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Significance of the Boston Tea Party

Updated on November 29, 2017
Nick Burchett profile image

Nick is a US Army veteran, husband and father of three, and has a BA in History. He is a Civil War aficionado and also enjoys genealogy.

Americans throwing Cargoes of the Tea Ships into the River, at Boston
Americans throwing Cargoes of the Tea Ships into the River, at Boston | Source
A depiction of the tarring and feathering of Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm, a Loyalist, by five Patriots on 5 January 1774(1774-01-05) under the Liberty Tree in Boston, Massachusetts.
A depiction of the tarring and feathering of Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm, a Loyalist, by five Patriots on 5 January 1774(1774-01-05) under the Liberty Tree in Boston, Massachusetts. | Source

In 1773, the East India Company was sitting on warehouses of tea in England totally filled to capacity. To avoid a total financial collapse, Parliament enacted the Tea Act which would allow the East India Company to cut out the middleman (England) and ship the tea directly to the colonies in America. The Boston Tea Party (a term, according to historian Alfred Young, did not appear in print until 1834 but was referred to as the “destruction of the tea”) in basic terms was a result on the idea of “taxation without representation”. However, the Tea Act actually decreased the price of legally imported tea, and a much deeper explanation was that the colonists were concerned about the monopolistic East India Company as well as the feeling the British were unfairly taxing them to support not only the failing trade company, but to pay expenses incurred during the French and Indian War and thusly doing so without representation.

As a result, on the night of 16 December 1773, a group of 30 to 130 men, some vaguely dressed as Mohawk Indians, boarded the Dartmouth and dumped all 342 chests of tea, worth over £18,000, into Boston Harbor. This act was carried out by the Sons of Liberty, a group that Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson had been urging London to take a firm stance with, formed during the Stamp Act crisis. Samuel Adams defending these actions stated that the Tea Party was “not the act of a lawless mob, but a principled protest and the only remaining option the people had to defend their Constitutional rights.” In England, King George III stated that, “The die is now cast. The colonies must either submit or triumph.” This would lead to Britain putting in place the Coercive Acts (or as the Americans would call them the Intolerable Acts). John Hancock wrote in his diary on 5 March 1774 on the events of that morning in 1773 that:

While we rejoice that the adversary has not hitherto prevailed against us, let us by no means put off the harness. Restless malice and disappointed ambition will still suggest new measures to our inveterate enemies. Therefore, let us be ready to take the field whenever danger calls; let us be united and strengthen the hands of each other, by promoting a general union among us.

However, it should be noted that not all were in favor of the actions of the Tea Party. Benjamin Franklin stated that the destroyed tea must be repaid. Merchants, such as Robert Murray of New York, went to Lord North and offered to pay for the losses, but were turned down. The Boston Tea Party was not the event that pulled Americans together, but the punishment of the Coercive Acts that would lead to the 13 colonies forming the Continental Congress and boycotting British goods.

Modern "Boston Tea Party" members protesting in 2011
Modern "Boston Tea Party" members protesting in 2011 | Source

The idea that the Boston Tea Party was an act in response to British occupation is misleading. It was actually stated in a circular of the Massachusetts Committee on 17 October 1773 that,

We are far from desiring that the connection between Great Britain and America should be broken."Esto perpetua," is our ardent wish, but upon the terms only of equal liberty. If we cannot establish an agreement upon these terms, let us leave it to another and wiser generation.

The fundamental issue was really self-governance. If taxes were to be levied, they should be levied by the colonies. The colonists had no qualms with taxation or rule, as long as it was done on their terms and by their own “government”.

The legacy of the Boston Tea Party can be felt all the way into the present day. Along the way, future “Tea Party” protesters would invoke the spirit of the Boston Tea Party. When the American Revolution wound down, the idea of, as Tufts University historian Benjamin Carp stated, “celebrating a ragged group of mock Mohawks wielding hatchets in defiance of government” did not fit in with favored patriotic story: The British were the aggressors and the Americans were acting in self-defense. Contemporary Tea Partiers invoke this spirit of radical, yet self-defensive defiance. However, in 1963, writing from a jail in Birmingham Alabama, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. would cite the Boston Tea Party as a “historical example of civil disobedience.”

The significance and impact of the Boston Tea Party would not only be one of the first acts of defiance against the British, but would also put to the test the British, and in particular, Parliament and the King, and their position as having a right to govern and represent a people that they were losing touch with and who were becoming increasingly independent of the Mother Country. It would represent the colonist’s frustration not at occupation but of representation and foster the idea of future self-governance. In the final analysis, the Boston Tea Party would be the focal point for future protests, not only in America but in places such as South Africa and India and lead to future activist groups such as a 2006 libertarian party called the “Boston Tea Party” and the current “Tea Party” that continues to evoke the spirit of change, radical thinking and the idea that governance should be the decision of the people.

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