On December 16, 1773 a mob of up to 130 men and boys, many of them wearing the ragged clothing of day laborers and apprentices, other donning thin disguises as Indians, stormed three ships moored in Boston harbor and began destroying chests of tea and dumping their contents into the harbor. That’s right, it was the so-called Boston Tea Party, although no one would call it that for nearly sixty years. In fact, no one wanted to talk about it all.
Why? Because the ruffians and hooligans who carried at the act were, well, terrorists. Yes, terrorists. What else would you call people who in defiance of clear law destroyed a fortune in private property while roughing up the crew and threatening government officials—customs agents. They did so not only in spite of taxes imposed on tea by the English Parliament, but against the wishes of their own Massachusetts born and bred Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson.
And who actually carried out the foul dead? No one admitted it, but everyone was pretty sure that the hair-on-fire radical firebrand Samuel Adams and his so-called Sons of Liberty had something to do with it. Adams had cobbled together a sort of ward political organization from the gangs of apprentices who used to ritually brawl and riot on Pope’s Day, as Guy Fawkes Day festivities were called in Boston. During agitation against the Stamp Act and Townsend Duties Adams marshaled his forces to harass tax collectors—even tarring and feathering some. In 1765 the boys attacked and burned Governor Hutchinson’s home because, although he opposed the Townsend Duties and recommended to Parliament that they be repealed, stood by enforcing the law as written.
Colonial opposition, including the action of Adams and his gang, had forced Parliament to end both the Stamp Act and the Townsend Duties. But Parliament, just to prove it had the authority to do so, left a duty on Tea, most of which arrived in the Colonies after being re-exported from England by the powerful East India Company. Parliament also imposed a duty on tea sold in England, which dramatically reduced consumption and left the company holding tons of tea that they could not sell. The Company determined to sell the tea in the Colonies. The Royal government was determined to collect duties on the tea.
Up and down the coast the Committees of Correspondence organized resistance to accepting the tea and paying the duties. Local governments in Charleston, South Carolina, Philadelphia, and New York each refused to allow a ship containing the tea to dock. But Governor Hutchinson, whose two sons were among the consignees of the cargo, was determined to let the tea land and collect the duty.
Other interests were also opposed to allowing the tea to land. A class of smugglers had gotten very wealthy in the illicit tea trade. If these new shipments landed, even with the duties, the tea would have undersold the smuggled commodity and the criminals would have been ruined. And the chief smuggler and black-marketeer was the colony’s richest man, John Hancock. Sam Adams frequently met with the smuggler and relied on him to finance the activities of his mob. A classic case of corrupt criminals supporting terrorists.
The Dartmouth arrived groaning with East India Tea in November amd inspired packed mass meetings at Faneuil Hall and the Old South Church where resolutions were passed demanding that the ships be turned away. Teams of thugs were dispatched to keep an eye on the docks twenty-four hours a day to prevent the landing. Governor Hutchinson encouraged his sons and other consignees not to give in. He went further, forbidding the Dartmouth, which was soon joined by two more ships, from leaving port without paying the duties. Moreover, if the tea was not landed and the duty paid in twenty-days, the Crown could seize the cargo and sell it itself.
On the evening of December 16, the deadline for paying the duties, a more than 7,000 people—about a quarter of the entire Boston population—crowded around the Old South Church where Adams was conducting another of his rant-a-thons. In addition to the street toughs, there were master mechanics, small tradesmen and shop keepers, seamen from the port, and a sprinkling of mostly down-at-the-heels lawyers and threadbare schoolmasters. Most of the “better class” stayed home with their shutters latched tight. Probably half of the crowd was simply curious about what would happen.
During the meeting it was announced that Hutchinson had again refused to yield and ordered that the tea be unloaded the next morning. Adams reportedly told the crowd “This meeting can do nothing further to save the country.” Many believe that this was a pre-arranged signal that a raid on the ships was on. At any rate, the meeting began to break up. The whole crowd did not, as legend has it, stream to the docks.
Two or three hours later, a group of men and boys estimated to be as few as 30 to as many as 130 made what appeared to be a well organized assault on the Dartmouth and two other ships, the Eleanor and the Beaver. It took a couple of hours to drag all of the chests from the ships’ holds, stave in the chests to prevent them from floating, and dump the cargo overboard. Then the raiders melted into the dark streets of Boston.
Predictably Hutchinson and officials reacted with outrage. But so, almost unanimously, did all of Boston’s “better classes,” excepting, of course, Hancock and his associates who stood to make a killing in smuggled tea. Among those condemning the terrorism were respectable patriots. Benjamin Franklin, the colonial agent in England demanded that the rightful owners of the tea—The East India Company and one small London trader—be repaid “every schilling” lost. At least one wealthy New York merchant offered to personally repay the companies, but was rebuffed by the Ministry, which was in no mood to let Boston off the hook.
Feeling a good deal of heat, Sam Adams denied that he had anything to do with the raid. But he did defend it as the inevitable outcome of popular resentment against alleged tyranny.
In the short term, the terrorists won. No East India Tea landed or paid duty in the colonies that year. Parliament announced that the hated tax would be allowed to lapse—if the tea was paid for.
Hutchinson, as revealed in stolen letters that Franklin sent back to the colonies, urged the Government to get tough on the rebels. The scandal ended Franklin’s career as an agent as he was called before the Privy Council and humiliated.
The government took Hutchinson’s advice, as it was inclined to do in any case. It ordered the port of Boston closed to all commerce, an action intended to impoverish what was one of the most, if not the most, prosperous cities in the Empire. The city, which was already groaning under Redcoat troops “quartered on the town”—in the homes of citizens since the repeal of the Stamp act, would feel increasingly oppressed.
That, too, may have been just what the radicals wanted. It is a truism of terrorists everywhere that they often act to bring on a heavy handed oppression which will build popular resentment. It is a tar baby trick that governments and authorities never fail to fall for. Intentional or not the repression of Boston did fuel the spread of radicalism. In less than two years the powder keg would explode and the American Revolution underway.
Just as the terrorists wanted.
But the Boston establishment never was comfortable with the lawlessness that night in the harbor. After the Revolution, they were terrified by the specter of mob rule. They were scared witless by Shay’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts, which clearly drew on insurrectionist radicalism and contempt of authority inspired by the pre-revolutionary period. The events in the harbor were, by common agreement, simply written out of history and left unmentioned.
By the next century few remembered what had happened or why. But around the fiftieth anniversary of the Revolution things began to change. The Boston elite had become pro-British and so opposed to the War of 1812 that they led an abortive secession movement. But the war, when it finally ended, was popularly viewed, even in the streets of Boston, as a second war of independence. A wave of patriotism swept the country. Among the victims was the deeply conservative establishment Federalist Party. The so-called Era of Good Feeling swept in virtual one party—Democratic Republican—rule in Washington. Even loyal New Englander John Quincy Adams abandoned his father’s party to take a position as Secretary of State in the Monroe administration. Although the rump Federalists clung to control in Boston, they were increasingly challenged by the Republicans—mostly from the same class of laborers, apprentices, mechanics, and shop keepers who had been part of Sam Adam’s old constituency. There was even a new labor movement brewing in the city.
In 1830 two pulp biographies of George Robert Twelves Hewes were published. The previously obscure and impoverished shoe maker was a still living participant of the raid. His story revived interest in the forgotten episode. One of the books even had a new name for the event—the Boston Tea Party. The growing Democracy of Boston embraced Hewes and his story. He was feted at grand public celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the event and lauded as a hero. The excitement may have carried over into the next year when in 1834 the first Democrat-Workingmen’s Party mayor was elected in Boston—to the absolute horror of almost everyone with much money.
Soon the Tea Party re-entered the public consciousness. Later, when the story could no longer be suppressed, it was re-spun to seem more like a mainstream protest.
It is a safe bet that most of those now invoking the Tea Party as a revolt in favor of private property and those who are cynically glad to use genuine popular discontent to shore up their plutocracy won’t tell you any of this.