At dusk, on a cold mid-December day in the year 1773, a group of Bostonian men assembled near the Massachusetts city’s waterfront as the evening’s shadows fell. They might well have been going to a party, for they were all costumed, Native American style, wearing fringed buckskins, moccasins, and head feathers, their faces and exposed hands blackened by coal dust. One of them, a George Hewes, was later to write that he and his fellows carried little hatchets they agreed to call “tomahawks.” There might have been as many as 200 of these “Mohawks” and they were soon divided into three sections under three squad leaders. Hewes knew that his commander’s name was Leonard Pitt, but the other two remained strangers to him. Then off they all went to Griffin’s Wharf, where they boarded three English merchant ships — the Dartmouth, the Eleanor and the Beaver — tied up along the dock.
Thus began the immortal Boston Tea Party. During the next three hours, the hatches of the three vessels were unlocked, the 342 chests of tea inside removed, “tomahawked” open and their contents dumped into the dark waters of the harbor. The next morning, Hewes reported, there was so much tea floating on the surface that fears were raised it could be collected and used for beverages so the “Mohawks” piled into small boats and smashed away at the clumps with their oars until the leaves were so drenched they sank.
This whole event has rightfully been characterized as an opening shot of the American Revolution. In our own day and age, it has even been seized upon by a political faction that has used it in pun form for its title of Tea Party, while considerably distorting its original intent. The Boston affair, some Americans have been urged to forget, was not a protest against taxes. It was a full scale attack on British insistence upon TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION.
There are many historical complexities at work here. The full story of the night of December 16, 1773, cannot be told without going back in time and delving into political conditions within the mother country across the Atlantic. Using a modern frame in which to view the issue, one writer has likened the Boston outburst to what happens when a government (like that of King George III) gives massive tax breaks to a favored corporation — in this case the powerful East India Company — and also provides it with a guaranteed monopoly. The English high muck-a-mucks, incidentally, could not fathom the colonists’ adverse reaction, since the tea they were pushing on them would be cheaper for the Americans and the duty was a mere three pennies a pound. So why such a fuss, which has reverberations still in that that United States ever afterward has been essentially a coffee-drinking nation?
If we remember our grammar-school history classes, some names get tossed around in this drama that mostly remain a mystery to us. Sam Adams, we seemingly know, if only for the popular beer we now drink. But who were Lord North and Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend and Lord Hillsborough and Prime Minister George Grenville, as well as the entire apparatus of the oligarchy that ruled Great Britain in the 18th century, plus its toadies like Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor (and eventually governor) Thomas Hutchinson and his sidekick Andrew Oliver?
We need to go back at least eight years from 1773 to the spring of 1765 for a full understanding of the context in which the Boston Tea Party took place. On March 22, 1765, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act by an overwhelming margin of 246-49. It was expected that the American colonies on which this tax — to use legal documents and buy newspapers — was to fall would easily accept the small added impost. Benjamin Franklin himself told the London authorities he expected no trouble.
But such optimism failed to take into account the extent of the American nationalism that had developed in the 13 colonies. To the speech in Parliament by Charles Townshend, where he referred to Americans as “children planted by our care” who would not “grudge to contribute their mite to relieve us from the heavy weight of the burden we lie under,” there was a stinging reply from Colonel Isaac Barre, a pro-American MP of Huguenot origin: “They planted by your care? No! Your oppression planted ‘em in America. They fled from your tyranny to a then uncultivated and inhospitable country, where they exposed themselves to almost all the hardships to which human nature is liable.”
The public British argument for taxing the Americans had been the shaky financial condition of the government following the end of the Seven Years War. Not expressed was the fact that like the present-day situation in Washington, DC, many tax exemptions had been given to the wealthy members of the ruling society. Consequently, looking to spread the pain of their profligacy, they decided that the Americans had to pay the cost of their own protection, never mind that the Americans had mostly defended themselves at their own expense against the French and the Spanish.
In Massachusetts, the response to the Stamp Act was particularly explosive. Andrew Oliver, who had accepted the lucrative job of distributor of the stamps for the province, was a special target of the people’s wrath. On August 14, 1765, he was hung in effigy in Boston, and a mob trashed his office and later burned his stable house and coach and chaise. When Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson and Sheriff Greenleaf tried to stop them, they were stoned, and a week and a half later Hutchinson’s home was similarly assaulted.
Not only was Andrew Oliver forced to resign his distributorship but the royal stamp agents in all the other colonies were likewise pressured to quit. Here, again, the cry was raised of no taxation without representation,and in London the British government listened and took some corrective action. That is, they repealed the tax. But the real issue — that of representation — wasn’t faced. Or rather, through a law Parliament passed called the Declaratory Act, they sought to establish their supremacy. The very title of this law of March 18, 1766, baldly stated its purpose: “An Act for the better securing the dependency of his Majesty’s dominions in America upon the crown and parliament of Great Britain.” Furthermore, its text declared: “That the said colonies and plantations in America have been, are, and of right ought to be, subordinate unto and dependent upon the imperial crown and parliament of Great Britain (…)”, which would have “full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonists and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain in all cases whatsoever.”
Begging to differ, Sam Adams and his cohorts adopted a name for themselves that had been suggested by Colonel Barre: “The Sons of Liberty.” Their goal was to enforce American insistence that Parliament did not rule the colonies and, through long usage, a precedent set that they could only be taxed by their own representative assemblies.
The stage was now firmly set for future fiery confrontations.Had the British government left well enough alone after repeal of the Stamp Act, we Americans might still be loyal subjects of the Crown. Had Charles Townshend stayed out of the fray … well, you get the picture. However, as chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister) and even acting prime minister, this glib member of the “establishment,” who had held various top political offices, could not ignore Great Britain’s fiscal situation as he saw it after 1766. The Townshend Duties he sought to foist upon the 13 colonies re-opened wounds in the transatlantic relationship that had seemed on the verge of healing.
Townshend earlier in his career had headed up a bureaucracy known as the Board of Trade, in which direct responsibility was vested for governing the American colonies. He therefore saw the problem of imperial rule from the haughty and often out-of-touch vantage of a high-ranking British civil servant. Those overseas Yankee Doodles, most especially in Massachusetts, were an unruly and stiff-necked bunch of troublemakers. Each province insisted upon having an … ugh … popularly elected assembly that would have its own way. They gave the governors appointed by the London clique a continual hard time, and worse, they controlled the purse strings, even including the governor’s salary. They dared to challenge Parliament’s right to make laws for them and brayed like donkeys their infernal cry of “No taxation without representation.” Ungrateful wretches. They’d been saved from the French in Canada and the Spanish in Florida by British blood and British treasure and grew ferociously stubborn in refusing to pay anything back.
Charles Townshend was a brilliant speaker. He had no difficulty in persuading Parliament (he’d once been a member of it, too) that revenue had to be raised from the colonies. A word frequently encountered in the political discourse of those days was “prerogative,” or in its longer form, “the King’s prerogative.” Lackeys of His Majesty such as Townshend cited the concept as if it were holy writ. Thus, every act of resistance by Americans to the petty tyrannies of the Crown provoked a fury of suppressed anger in Whitechapel, the seat of the royal minions who were running the show.
For the Townshend Duties — on glass, red and white lead, painter’s colors, paper, and tea — were resisted as fiercely in America as the Stamp Act taxes had been.
Notwithstanding that Townshend had died suddenly and unexpectedly, age 42, of a neglected fever on September 4, 1767, the Townshend Duties introduced less than four months earlier were still being pushed with British arrogance. The results were much the same as during the Stamp Act crisis. The local commissioners the Brits put in charge of enforcing the hated law were hounded mercilessly until they all resigned. Townshend had planned to raise $40,000 from his taxes, but practically none were collected.
For the next three years, these abominable measures remained on the books. The friction they created was not long in forthcoming. A Virginian patriot, John Dickinson, had written a “Declaration of Rights and Grievances,” emphasizing that lacking colonist members, Parliament had absolutely no right to tax Americans, and by then it was also well known that Townshend’s motive had been to create slush funds for Royal governors to pay their own salaries and eliminate any control the colonists might have over politicos foisted upon them by London.
On February 11, 1768, Sam Adams initiated an action in the Massachusetts General Court, based on John Dickinson’s philosophy, that had widespread influence as far away as Georgia. Known as the “Rescinding Controversy,” it centered on a circular letter that Adams had gotten the Bay Colony assembly to approve and send to the other colonies. Its message was that they should all stand firm and not pay any British taxes without representation. In response, a highhanded British aristocrat, the secretary of state for the colonies, Lord Hillsborough (his given name was the silly-sounding Wills Hill) essentially threw gasoline on the fire. He peremptorily ordered the Massachusetts lawmakers to RESCIND their support of Sam Adams’ letter. They did so, as the term was then used, “in the negative.” The vote against obeying Hillsborough was 92, while only 17 local members backed the King’s pompous placeman. These apple polishers were promptly termed “miscreants” and burned in effigy, at the same time that the 92 defiant patriots were lauded as “heroes.” In fact, Paul Revere was chosen to create a special silver punch bowl to honor the “Glorious 92.”
The next prime minister, starting in 1770, was Frederick North, the Earl of Guilford. Although as hard-nosed as his predecessors vis-à-vis the Americans, he was smart enough to realize that the tough policy wasn’t working. This was particularly true after red-coated troops were sent to occupy Boston and the infamous Massacre occurred on March 5, 1770, in which five Bostonians were shot and killed. A little more than a month later, Lord North had the Townshend duties, themselves, rescinded—well, all except the one on tea.
The British government still remained adamantly intent on expressing its superiority over the colonial governments. In May 1773, it passed the Tea Act, which gave a monopoly to the East India Company to export directly to all British colonies and a whopping shipping subsidy of four-fifths of its transportation costs. Since their tea would now not only be of better quality and much cheaper than smuggled tea, the company execs thought the colonists would fall all over themselves to buy it. Just the opposite, however. The whole scheme was branded as just another British scam to slap them with taxes without representation. Seven company vessels loaded with tea were sent out from England, one of them sinking in a storm on the way. In New York and Philadelphia, the East India ships and their cargoes were simply sent back. In Charleston, South Carolina, the bales were unloaded and left rotting on the docks, and we all know what happened in Boston, to which the bulk of the beverage had been sent.
The reaction in Great Britain to the Tea Party was, to say the least, apoplectic.
How dare the Americans!!! Unified in its anger, Parliament passed a series of Coercive Acts, better known on this side of the Atlantic as the Intolerable Acts. These ended up as steppingstones to Concord and Lexington less than two years later. Even before that shooting started in April of 1775, the British showed they still didn’t get it. In February 1775, Lord North trotted out a Conciliatory Act, offering to end all taxation for any colony that provided for imperial defense and upkeep of imperial officers. No thanks, the unified response came back. The Patriots’ formal language and intent could not have been clearer, declaring: “That the colonies of America are entitled to the sole and exclusive privilege of giving and granting their own money…”
Years later, commemorating this epic moment on the Boston dockside, a ballad was written. It was quite long, in keeping with the custom of the time. But the pithy bite of its opening lines, done with typical understated New England irony, sets the mood well, and helps explain why the Boston Tea Party has so embedded itself in our American consciousness, even if a certain present-day political faction has opportunistically sought to alter the true extent of its meaning.
“An evening party — only that
No formal invitation
No gold-laced coat, no stiff cravat
No feast in contemplation
A tribe of red men, axe in hand
Behold the guests arriving.”