant but consider it as an Epocha in History.
John Adams, a well-respected attorney, was not in Boston the night of the Boston Tea Party, but wrote about the events in his diary the next day. Adams was a Patriot, but he advised Loyalists and Sons of Liberty alike. He had even defended the British soldiers the Boston Massacre trial three years prior. Francis Rotch, owner of the ships Dartmouth and Eleanor, also sought Adams’s advice in trying to determine his rights and responsibilities in the prickly case of returning the Dartmouth to London. Nonetheless, while Adams knew Parliament would have a swift response to the destruction of the tea, he celebrated the protestors’ actions.
Citation: John Adams diary 19, page 28, 16 December 1772 - 18 December 1773, Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/D19.
The late Measures and Pro-ceedings in the Town of Boston, in the Detention and Destruction of the Teas belonging to the East-India Company, were illegal and unjust and of a dangerous Tendency.
Local reactions to the Boston Tea Party were mixed. While there was strong support for resistance to British oppression in Boston itself, elsewhere the Tea Party was divisive due to its more radical nature. Rural areas tended to be more neutral, while other areas, like Marshfield, were politically dominated by Loyalists. On 31 January 1774, Marshfield townspeople formally expressed their disapproval of the Tea Party during their town meeting. This account was published in the Massachusetts Gazette, a Loyalist newspaper.
In 1775, Marshfield would be the one town in Massachusetts (outside of Boston) where General Thomas Gage stationed troops and imagined forming a local pro-Crown militia.
Citation: "At a Town-Meeting held in Marshfield ..." Article from pages 1-2 of The Massachusetts Gazette; and the Boston Post-Boy and Advertiser, Number 859, 31 January - 7 February 1774, Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/database/411.
This 1774 political cartoon represents the political aftermath of the Boston Tea Party. Lord North, with the "Boston Port Bill" (the first of the Coercive Acts) sticking out of his pocket, is depicted forcing tea down the throat of a partially clothed Indigenous American female figure, while two other members of Parliament, Lord Mansfield and Lord Sandwich, assist in the assault. The government officials are backed by the power of the military. In British political cartoons, the American colonies were often represented by Indigenous people, marking them as different from and weaker than other Britons, despite their being British citizens. Published in Britain, this cartoon shows that people beyond a small group of radical patriots thought Parliament’s reaction to the Tea Party was severe.
Citation: "The Able Doctor, or America Swallowing the Bitter Draught," engraving by unidentified British artist, 1774, Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/database/421.
WHEREAS in His Majesty's Province of Massachusetts-Bay, in New-Eng-land, an Attempt hath lately been made to throw off the Authority of the Parliament of Great-Britain over the said Province; and an actual and avowed Resistance, by open Force, to the Execution of certain Acts of Parliament, hath been suffered to take place, uncontrouled and unpunished… be it enacted…
The Intolerable Acts, known as the “Coercive Acts” in their time, were a series of four acts passed by Parliament in reaction to the Boston Tea Party. The first was the Boston Port Bill, followed by the Massachusetts Government Act and Administration of Justice Act, and finally a Quartering Act. Collectively, these policies closed the port of Boston to trade until the city paid for all the destroyed tea, put the entire colony under more direct control by the Crown and limited local self-government, required all British soldiers and officials to be sent back to Britain for any trials they were involved in within Massachusetts, and put royal governors across all the colonies in charge of finding housing for British soldiers instead of colonial legislatures. While the first two acts were geared directly at regaining control and punishing Massachusetts, the impact of the final two were felt by all of the American colonies.
Citation: "The following extraordinary Bills now pending in Parliament ..." Broadside, Boston: printed by Edes and Gill, 1774, Massachusetts Historical Society, https://www.masshist.org/database/686.
The Destruction of the Tea
The Destruction of the Tea: Historical Context Essay
- The Background
After the Seven Years’ War, the British government in London sought to have subjects in North America and the Caribbean pay more of the costs of running the empire. Parliament first tried the Stamp Act in 1765, which provoked so much resistance that the government collected almost no money from the mainland colonies. The debate over that law instead produced a new slogan for what people argued was a fundamental principle of British government: “No taxation without representation.”
In Britain, that principle was widely accepted to mean that only the elected House of Commons could determine how the British people were taxed. North Americans interpreted the same principle to mean that only the legislatures they elected within their colonies could lay taxes on them. Parliament disagreed, arguing that as the supreme legislature of the empire it had sovereign power everywhere. (Representation was quite limited already. In both Britain and the colonies, only white men with property were allowed to vote at all; they made the choices for women, children, the poor, and the enslaved.)
In 1767, the government in London decided that the most acceptable way to collect more revenue from North America was to tax certain goods shipped there from Britain. That form of tax was called “tariffs” or “duties.” Under the new Townshend Act, officials in the customs department collected tariffs from merchants importing paper, glass, painters’ colors and lead, and tea. That money was to go toward paying salaries for the governors, judges, customs officers, and other officials administering the colonies—almost all appointed directly or indirectly by the government in London, not elected. Royal salaries insulated those officials from the people they governed. Once again, the colonists showed their objections to this new arrangement through petitions, boycotts, and occasional riots.
In 1770, a new British prime minister, Lord North, led Parliament in repealing most of the Townshend Act tariffs, leaving only the tax on tea—the tax that brought in most of the revenue. That money was still going to pay royal appointees in North America. Activists urged their fellow colonists to keep boycotting tea—particularly women (Source 1), who usually handled buying food for their households—but those calls had little effect.
The Tea Act of 1773
In 1773, Lord North turned to a new problem. The large and politically well-connected British East India Company was in financial trouble. That mercantile enterprise had been set up in the 1600s to trade with the countries of South Asia (modern India, Ceylon, Pakistan, and Bangladesh), which in turn traded with East Asia (particularly China). The company was so big that its failure could damage Britain’s economy and world standing. Lord North designed a new law that lowered the tariffs that the East India Company paid to bring tea into Great Britain and also for the first time let the company sell tea in North America.
That law would have additional benefits, Lord North thought. It made the tea tariff easier to collect since the East India Company would pay that tax in London as soon as it learned the cargos had landed in North America. Because the company’s agents would sell its tea, instead of working through a chain of middlemen, the price that American consumers paid would probably be lower than before. That price might even be so low that colonists would stop buying tea smuggled in from Dutch territories, keeping their money within the British economy.
In September 1773, the provisions of the Tea Act were published in North American newspapers. (It usually took six weeks for news to cross the Atlantic.) Then more details arrived, including the names of the merchants selected as the East India Company’s sales agents in the four largest ports: Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Charleston, South Carolina.
Instead of accepting the new law, most North American politicians objected to it just as strongly as they had objected to the previous revenue laws. This was just another form of taxation without representation, newspaper writers said. Furthermore, if the government in London could decide that one company had special rights to sell tea in North America, and that company could select just a handful of merchants in each major port as its agents, what would stop Parliament from other ways of restricting how colonists did business? However, American activists also knew that once tea arrived in shops, it was very difficult to keep up a boycott against it.
In Massachusetts, complaints about the new Tea Act were especially strong because the colony’s legislature already distrusted the royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson. The year before, some private letters that Hutchinson and his political allies had sent to England had been leaked to the Massachusetts legislature. As Samuel Adams and other activists interpreted those letters, they showed Hutchinson and his friends conspiring to change the colony’s constitution and take away people’s political rights. Now the Tea Act appeared to benefit Hutchinson in two ways. First, some revenue from the tariff would go to him as a salary. Second, Hutchinson’s sons were among the handful of merchants appointed to sell the East India Company’s tea in Boston.
- The Escalating Confrontation
The Boston activists’ first tactic was to put pressure on the East India Company’s agents, demanding they meet under Liberty Tree and promise not to accept the tea. Those men ignored the summons (Source 2). On November 3, a crowd, riled up by fervent leaders like the merchant William Molineux, attacked the warehouse of the Clarke family, one of the firms designated to handle the tea. No one was hurt, but both sides saw the possibility of more violence.
Town leaders, wanting to appear to be the more reasonable side, started to rein in the crowd. On November 5, Boston had a town meeting to formally object to the Tea Act with John Hancock presiding. More meetings followed, so large that they moved from Faneuil Hall to the Old South Meetinghouse, the town’s largest church. Those “Meetings of the Body of the People” were open to anyone regardless of whether they owned enough property to vote or even lived in Boston. (Almost all of the attendees were still probably white men, though.)
Meanwhile, most of the tea agents and customs house officers moved for safety to Castle William, a fortified island in Boston harbor guarded by the British army. Governor Hutchinson retreated to his country house in Milton. The painter John Singleton Copley tried to be an intermediary between the meetings and his new in-laws, the Clarke family, but got nowhere.
The East India Company had divided its shipment of tea to Boston among four ships: the Dartmouth, Eleanor, William, and Beaver. On November 28, the Dartmouth entered Boston harbor.
Once a ship had officially arrived in a harbor of the British Empire, its captain had twenty days to unload. If the crew did not follow that rule, the customs service could confiscate both the cargo and the ship. Another rule forbade ships from leaving a harbor without unloading; if a captain tried to leave that way, the customs service and the Royal Navy could seize his ship. In Boston harbor, the soldiers at Castle William might even fire cannons at a ship trying to leave. Either way, the ship owners could lose valuable property.
On November 29, the “Body of the People” took action to keep the tea on the Dartmouth from being landed, thus preventing the government from collecting the tariff. Men volunteered to patrol the wharf where the tea ships were moored, both to make sure nobody unloaded the tea and to protect those ships from unauthorized damage. They allowed other cargo to be taken off those ships. Among those goods from the Dartmouth were copies of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, printed in London.
The tea ship London reached Charleston, South Carolina, on December 1. The people there also opposed the landing of the tea. In response, the East India Company’s local agents declined to accept the cargo. Royal officials at that port decided to let that tea be locked in a warehouse, bending the law to say those chests had not legally arrived.
The tea ship Eleanor arrived in Boston on December 2 and was moored beside the Dartmouth near Griffin’s Wharf.
The men who owned those tea ships were anxious to preserve their vessels from being destroyed by the people or confiscated by the royal government. Possibly trying to win over the crowd in Old South, ship owner John Rowe asked aloud “whether a little salt water would not do it [the tea] good.” Eventually one owner, Francis Rotch of Dartmouth (now New Bedford), became the principal go-between, trying to negotiate an end to the stand-off that would preserve his property.
On December 10, the tea ship William wrecked on Cape Cod. Some of its tea chests were salvaged and moved to Castle William. On December 13, the people of rural Lexington burned their supplies of tea in a bonfire to show solidarity with the boycott.
The customs office’s twenty-day clock kept ticking. Bostonians and visitors from neighboring towns continued to hold large meetings in the Old South Meeting House, demanding that the ships leave without unloading any tea.
The Beaver arrived in Boston on December 15.
- December 16: The Destruction of the Tea
With one day left before the customs house deadline, Francis Rotch pleaded with those officials to bend their rules and extend the deadline for unloading his ship. They refused. Rotch traveled out to Governor Hutchinson’s house in Milton and asked him to let the ship sail back to Britain. The governor insisted he had to follow the laws to the letter. Rotch came back to the Old South Meeting House and reported that he had failed to get special permission to sail away.
Samuel Adams then announced, “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country.” A preselected group of activists moved to plan B: destroying the tea on all three ships to ensure it could never be officially landed. Adams and almost all the town’s political leaders stayed in Old South, listening to Dr. Thomas Young lecture on the unhealthy effects of drinking tea. (William Molineux was conspicuously absent.) Meanwhile, several dozen men moved to Griffin’s Wharf.
The identities of those men were kept secret at the time and for decades afterward. They must have included the town’s most committed activists, men who could be relied on to carry out risky actions and keep secrets. Because of the physical labor involved in moving and destroying the chests of tea, most were “mechanics,” or men who worked with their hands; only a few were merchants and professionals. With the law requiring most men to train regularly in militia companies, they were used to working together with military discipline.
Knowing they were about to do something illegal, those men had disguised their faces with paint and soot. At the wharf, they met a squad from the town’s militia artillery company, that night’s patrol. Those artillerists joined the activists. Those men split into three groups, one for each ship. Methodically they hoisted out the large wooden chests, most wrapped in canvas and lined with lead to be waterproof. They chopped open those crates and dumped the loose leaves of black and green tea overboard.
Hundreds of witnesses gathered along the waterfront to watch the destruction of the tea. Both the men and the crowd were remarkably silent, people recalled. Occasionally an exuberant apprentice pushed onto one of the ships and insisted on helping. The leaders had those teenagers climb overboard onto the mounds of loose tea piling up in the shallow water and make sure it was all stamped down into the sea.
The men carrying out this operation understood that they had to focus on the tea, doing minimal damage to anything else. They ordered the sailors and customs officers aboard the ships below decks but did not harm them. To get into one of the holds, the party broke open a padlock; the next day, a replacement lock was delivered to that ship. The activists also chased away one man detected sneaking tea away for himself. Newspapers reported those details, emphasizing how the operation had destroyed nothing but the taxable tea for the good of the community.
There were Royal Navy ships in the harbor and an army contingent in the fort on Castle Island, but their commanders did not have the orders or the opportunity to intervene. The operation went smoothly and was over before midnight.
- The Aftermath
Within days, Bostonians began to speak of all the men who destroyed the tea as "Indians from Narragansett” or “Mohawks,” finding a way to discuss the event without admitting local responsibility or knowledge. Gradually those disguises grew in the public memory of the event until artists in the mid-1900s drew men dressed completely as “Indians” with the large feathered headdresses of Plains peoples, bare-chested on a December night in New England.
Governor Hutchinson tried to supply the London government with evidence of who was responsible. None of the witnesses he named turned out to have anything useful to say. The East India Company petitioned the government to be compensated for its loss, amounting to over £9,000.
Meanwhile, the tea ship Polly arrived in the Delaware River below Philadelphia on December 25. Its captain was greeted with printed broadsides warning that he would be tarred and feathered if he did not turn around. Instead of sailing upriver and officially entering the Philadelphia harbor, he took that tea back to Britain.
Lord North and his colleagues decided they had to be stricter. Parliament passed the Boston Port Bill, barring merchant ships from Britain or any other British colony from unloading in Boston harbor until the town repaid the cost of the tea. With trade diverted to other New England ports such as Salem and Newport, the government thought, Bostonians would realize the economic cost of their action.
In order to strengthen the royal government inside Massachusetts, Lord North replaced Governor Hutchinson with General Thomas Gage, already commander of all the British troops in North America. The army moved several regiments back into Boston for the first time since the Massacre of 1770. Parliament strengthened the Quartering Act to make the town provide barracks for those troops. It passed the Administration of Justice in Massachusetts Act to ensure that royal officials carrying out their duties would not be tried in biased local courts. Together these laws were called the Coercive Acts. Americans responded by organizing a gathering of politicians from several colonies, the First Continental Congress.
The tea ship Nancy had run into storms and did not arrive at New York until April 22. Then locals followed Boston’s example: they boarded the ship and dumped its cargo into the harbor.
Immediately after the first tea destruction, Bostonians had begun to worry about a royal government crackdown, which they called “ministerial vengeance.” However, that did not stop them from destroying another set of tea chests that arrived in March 1774. In fact, this time local newspapers called in advance for “the Sachems [Indian leaders]…to extricate us out of this fresh Difficulty.” Lord North cited that event as proof that the Bostonians were incorrigible.
In May, Parliament passed the Massachusetts Government Act. Unlike the Boston Port Bill, which was to be reversed as soon as the town paid for the tea, this law made permanent changes to the colony’s constitution. The upper house of the Massachusetts legislature would no longer be elected; instead, the government in London appointed all its members, choosing gentlemen for their loyalty. Towns were barred from having more than one town meeting per year without prior permission from the governor. That law thus severely limited the colony’s long tradition of self-government.
Soon after news of the Massachusetts Government Act arrived in August 1774, people in rural counties rose up in protest. They demanded that local men appointed to the new upper house resign, or chased them out of their homes into Boston. On court days, crowds surrounded the county courthouses and refused to let the magistrates hold sessions. These protests, starting at the western end of the province, effectively shut down the royal government. Governor Gage moved to strengthen his position by consolidating militia gunpowder under his control. That military action, and a wildly exaggerated rumor about it, prompted thousands of Massachusetts men to mobilize in their militia companies on September 2. Gage realized that his power to enforce Parliament’s laws now stopped at the gates of Boston.
In September 1774, both the Massachusetts resistance leaders and Gage began to seize cannons and other military supplies in case of war. Gage ordered troops in New York and Québec to come to Boston. In October, resistance leaders convened their own legislature, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, meeting outside Boston. Soon local militia companies were volunteering for extra training. By the end of the year, the province was moving toward war.
Close Reading Questions
- Source 1. "Address to the Ladies" to boycott imported tea, 1767
- What are the items women are being asked to give up and/or replace in this poem?
- How is the author trying to make patriotism more appealing to readers?
- Do you think efforts of nonconsumption, like those referenced in the poem, would be hard or easy for American colonists to engage in? Why?
- The Boston Tea Party occurred about six years after this was published. How does this poem show the growing economic, social, and/or political tensions that contributed to that event?
- Source 2. Tradesmen Protest the Tea Meetings, broadside, May 1773
- What are the arguments this broadside makes against the “tea meetings?”
- What phrases from this broadside do you think would best catch the attention of their desired audience?
- How would you describe the tone of this broadside?
- The Boston Tea Party occurred just over a month after this was published. How does this broadside show the growing economic, social, and/or political tensions that contributed to that event?
- Source 3. Tea leaves collected the morning after the destruction of the tea
Tea and tea culture were clearly important to colonial Americans. Do you think an event like the Boston Tea Party would still have occurred with a different item that was being taxed, like glass or paper which had also been taxed under the previous Townshend Acts?Note: This graph, showing revenue under the Townshend Acts (1768-1770), may help students answer this question.
What reasons are there for collecting and saving a souvenir? What does that tell us about how colonial Bostonians viewed the Boston Tea Party even in its immediate aftermath?
How does the significance of tea culture connect to the economic and social tensions that contributed to the Boston Tea Party?
- Source 4. John Rowe, owner of the Eleanor, regrets the destruction of the tea
- How might Rowe’s personal connection to the ships have affected his private and public words on the Boston Tea Party differently?
- Why is it important for us to look at both the diary entry of Rowe and read his quote from Old South Meeting House in order to effectively evaluate the credibility and purposes of these two different sources?
- Source 5. John Adams celebrates the destruction of the tea in his diary
- John Adams asked and then answered the following question in his diary: “The Question is whether the Destruction of this Tea was necessary?” How would you summarize his answer?
- How did Adams view colonial government officials and others who supported the British policies (Governor Hutchinson, the Consignees, Collector and Comptroller, etc)?
- Source 6. Marshfield townspeople condemn the Boston Tea Party
- How did the people in Marshfield view the protest that occurred in Boston? Is this similar or different from other sources and why might that be?
- Why would the Massachusetts Gazette choose to highlight this Marshfield Town Meeting in the wake of the Boston Tea Party?
- A note printed immediately after the article said, "Marshfield is in the Country of Plimouth. . . and according to an Account taken in 1764, contains upwards of Fifteen Hundred Inhabitants ; many of whom are said to be very wealthy.” How might the composition of the town have influenced their political leanings?
- Source 7. British political cartoon sympathizes with Boston’s protestors
*Trigger Warning: In this cartoon, the behavior of all three British government officials implies violence and sexual assault on 'America,' portrayed as an Indigenous woman.
- What message is the artist trying to say about Britain’s reaction to the Boston Tea Party and how do you know that from the image?
- How would you summarize the tone or mood of this political cartoon?
- Britannia, the white female figure who often represents Britain, is depicted behind “America” and is looking away from what is happening. By including this element of the cartoon, what is the artist adding to the overall message of the cartoon?
- Why do you think political cartoons chose to represent the American colonies as an Indigenous woman? In what ways might that be connected to the colonists' decision to costume themselves as Native Americans during the destruction of the tea?
- Source 8. Parliament issues the Coercive Acts as punishment for the Tea Party
- One aspect of the new acts ordered that more positions in colonial governments be appointed by the King (or, by people appointed by the King) rather than be elected by the colonists. Why would this have further upset the colonists and possibly led more colonists to support the Sons of Liberty?
- The Administration of Justice Act called for British soldiers and officials who were charged with crimes while attempting to maintain order in the colonies to be sent to Great Britain for trial rather than being tried in the colony where the crime was committed. This meant they would be far less likely to be found guilty, or would face a milder punishment. Why did colonists give this act the nickname the “Murder Act?”
Suggested Activities (Grades 8 - 12)
- Hook Activities
Overview: Three different warm-up activities relate to different aspects of the Tea Party and specific activities suggested below to teach alongside the primary sources in this source set.
- Designing a Tea Set to Commemorate the Tea Party
Activity Overview: After reading the historical context essay and exploring the primary sources in this set, students demonstrate their understanding of the social, political, and economic factors contributing to the tea crisis by designing a tea set to commemorate the protest. Designs include images, symbols, and patterns, and can be done by hand or on the computer.
- Multiple Perspectives: Stakeholders in the Boston Tea Party
- Historical Context essay
- Selection of sources in the “Destruction of the Tea” source set (teacher’s choice)
Activity Overview: In this 2-part activity, students analyze the range of economic and political interests various groups had in the tea crisis, and the multiple perspectives of individual Bostonians to the Tea Party. After students have read the historical context and spent time analyzing and discussing the primary sources in this set, they will create a web diagram to show the range of economic and political interests different groups of people had in Boston’s tea crisis. Then, to analyze the multiple perspectives of individuals, students will read a series of quotes and contextual information about the historical figures who said them to better understand how a diverse array of people thought about the tea crisis.
- Analyzing and Comparing Diary Entries
- John Rowe diary entry, 16 December 1773
- John Adams diary entry, 17 December 1773
- Diary Entry Analysis Worksheet
Activity Overview: Working independently or in small groups, students answer critical thinking questions about two diary entries on the Boston Tea Party, and then respond to a series of additional questions to compare the two documents.
- Letter to the (Loyalist) Editor
- Marshfield townspeople condemn the destruction of the tea (full transcript)
- Letter to the Editor Worksheet
Activity Overview: Newspapers were partisan in the revolutionary era. The Massachusetts Gazette was a Loyalist newspaper and the Boston-Gazette and Country-Journal was a Patriot newspaper. In fact, the Boston-Gazette was published by Benjamin Edes, a member of the Sons of Liberty and organizer of the Boston Tea Party. A number of the protestors gathered at Edes’ house drinking a strong punch before heading to the ships anchored at Griffin’s Wharf.
In this creative writing activity, students will take on the perspective of either a Patriot or Loyalist, and write a letter to the editor to the Loyalist Massachusetts Gazette, in response to the article on the Marshfield townspeople’s condemnation of the destruction of the tea.
Extension: Students can browse newspapers from 1773 and 1774 in The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr (masshist.org), which is a digital collection of Revolutionary Era newspapers, including the Loyalist Massachusetts Gazette and the Patriot Boston-Gazette. What similarities and differences do students notice between the two newspapers?
- American Activism: From the Boston Tea Party to the Dakota Access Pipeline
- “Destruction of the Tea” source set (teacher chooses which sources to analyze with class)
- Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access Pipeline | Teacher Resource
- American Activism: From the Boston Tea Party to the Dakota Access Pipeline Worksheet
Activity Overview: Students consider the role of activism and protest throughout American history by comparing the 1773 Boston Tea Party to the 2015 Dakota Access Pipeline protests. First, as a whole class or in smaller groups, students define activism and protest. Then, students think critically about these terms as they connect to the Boston Tea Party and sources from the text set. Next, students read about the Standing Rock Sioux protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (using resources from the National Museum of the American Indian) and consider how the #NODAPL protests connect to other, modern activism and protest in the United States. Finally, students will compare and contrast these two events and how they connect to American principles around the participatory role of citizens.
Context: Both the Boston Tea Party and #NODAPL protests focused on property owned by private companies (tea owned by the British East India Company and a pipeline owned by Energy Transfer Properties). The British government also had a vested interested in collecting revenue from the tea and the U.S. government is tasked with authorizing pipelines. Colonial protestors were angry over the concept of taxation without representation, whereas modern pipeline protestors argue oil spills harm the environment and health of their communities, and violate treaties between the United States and Indigenous nations. The Sons of Liberty – an all-white group of adult men – organized the Boston Tea Party, disguising their identities. Members of the Standing Rock Sioux –of all ages – and allies publicly organized the #NODAPL protests.
- Jigsaw: Understanding the Coercive Acts
Activity Overview: In groups of three, each group member becomes the expert for one of the Coercive Acts that Parliament issued in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party. Students read their assigned Act, meet with other classmates who have read the same Act to discuss the close reading questions, and then return to their groups to teach their group mates about their assigned Act. The worksheet has space for students to take notes on all three Acts.
Elementary Source Set and Suggested Activities (Grades 3-5)
- Boston Tea Party Elementary Grades Source Set
- Boston Tea Party Elementary Grades Source Set
- Boston Tea Party Timeline (Google Slides)
- Boston Tea Party Damages (Google Slides)
Although the Boston Tea Party was a single event, there was a long buildup that led to it and the entire colony of Massachusetts (along with the other 12 colonies) faced significant consequences as a result! (Note: In the 1770s, everyone referred to this event as “The Destruction of the Tea.” The term “tea party” did not come into play for more than 50 years after the protest!)
- The timeline gives a detailed account of the events leading up to the Tea Party; the act of protest on 16 December 1773; and, the results of the protest, including the first Coercive Acts Parliament issued to punish MA and the meeting of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
- The source set includes essential questions, background teacher reading, primary sources and context, teacher directions for all of the activities and student handouts related to this set, and a list of picture books related to the Boston Tea Party – all aimed at grade 3-5 students. Teachers can choose which sources, activities, and books they want to use in their classrooms.
- The Boston Tea Party Damages slides focus on the consequences of the Boston Tea Party to help students understand how much damage the protestors did that night, how different people thought about and responded to the tea party, and summarizes the Coercive Acts the King and Parliament issued as punishment for the Tea Party. This slide deck is recommended to be used with the Multiple Perspectives Gallery Walk activity.
- Closing Reading and Sequencing an Informational Text
Activity Overview: Students read an informational text to learn what happened at the protest known as the Boston Tea Party, and why the protest occurred. Then, students sequence 4 main events related to the Boston Tea Party, by writing or drawing pictures.
- Comparing an Image to a First-Person Account
- Boston Tea Party: An Eyewitness Account Handout
- 3-2-1 Handout
- Optional: Slides 6 and 7 in Tea Party Damages Google Slides
Activity Overview: Show students the image on Slide 7 of the Google slides, which is also at the top of the handout. Students analyze an image with a 3-2-1. Then, they read a quote from a 17-year-old witness to the Tea Party and discuss the ways in which the image (made many years after the protest in 1836) supports and/or differs from the first-person account.
- Gallery Walk: Understanding Multiple Perspectives about the Tea Party
- Tea Party Crisis: Multiple Perspectives Google Slides
- Simplified Language Google Slides
- Multiple Perspectives on the Tea Crisis Worksheet
- If not using the Slides: Multiple Perspectives on the Tea Crisis with quotes worksheet
- Optional: Tea Party Damages Google Slides
Activity Overview: Teachers print out and place a selection of the posters (Multiple Perspectives slides 3-11) around the classroom and students do a Gallery Walk where they read quotes from a variety of people who wrote about the Boston Tea Party at the time it happened. (If unable to print out the posters, use the worksheet that has quotes on it and students can work in small groups without moving around the classroom.) For each poster, they rank (on a scale of 1-10) each person’s opinion: 1 = a Loyalist who totally opposed the Tea Party and 10 = a Patriot who fully supported the Tea Party. Then, students use the context about and quote from each person to cite two pieces of evidence in support of their ranking.
Students can work independently or in small groups. Teachers may also choose to have students put their rankings on a sticky note at each poster so that students can see how their peers are ranking. An answer key / additional information for each person can be found on the Google Slides #12-14.
The Tea Party Damages google slides are a helpful frame for this activity, showing students tan eyewitness account of the protest, the extent of property damage the protest caused, and also briefly explain the Coercive Acts that Parliament issued as punishment for the Tea Party.
Teaching Strategy: Read more about facilitating a Gallery Walk.
- Tea Party Crisis: Multiple Perspectives Google Slides
- Summarizing and Identifying the Main Idea in 18th century women’s letters
- Summarizing and Finding the Main Idea Worksheet
- Optional: The Letters of Hannah Winthrop and Mercy Otis Warren
Activity Overview: In the 1770s, friends communicated over distances by writing letters to one another, but today we are able to text our friends over the phone. In this activity, students bridge forms of communication, past and present! Students read quotes from letters between two female patriots between the fall of 1773 and the summer of 1774, in which the two women discuss the Tea Crisis and its consequences. Students put each quote into their own words, and then choose two emojis they would use today to indicate how the letter writer’s friend might have responded to the original quote.
Context: Mercy Otis Warren (a poet, playwright, and historian of the Revolutionary Era) and Hannah Winthrop were both married to men involved in the patriot cause, and in their letters they talk about their families, politics, and the role of women as political actors. Both women shared strong views in favor of the Boston Tea Party, and other protests against what they saw as the tyranny of the British government, and its unjust “taxation without representation.” The quotes from the letters begin with news of the tea as it set sail from London to Boston, include the Tea Party protest, and then discuss the announcement of the Coercive Acts, and growing militarization in Boston and unified action amongst the colonies in response to the Coercive Acts.
- Massachusetts History/Social Science and ELA Frameworks
- Demonstrate civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions.
- Organize information and data from multiple primary and secondary sources.
- Analyze the purpose and point of view of each source.
- Evaluate the credibility, accuracy, and relevance of each.
- Argue or explain conclusions, using valid reasoning and evidence.
Grade 3. Topic 6, Massachusetts in the 18th century through the American Revolution
Grade 5. Topic 1, Origins of the Revolution and the Constitution
USH1. Unit 1, Topic 1: Origins of the Revolution and the Constitution
ELA Core Reading Anchor Standards
- Read closely to determine what a text states explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from a text
- Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words
- Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
- C3 Frameworks
- D2.His.4.3-5. Explain why individuals and groups during the same historical period differed in their perspectives
- D2.His.10.3-5. Compare information provided by different historical sources about the past.
- D2.His.14.3-5. Explain probable causes and effects of events and developments.
- D2.His.1. 9-12. Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
- D2.His.4. 9-12. Analyze complex and interacting factors that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras.
- D2.His.5.9-12. Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.
- D2.His.11. 9-12. Critique the usefulness of historical sources for a specific historical inquiry based on their maker, date, place of origin, intended audience, and purpose.
- D2.His.14. 9-12. Analyze multiple and complex causes and effects of events in the past.
Boston 1773: Destruction of the Tea
- Additional sources linked to in this source set
The header used at the top of this source set is a 1770s print showing the harbor in Boston, Massachusetts, two ships at anchor, British soldiers and men working, and merchandise on shore. It presents an idealized view depicting Boston as a typical European city. The European artist had more than likely never visited Boston.
This porcelain bowl belonged to journalist and publisher Benjamin Edes of Boston. On the afternoon of the Boston Tea Party, some of the conspirators met at Edes's home on Brattle Street and drank punch from this bowl before proceeding to Griffin's Wharf. Learn more about the bowl and the Edes’ family memories of the Boston Tea Party, in addition to tea leaves collected the morning after the tea party: Souvenirs of the Boston Tea Party at the MHS.
Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access Pipeline | Teacher Resource (National Museum of the American Indian – Smithsonian)
Protests against pipelines can be seen as a modern day analogy to the Boston Tea Party. Both are political protests against privately owned property, in which the government holds an interest. Learn more about the 2015 Standing Rock Sioux protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline and consider ways in which it was similar to and different from the 1773 Boston Tea Party that occurred 242 years earlier.
This web feature includes additional primary sources held at the MHS that are related to the Boston Tea Party
- Women and Tea
Read excerpts of letters between Hannah Winthrop, patriot and wife of a Harvard professor, and the noted Patriot poet and historian Mercy Otis Warren, between November 1773 and September 1774. The letters discuss family matters and politics, and provide the perspective of two women patriots on the build-up to the tea crisis, the destruction of the tea, and the consequences of the Boston Tea Party, including the Coercive Acts, militarization in MA, and political organizing amongst the colonies. These letters – and more – can be read in their entirety at the web feature: Correspondence of Mercy Otis Warren and Hannah Winthrop | Massachusetts Historical Society (masshist.org).
In the fall of 1773, the Black poet Phillis Wheatley returned to Boston from London, England a free woman. Her book of poetry Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was soon to be published in London. The first copies of her book we on board the Dartmouth, along with 114 chests of the East India Company’s tea. Although we do not know what Wheatley thought about the tea crisis, a letter she wrote to David Wooster, a friend in Connecticut, in October 1773, shows how important the sales of her book were to her.
Published in England on March 25, 1775, this political cartoon satirizes white, upper class North Carolina women who had held their own tea party in October 1774. Click on the image, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to zoom in.
This description, from a Harvard history class, of the above political cartoon gives additional context about the women’s protest, and the ways in which the political cartoon undermined – and pointed out hypocrisies in – the women’s efforts.
Focused on the 1760s, this primary source set looks at the political decision many Boston women made to boycott imported British goods and work to produce their own, or consume only those made in the colonies – with a focus on homespun fabrics and tea.
- Additional Primary Sources and Contextual Information
Read quotes from Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Alexander Hamilton to learn how political leaders outside of Massachusetts responded to the Boston Tea Party. All quotes comes from letters digitized on Founders Online, a digitization project of the National Archives.
In the 14 March 1774 issue of the Boston-Gazette and Country Journal, Thomas Walley advertised goods for sale in his store, including "all sorts of groceries as usual -- Except TEA." Walley's ad, an example of ways in which local patriot shopkeepers responded to the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party, can be found in the left-hand column of page 4.
The “Coming of the American Revolution” web feature from the Massachusetts Historical Society provides contextual information alongside primary sources to explore fifteen consequential topics covering the years between 1764 and 1776, during which time the thirteen colonies forged a more united identity. Topics of particular interest for this source set:
- Boston Tea Party: Coming of the American Revolution: Boston Tea Party (masshist.org)
- Coercive Acts: Coming of the American Revolution: The Coercive/Intolerable Acts (masshist.org)
- First Continental Congress: Coming of the American Revolution: First Continental Congress (masshist.org)
Created in 2004 by Lisa Green, MHS teacher fellow, this US History unit for high school students utilizes primary sources across several lessons on the Boston Tea Party and politics surrounding it.
This primary source set collection by the Digital Public Library of America includes additional visual and written sources, from the 18th and 19th centuries, on the Boston Tea Party.
- Secondary sources: Podcasts, Articles, and Biographies
This National Parks Service (NPS) article examines Boston’s location as a port city and the importance of its maritime economy in creating conditions for the Boston Tea Party to take place.
Learn more about the people who participated in the Boston Tea Party protest on the night of 16 December 1773.
In this podcast episode of Ben Franklin’s World, Cornell professor Mary Beth Norton discusses what motivated Boston’s protestors to dump the tea overboard.
What was so special about tea anyway? In this podcast episode of Ben Franklin’s World, three historians explore the politics of tea in the 1760s and 1770s.
In this podcast episode of Ben Franklin’s World, Cornell professor Mary Beth Norton discusses the consequences of the Boston Tea Party, and what made the ‘long year’ of 1774 – beginning with the destruction of the tea on 16 December 1773 – so critical to the build-up toward Revolution.
- Boston Tea Party: Children’s Books and Elementary Teacher Reading
- America’s Tea Parties: Not One But Four! Boston, Charleston, New York, Philadelphia by Marissa Moss, 2016
- Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies by Cokie Roberts, 2014
- Write On, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren by Gretchen Wolfe, 2012
- Independent Dames: What You Never Knew About the Women and Girls of the American Revolution by Laurie Halse Anderson, 2008
- Colonial Voices: Hear Them Speak: The Outbreak of the Boston Tea Party Told from Multiple Points of View! by Kay Winters, 2008
- Remember the Ladies: 100 Great American Women by Cheryl Harness, 2001
- Polly Sumner: Witness to the Boston Tea Party by Richard C. Wiggin, 2023 (Told from doll’s point of view)
- What Was the Boston Tea Party? by Kathleen Krull, 2013
- The Boston Tea Party by Russell Freedman, 2012
- The Boston Tea Party by Steven Kroll, 1998 *
- Boston Tea Party by Pamela Duncan Edwards, 2001
- Told using a pattern.. “this is the tea that…” *
* hard to find