Have You Ever?

Your parents have always been fairly hands-off: they let you make your own choices and learn your own mistakes. Then one day, they start exercising some control over you. These new commands seem rather simple and harmless – close the door softer, don’t leave your backpack by the counter, etc. But the sudden use of power unsettles you. What’s with the sudden shift? Shouldn’t they at least ask for your input before making new rules? And how long is it until these new rules become more oppressive?

Here’s Why

American colonists found themselves in a similar situation with England. This fear of oppression and lack of representation created the perfect recipe for the Boston Tea Party.

Definition of Boston Tea Party

On December 16, 1773, colonists, many of whom belonged to the secret revolutionary group, the Sons of Liberty, snuck aboard three ships employed by the East India Tea Company and dumped all their cargo of tea into the Boston Harbor. This was done in protest of the Tea Act issued just months prior.

The History

Previously, Britain was practicing a policy known as salutary neglect concerning the American colonies. This meant that they didn’t enforce parliamentary laws, most notably trade laws, in the colonies. Towards the end of the 18th century, though, England needed to regain the funds they spent in the Seven Years War fighting against France and Spain along with other powers, so they made new tax laws and actually began enforcing them in America.

The most notable of these is the Tea Act of 1773. After previous taxes failed and thus were repealed, England was determined to make the Tea Act stick. Even though tea was now taxed, it was actually cheaper under the new act – well, tea from the British-owned East India Tea Company was. Imported or smuggled tea would not be able to compete with the low prices of the East India Tea Company, which meant the Tea Act was essentially creating a monopoly.

The colonists were largely upset with this development. Their well-enjoyed independence was being thrown into question. Furthermore, England was once again taxing them without letting them have any say in the matter. It seemed unfair that colonists had no voice in Parliament yet still had to obey its arbitrary rules. Even worse, the Tea Act directly interfered with American businesses.

Per the Tea Act, ships carrying the East India Tea Company’s cargo were sent to New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Boston. In the first three colonies, unhappy protesters successfully stopped the tea from being sold without much fanfare. The situation in Boston was a bit more complicated.

Tensions were already high between Bostonians and British soldiers as a result of the Boston Massacre, in which British soldiers fired, without orders, on a mob of colonists who were harassing them. Furthermore, the Massachusetts governor, an England Loyalist named Thomas Hutchinson, refused to let the ships return to England without unloading their cargo. This couldn’t be done, however, since members of the secret revolutionary group known as the Sons of Liberty had arranged for men to watch the ship, effectively preventing unloading. With the arrival of two more ships carrying the East India Tea Company’s goods and the governor reconfirming his refusal to let the ships return, it was clear to the colonists something drastic needed to be done.

On the night of December 16, 1773, colonists, dressed as Mohawk Indians, went aboard the three ships. They broke the crates carrying tea thoroughly before casting them into the sea, determined to completely ruin the cargo. Despite this, only the tea, their containment crates, and a single lock were broken. The whole affair took a few hours, yet the colonists and British soldiers never even came to blows that night.

So What?

The British response to the Boston Tea Party was sheer outrage. Very quickly, they passed what would later be known in the colonies as the Intolerable Acts. Much as the nickname implies, these acts were not well-received. The acts closed the port of Boston until the price of the lost tea was completely repaid, made nearly all government positions in Massachusetts appointed by the governor, Parliament, or the king, limited town meetings in the state to a yearly event, and allowed royal officials accused of crimes to have their trial take place back in Britain should they feel they wouldn’t get a fair trial in Massachusetts. These Intolerable Acts, or Coercive Acts as they were called in Britain, were meant to punish the colonists for their defiance and make an example out of Massachusetts. As a result, conflict only continued to rise, resulting in physical conflicts and starting the American Revolutionary War. 

In many ways, the Boston Tea Party was the boiling point of the American Revolution. The people of Boston proved that they could unite together effectively against the British Crown. Their actions became a rallying point for the newly developing nation and inspired people to rise up for their independence. The spirit of the event has been invoked in later acts of defiance, such as the burning of Indian registration cards in 1908, and is still referenced in modern politics.

If anything, the Boston Tea Party serves as a reminder that an ignored voice will always find a way to send a louder message.

    Learn More

    1. Carp, Benjamin L. Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America. Yale University Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-300-11705-9.
    2. Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Boston Tea Party.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 9 December 2019. britannica.com.
    3. History.com Editors. “Boston Tea Party.” HISTORY, A&E Television Networks, 30 July 2019. history.com.
    4. Unger, Harlow Giles. American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution. Da Capo Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-306-81962-9.
    5. Volo, James M. The Boston Tea Party: The Foundations of Revolution. Praeger, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-313-39875-9.

    Think Further

    1. Can you think of some other reasons why colonists disliked the Tea Act?
    2. Why was it important to destroy the tea rather than steal or resell it?
    3. How might’ve things been different if the Boston Tea Party hadn’t occurred?

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