Tea Time

It was on this date in 1773 that the Boston Tea Party took place. Fortunately for the future of America, the populace at that time was not encumbered with Christmas shopping or sports on TV and could pay attention to public affairs.

In 1770, the British Parliament ended the Townshend Duties — taxes on the sale of lead, glass, paper, paints and tea — ended them for all but tea. The tax on British tea and a boycott of it in many of the colonies continued.

Tea was a hot commodity in the colonies, however, and considerable foreign tea was smuggled into America to avoid the tax. Some four-fifths of the tea consumed in America was brought in by smugglers.

In 1773 Parliament, in an effort to both prevent the bankruptcy of the East India Company and raise tax revenue, reduced the tea tax and gave the company a monopoly in the American tea business. The price of tea would be lower than smugglers could match, Americans would buy East India tea, the company would revive, and the tax, though lower, would be paid on vastly more tea. Win-win.

Instead of welcoming the tax reduction and the always low prices on tea, many Americans protested the continuation of the tax — and the granting of a monopoly. Surprisingly principled were those 18th century Americans.

Boston was but the culmination of the tea protest. In Charleston, South Carolina, longshoremen refused to unload tea and eventually it was confiscated by the royal governor for nonpayment of duties and stored in a warehouse. In New York protests preceded even the landing of the first tea cargo ship and the danger of violence was so high no ship was permitted to enter the harbor. In Philadelphia as well, the protests — against both the monopoly and the principle of a tax on commodities — were sufficient to prevent the tea ship from entering the port. The Polly docked at Chester and once warned the captain returned her to England still loaded.

In Boston, the Dartmouth was able to dock on the Sabbath, November 28, 1773. The next day however, thousands attended a rally to demand the ship return to England. On Tuesday the cargo other than tea was unloaded. On December 2, a second tea ship was docked, the Eleanor; five days later the Beaver was landed. The Royal Governor, Thomas Hutchinson, refused to let the ships leave the port. The people refused to let the tea be unloaded. The law required the ships be unloaded by December 17 and the British army was present to make it happen.

On the cold evening of December 16, 1773, a large band of patriots, disguised as Mohawk Indians, burst from the South Meeting House with the spirit of freedom burning in their eyes. The patriots headed towards Griffin’s Wharf and the three ships. Quickly, quietly, and in an orderly manner, the Sons of Liberty boarded each of the tea ships. Once on board, the patriots went to work striking the chests with axes and hatchets. Thousands of spectators watched in silence. Only the sounds of ax blades splitting wood rang out from Boston Harbor. Once the crates were open, the patriots dumped the tea into the sea.

… The patriots worked feverishly, fearing an attack by Admiral Montague at any moment. By nine o’clock p.m., the Sons of Liberty had emptied a total of 342 crates of tea into Boston Harbor. Fearing any connection to their treasonous deed, the patriots took off their shoes and shook them overboard. They swept the ships’ decks, and made each ship’s first mate attest that only the tea was damaged.

[Boston Tea Party Ship & Museum]