When a group of disguised men destroyed £10,000 worth of private property in late 1773, colonial America’s respectable elite were beyond displeased. George Washington, a prominent Virginian and hero of the French and Indian War, denounced the criminals’ conduct and declared them “mad.” Benjamin Franklin called for the perpetrators to reimburse the ruined goods’ owners and “set [the colonists] right in the opinion of all Europe.” But the pair’s disdain wasn’t universal: John Adams, at the time a Boston-based lawyer and writer, was one of the few to voice his approval, praising the men’s actions as “so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible.”
Two and a half centuries later, the act of destruction in question—a December 16, 1773, political protest in which hundreds of men threw more than 90,000 pounds of tea into Boston Harbor—is better known as the Boston Tea Party. Today, Americans tend to view the demonstration in a more favorable light than their 18th-century predecessors. As a website marking the upcoming 250th anniversary notes, the Tea Party “is one of the nation’s most iconic events, … one that propelled America down the road to revolution.” But it’s also mired in misconception, with major myths surrounding its purpose, nature and consequences.
Consider, for instance, the claim that the Tea Party was a revolt against higher taxes on tea. In truth, the protest centered on the Tea Act, a corporate tax break passed by the British Parliament that actually lowered the price of tea for American colonists. The real underlying issue, says Benjamin L. Carp, author of Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, was the possibility that this price cut would “seduce the colonists … into buying taxed tea, which would give up the principle of no taxation without representation.”
Nathaniel Sheidley, head of Revolutionary Spaces, a nonprofit that oversees two colonial sites in Boston, isn’t surprised that modern Americans misremember their nation’s founding history. “We constructed the story [of the Tea Party] in order to serve the needs of a later time,” he explains, creating “a shared memory that could fill a space of national identity.” During the 19th and 20th centuries, Americans similarly mythologized events like the first Thanksgiving, the arrival of the Pilgrims and the midnight ride of Paul Revere.
Ahead of the Tea Party’s semiquincentennial, here’s what you need to know to separate fact from fiction in the story of this landmark moment in American history.
The roots of the Boston Tea Party
The Tea Act of 1773 wasn’t the first tax-related legislation to attract the colonists’ ire. In 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which taxed paper goods like newspapers, deeds and playing cards. The first internal tax levied on the colonies by the British, the Stamp Act garnered criticism from colonists who saw it as “extremely burdensome and grievous,” especially when they had no representation in the legislative body across the Atlantic. Widespread opposition to the tax, including protests by the Sons of Liberty, a grassroots group that would later play a key role in the Tea Party, led Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act in 1766.
But other taxes followed, most prominently the 1767 Townshend Acts, which imposed duties on imported glass, china, lead, paint, paper and tea. Once again, the colonists objected to the measures, with the city of Boston emerging as a particular locus of resistance. Rising tensions between Bostonians and British troops brought in to quell the unrest culminated in the 1770 Boston Massacre, which left five colonists dead.
The events that preceded the Tea Party spoke to the larger “question of how the colonies were represented in the empire,” says Sheidley, “the imperial reforms that tried to concentrate decision-making and ensure that there were more uniform systems for governance across all the colonies.” In addition to covering the costs of the French and Indian War, the taxes paid for the administration of the American colonies.
Though the British government repealed the Townshend Acts shortly after the Boston Massacre, the tax on tea remained in place, and the underlying issue angering the colonists—their lack of parliamentary representation—came no closer to being resolved. At the time, Parliament was dominated by wealthy landowners who won their seats with support from powerful, often aristocratic patrons. The corrupt system meant that some sparsely populated British towns (known as rotten boroughs) had multiple members of Parliament, while bustling industrial centers like Birmingham and Manchester had none. “There was this slippery-slope argument,” economist Gustavo Torrens, co-author of a 2019 paper on the topic, told the Washington Post in 2016. “How could [Britain’s landed gentry] give representation to the Americans while many common people in London did not have proper representation?”
Eager to boycott any taxed British goods, colonists started drinking tea smuggled in by Dutch traders. Colonial merchants like John Hancock and Samuel Adams, both leaders of the Sons of Liberty, facilitated this illicit exchange, reaping profits at the expense of the British East India Company (EIC), which held the monopoly on the legal tea trade. By May 1773, the EIC was in such dire financial straits that Parliament stepped in to save it with the Tea Act, which allowed the trading corporation to ship tea directly to North America instead of routing it through England, where it was subject to additional taxes. This streamlined process lowered the price of legally imported tea but posed a whole new set of difficulties for colonists, who feared that “hand-picked middlemen” appointed by the EIC would undercut homegrown traders, says Carp, also a historian at Brooklyn College. By buying cheaper EIC tea, colonists would implicitly agree to taxation without representation, as they still had to pay the import duty introduced by the Townshend Acts.
As the EIC prepared to send its first shipments of tea to North America in the fall of 1773, anti-British colonists targeted the consignees chosen to receive and sell the goods, hoping to intimidate the agents into resigning from their posts. Patriots attacked consignees’ homes, published death threats against them and held public meetings to discuss how to respond to the tea ships’ arrival. “They are very much using the threat of violence” to make their point, says Sheidley.
In Philadelphia and New York, locals succeeded in scaring their tea consignees into resigning. Worried their New England counterparts would fail to follow suit, a Philadelphia resident wrote an anonymous letter to a Boston newspaper, declaring, “You need not fear; the tea will not be landed here or at New York. All that we fear is that you will shrink at Boston.” The author closed by writing, “May God give you virtue enough to save the liberties of your country, and depend on it, it shall not betray them here.”
How the Boston Tea Party unfolded
The Dartmouth, the first of four tea ships bound for Boston, arrived in the city on November 28, 1773. The next day, as many as 6,000 colonists gathered at the Old South Meeting House to discuss how to handle the unwanted cargo. Ultimately, the group decided “that the tea shall not only be sent back, but that no duty shall be paid.” To ensure this directive was followed, members of the Sons of Liberty patrolled the wharves, stopping the ships’ owners from unloading.
By December 15, two other tea ships, the Eleanor and the Beaver, had docked in Boston. (The fourth, called the William, wrecked off Cape Cod.) Stuck at an impasse, the trading vessels’ owners—a British-born merchant who immigrated to the colonies and a Nantucket businessman whose family dominated the island’s whaling industry—faced an impending deadline: If they failed to unload their cargo and pay the import duty within 20 days of arrival, officials could seize their wares and sell the goods at auction to cover the unpaid tax. To leave harbor without paying the tax and unloading, the ships needed special permission from Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson—but he refused to grant it. Previous negotiations with the colonists had led Hutchinson to believe “that if you give an inch, they take a mile,” says Sheidley, “so he’s absolutely intransigent and refuses to bend this time around.”
According to Carp, the Bostonians’ “preferred outcome” was for the tea to be “peacefully sent back to London,” as it later would in New York and Philadelphia. “It’s only when they find out … the governor is not going to let [that happen] that they say, ‘Well, we have no choice [but] to destroy [the tea].’”
On December 16, more than 5,000 colonists flocked to the Old South Meeting House, where leading Sons of Liberty like Adams and Hancock gave impassioned speeches. Adams reportedly said he “could think of nothing further to be done,” or, alternatively, that “this meeting can do nothing more to save the country.” The Tea Party began soon after, with hundreds of men—most of them Sons of Liberty—taking to the streets, many in Native-inspired disguises. Some likely planned the protest ahead of time, but others joined “more spontaneously on the day of the event,” says Carp. (Adams and men of similar stature “ostentatiously stayed behind” at the meeting house, “perhaps to give themselves a kind of plausible deniability,” Carp adds.)
Eyewitness accounts of the Tea Party are scarce, as participants knew that destroying private property “was a violation of the law and that the punishment could be severe,” says Sheidley. “Steps were taken to ensure that nothing was documented, so [the story] emerged by oral tradition well after the fact.” Today, historians know the names of 116 men who took part in the Tea Party. The majority were under the age of 40. Most were of English ancestry, but Irish, Scottish, French, Portuguese and African heritage were also represented.
Given the size of Boston’s population at the time—around 15,500 people—Carp suggests that many of the participants were recognizable to both their fellow protesters and the thousands of onlookers who watched the event unfold. “Fewer than a quarter of [Bostonians] would have been adult men,” he says. “You knew how your neighbor walked or your cousin carried himself. … But the disguises were supposed to send a signal that if [you were] asked, don’t tell.”
Beyond masking the men’s faces from authorities, the disguises also signaled the protesters’ alignment with a wholly American, rather than British, identity. “It sends the signal [that the men] want to be as fearsome and independent as Native Americans,” Carp says, “but it also simultaneously makes clear that [they] are still white guys underneath.” The choice of costume isn’t a “completely respectful homage,” the historian adds. Instead, “it’s a caricature. It’s scapegoating.”
After reaching the wharf, the protesters split into three groups. Two boarded the ships, while the third stood guard. Over the next three hours, the men used axes to chop up 342 chests of tea, each weighing 400 pounds. They methodically dumped both the broken chests and the loose-leaf tea into Boston Harbor, where they expected the tide to sweep it out to sea. Because it was low tide, however, the tea accumulated in large clumps that had to be broken up again.
Besides destroying more than 92,000 pounds of tea worth roughly £10,000 (around $1.5 million today), the protesters took care to leave the ships’ other cargo untouched. “Such attention to private property was observed that a small padlock belonging to the captain of one of the ships being broke, another was procured and sent to him,” reported a self-described “impartial observer” a few days after the Tea Party. Still, contrary to popular belief, the event wasn’t entirely nonviolent. After catching one Charles Conner pocketing tea for his own benefit, the men stripped him of his clothes, covered him in mud and gave him “a severe bruising,” as colonist John Andrews wrote in a letter to his brother-in-law. “Nothing but their utter aversion to [making] any disturbance prevented his being tarred and feathered.”
The aftermath of the Boston Tea Party
Reactions to the Tea Party varied. In Great Britain, lawmakers condemned the colonists’ behavior. Addressing Parliament, Prime Minister Frederick North said, “Whatever may be the consequence, we must risk something. If we do not, all is over.” Back in North America, prominent figures ranging from Washington to Franklin criticized the protesters’ methods, if not their underlying goals. “The cause of Boston … ever will be considered as the cause of America,” Washington wrote, while simultaneously decrying the criminal destruction of private property. Franklin, meanwhile, pointed out that the EIC was not the colonists’ adversary, and he even offered to repay the cost of the destroyed goods himself. Everyday Americans were generally more sympathetic, but many still expressed disapproval.
“There was a concern that [the colonists] might lose the moral high ground by taking an action like this,” says Sheidley. “All of those concerns go out the window when Parliament’s overreaction becomes manifest.”
In early 1774, Parliament passed a series of laws known as the Intolerable or Coercive Acts. Designed to punish Boston, the measures closed Boston Harbor until the EIC received payment for its lost tea, restructured Massachusetts’ government to emphasize royal authority, offered British officials charged with crimes in the colonies the opportunity to undergo trial in their home country and required all colonies to quarter British troops.
“All of these acts were interpreted as an infringement on American liberties,” says Carp. Their passage prompted the Sons of Liberty and other increasingly disillusioned colonists to convene at the First Continental Congress in September and October 1774. There, the historian adds, delegates from 12 colonies discussed how to respond to the Intolerable Acts, making decisions that “accelerated the road to revolution,” which broke out half a year later, in April 1775.
The acts marked “the breaking point in the relationship between Britain and the North American colonies,” says Sheidley. But the event that precipitated their passage—the Tea Party—was largely overlooked until the 1830s, when two books on the protest were published and surviving participants started sharing their memories of it.
Looking back on the Tea Party 250 years later, Sheidley says, “The piece of the story that we need to pay more attention to is less the act of destruction … and more the long arc of conversation and deliberation that preceded it, with thousands of people gathering to consider the challenge and debate how best to proceed.” At the same time, he emphasizes that these public meetings failed to include the voices of two key groups in colonial Boston: women and Black Americans. For example, the poet Phillis Wheatley, who had recently been emancipated from slavery, fervently wanted the Dartmouth’s cargo to be unloaded, as the ship held not only chests of tea but also copies of her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
“Her liberty depended upon being able to collect the proceeds of the sale of those books,” Sheidley explains. “It’s an important point because it forces us to grapple with the fact that the revolution was not one struggle for liberty, but many. And they somewhat collide in this moment, with the tea and the poems being on the same ship reminding us that those struggles weren’t always neatly aligned.”
Editor's Note, December 18, 2023: This article has been updated to clarify that Sons of Liberty in New York and Philadelphia intimidated tea consignees in early December but didn’t actively stop tea ships from arriving in port until after their brethren in Boston had already done so.