The town meeting held on the night of December 16, 1773 at the Old South Meeting House was no ordinary meeting. Boston was well known for its public meetings, but this one was different. Frequently city leaders called town meetings to discuss important political, economic and social decisions facing the city or colony. The town meeting was a foundation of the political process for Massachusetts and much of the New England colonies. Royal authorities had watched these meetings more closely since the 1760s during the opposition to the Stamp Act. Colonial Whigs (anti Royal leaders) had used these meetings to protest British policies that they saw as threats to their liberties.
This town meeting was a follow up assembly to previous meetings held in November originally called for Faneuil Hall. The large turnout, however, required the crowd to move to the more spacious Old South Meeting House. Nearly 5,000 people attended the meeting to discuss the city and colony’s response to a new tax on tea and more directly, the ships in the harbor that held tea from the East India Company. The colonial Whigs did not want the cargo unloaded but the captain of the ships could not leave the harbor with the tea unless they had approval from the Governor. Governor Thomas Hutchinson did not believe he had the authority to allow the ships to leave without unloading the tea. Adding to that decision, Hutchinson was more than frustrated with those who had rejected Royal authority over the years. Thus, a legal and theoretical standoff ensued. That night, the people of Boston took the matter into their own hands.
On the surface, the Tea Act of 1773 was rooted in helping pay off the debt of the British Empire, caused in part by fighting the Seven Year War (French and Indian War) with France. Also, the revenue raised would pay British officials in the colonies, thus making them more loyal to Parliament and the British Crown. The Tea Act was one of many Parliamentary laws or “Acts” passed to raise revenue in the colonies. More importantly, the underlying purpose was for Parliament to display their authority to pass laws that were binding on the British colonies. Due to colonial opposition and resistance, many of these acts were repealed. However, the Tea Act, passed in 1773, sparked an immediate response throughout the colonies.
The Tea Act was also seen as a mode for saving a British held company, the British East India Company. Before 1773, the company had to sell its tea in London and was subject to duties. The company had collected large quantities of tea in warehouses in London and was looking for a way to disperse the tea at a bargain. The Tea Act allowed the company to sell directly to American ports without paying the duties. This also forced American buyers to only purchase their tea from the East India Company, which was subject to a tax. The good news was the price of tea was reduced because the Company no longer had to pay the duties in London. Colonists resisted the notion that Parliament could force them to buy tea from the East Indian Company (many made a good living off of smuggled tea sales) and that they were required to pay a tax on the tea.
The popular notion, “taxation without representation,” had been around since the 1750’s and became well-known in 1764 in response to the highly unpopular Sugar Act and Stamp Act. Colonial Whigs believed they had no representation in Parliament because they did not elect representatives to Parliament. British political theory and law believed in the model of “virtual representation” which meant the colonists did not vote for individual members of Parliament though that body, as a whole acted in the best interest for all British subjects. Colonial leaders, who for decades were allowed to vote for their representative bodies in their respective colony, did not accept this theory. The opposing views on representation began to open opposition to British authority over colonial matters.
Though passed in May 1773, the Tea Act did not impact the people in the colonies until fall. Seven ships of tea were sent to four American ports, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston. Meanwhile, colonial Whig leaders began to organize a resistance to the East India Tea that was en route. In fact, in every other city but Boston the tea was refused and forced to either be returned to England or confiscated by local officials. It was in Boston that a determined governor and history of Royal opposition led to a signal event in American history.
On November28th, the ship Dartmouth arrived loaded with tea. British law gave ships with imports twenty days to pay the duties or the local custom officials could confiscate the cargo. Hutchinson, when petitioned, would not allow the ship to leave the port without paying the duty. His sons, who acted as the Tea Consignees (authorized to receive the tea and see to its distribution) for Boston, also refused to back down and resign their positions, which happened in other American ports. Soon two more ships arrived in the harbor with the unwanted tea. Unable to return the tea to England and without being able to unload the tea due to the threats of local groups such as the Sons of Liberty, the captains of the ships were in a tight and dangerous spot.
On the night of December 17th, one of the largest public meetings in Boston convened at the Old South Meeting House. Speeches by Sam Adams, John Hancock, Joseph Warren and other Boston Whig leaders called for the return of the tea to England. Later in the evening, word came that a last minute plea to Governor Hutchinson to let the ships return was refused. Sam Adams announced publicly, “This meeting can do nothing further to save the country.”
The events that happened next have been debated since 1773, soon men arrived outside the Meeting House disguised as Mohawk Indians. Whether or not these men were signaled to move towards the ships with tea is unknown. As the “Mohawks” marched down Milk Street towards Griffin’s Wharf where the three ships of tea were docked, the thousands gathered inside the Old South Meetinghouse began to pour out of the building. Chants of “Boston a Teapot Tonight” and “Hurrah for Griffin’s Wharf” were reportedly heard. Some people followed the “Mohawks”, others continued to protest in the streets, while still others headed home believing that a confrontation was about to take place.
Many details remain unknown about who exactly the “Mohawks” were that marched on Griffin’s Wharf that night. The men used lamp soot and red ochre to disguise their faces and carried a wide assortment of weapons. As they made their way to the wharf, they yelled and “whooped” as Indians in a war party. If they had coordinated the timing with leaders in the Old South Meetinghouse, it is still unknown. The identities of most of these men either were never recorded or are lost to history; that is how tight their veil of secrecy was coupled with their sophisticated organization. As they made their way to the ships, the Whig leaders inside the Old South Meetinghouse stayed behind and were never directly part of what happened next.
The men, with a crowd behind them, approached the wharf. There they divided into three different groups, one for each of the ships, Dartmouth, Beaver and Eleanor. Being a port city, most of the men knew where to find the cargo they were looking for and how to operate on a ship. Respectively, most of the other cargo and private property on the ships were not touched. They were only after the tea. Hauling the chests to the deck, they were broken open and dumped into Boston Harbor. Some of the men watched to make sure no one was trying to steal any of the tea that they were dumping. The group of approximately 150 men worked quickly as the crowd of spectators grew.
The American Revolution did not just “happen.” It was the culmination of various events and acts that individually did not guarantee separation. As a collective, one can retroactively see how the accumulation of these events led to the inevitable. The Boston Tea Party was one of these events. This time it was different; this time Great Britain would respond in a way it never had before. The Tea Party gave the tinder box of revolution in America more fuel and many believed a small incident would cause a spark leading to open war between colonies and mother country. The spark would come on April 19, 1775 in the Massachusetts countryside.