How the Boston Tea Party Worked


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there, Candace.

Candace Gibson: Jane, it's getting to be that time of year when people are doing their Holiday shopping and the kids out there are compiling their Christmas lists. And little Candace, from the days of yore - one of the hottest items I ever wanted was an American Girl doll. Did you ever have those growing up?

Jane McGrath: I didn't. But all my friends talk about how they loved them when growing up.

Candace Gibson: They were the best. And I guess it was just fate that I turned out to be a history buff, because these dolls are all steeped in American history. And the one I loved the most was Felicity, because she was a redhead like me. And the premise behind Felicity was that she was a colonist and her parents were patriots. And there was a time that came when Felicity, who was learning how to be a young woman with manners, had to start refusing tea because her parents were teaching the family that it was unpatriotic to drink tea.

Jane McGrath: That's really interesting. That would've been hard for me because I like tea a lot.

Candace Gibson: I know. And since it's free here at the office, why not? Gulp it down. And it wasn't just without rhyme or reason that Felicity had to refuse tea. There's actually a historical basis for this.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and it all started back in colonial days when American colonies were still being ruled by Britain. Basically, Britain had left the colonies alone for a long time, "Do your own thing." And soon the Parliament started instituting taxes on the colonists and started enforcing it in such a way that the colonists weren't used to it. And they're like, "This doesn't make sense anymore. You're treating us below citizens." So they enforced the Stamp Act way back in 1765. And this was interesting. People think it only had to do with mailing stamps, but it actually - lots of things had to be stamped at this time because of the tax. Newspapers and playing cards even, had to be stamped with this tax. You had to pay something for the stamp in order to pay the taxes to Britain. And so this was seen as an oppressive act, so the colonists rejected it. And Britain came back and said, "Okay, all right. You can't take internal taxes. That's fine. But we're going to come back and tax the duties - imports to the colonies."

Candace Gibson: And things got so bad around the time of the Stamp Act that the people who were actually in charge of overseeing the stamping resigned and left their posts.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, it was such a big scandal.

Candace Gibson: But you're probably heard the expression, "No taxation without representation." You certainly didn't miss that in history class. But you may not know why this was such a big deal. So before we get into the tea side of the situation, I have an analogy for you. When you're off at college, you're doing your own thing; you're in charge of yourself. You may not be paying the bills; your parents may be helping out a little bit. But essentially, you're ruling the roost. You set your schedule, you go to class, you feed yourself - and then Christmas break strikes. And you come home and you're back under your mom and dad's roof. And all of a sudden, curfew is back on. They want to tell you what you're going to be eating for dinner. They want to tell you how to spend your time and who you can see.

Jane McGrath: Wanna know where you're going.

Candace Gibson: They want to know where you're going. Exactly! And this is probably how the colonists felt. Because Parliament was essentially levying all these rules and policies against them! And if they made enough noise, Parliament would back off. They'd either amend the policies or they'd repeal them entirely. And so the colonists learned that this would work. Make enough noise, because enough riots, protest just enough and Parliament's going to stop. And the thing is, people over in England who were under the monarchy's rule - yeah, it was okay for Parliament to make the rules for them because they had representatives. But in the colonies there was no one.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And that's when they started rallying, "No taxation without representation." They didn't vote for anybody to represent them in Parliament, so they thought, "Why do you have the right to tax us when we don't have a say in it?" And Parliament argued that the colonies did have representative, something they called virtual representation. Every single person in the government represented all the colonies. But that didn't sit well with the colonists.

Candace Gibson: Not at all. And so you mentioned that things that were imported into the colonies had taxes attached to them. And one of these items was tea. And you've got to understand how popular tea was. Essentially, it was the only thing - well, it wasn't the only thing people drank but it was the beverage of choice.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, it's hard to imagine in our coffee-obsessed culture, but if you replace it with coffee and we think all of a sudden there's a monopoly on coffee or all of a sudden coffee was taxed up the wazoo, we'd get really upset. We would get upset because a lot of caffeine addicts would be upset.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. And I think that the colonies were consuming about 1.2 million pounds - weight-wise, not money-wise - per year. That is a ton of tea. And if you drink coffee, like you were saying Jane, you have a couple of different purveyors you can choose from. You can go generic. You can go high class. You can go middle of the road grocery store brand - whatever. But for the colonists, it was only the tea coming from the British East India company.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and that upset a lot of people, especially merchants who had contracts with other providers. And all of a sudden they had to only deal with English tea, and they were a little upset about that as well.

Candace Gibson: So the idea behind these different laws regarding the taxes on teas were that Parliament could levy the popularity of tea and the limited supply of tea to raise money for the French and Indian Wars. And again, the colonists were mad about this because they felt like they had no say in these wars.

Jane McGrath: That's right.

Candace Gibson: They were helping fund a war they weren't really participating in that much.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, it's interesting. I guess you could say England had somewhat of a good case in saying, "This French and Indian War went on in the colonies and we were protecting you. We were protecting your lives from the French and Indian forces. And we want to pay for not only the debts we incurred during that war, but for a standing army to protect it." But at the same time, obviously England wasn't acting exactly selflessly. They had stake in their American colonies. They had value to them. So it's not just that they were acting to protect the colonists.

Candace Gibson: Right. And out of all the colonies, Boston was really one of the hot seats for -

Jane McGrath: Massachusetts, yeah.

Candace Gibson: - the protesting sentiment sweeping through the colonies. And one of the reasons was that there were soldiers stationed there, starting around October 1768. And you have to imagine, there's unrest. People are talking, people are dissatisfied - and then these soldiers come in. And not only that, the colonists were asked to actually quarter them in their homes.

Jane McGrath: I can't even imagine what that was like, the quartering idea of British soldiers coming in and saying, "We are not going to pay you back. But you have to give me a place to stay. Deal with it."

Candace Gibson: But the people of Boston weren't ready to do that, so they fought back. So as far as the question of tea goes, they did the make a lot of noise get the laws repealed thing. And that worked a couple of times. We had the 1769 Indemnity Act, which repealed the tea tax. But then the Townshend Acts restored it. And then those were repealed in 1770. But then, in 1773 we have the Tea Act that comes along. So it lowers the price of tea because the British East India Company can bring the tea directly to the colonies, but there's still a tax on it.

Jane McGrath: That's true. And there's two things going on here. One is the fact that only the East India Company could provide the tea. So there was a monopoly that they were enforcing on the colonies. And also, even though there was - the most recent thing that happened was that there was a cut on taxes on tea. So they could get tea a little bit cheaper than they usually could. So it wasn't just about money, it was about the principle and it was about the monopoly.

Candace Gibson: Right. The principle of the matter! And so on November 27, 1773 there's this notice that goes up in Boston. And essentially it's informing the citizens that the "detested tea" is on its way from a ship called The Dartmouth. So some people from Boston gather in the Old South Meetinghouse, and they start talking about what they can do about this tea. And there's a couple of different solutions that they float, a couple of different ideas. And ultimately these sorts of meetings go on for months and months and months. And during this time, the Royal British Governor, Thomas Hutchinson, he's getting wind that the colonists, the patriots in particular, are planning something. So he tells his troops to use force to keep the ships in the harbor. Because one of the tactics that the colonists had tried was asking if the ship's captains would just sail away, just leave.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And this is a standstill. We should also note that the ships wanted to unload their tea, but the colonists particularly didn't want them to do that because then they'd have to pay the duty. Apparently, according to the law, as soon as the tea was unloaded, somebody had to pay the duties on it.

Candace Gibson: Right. So that's really significant. So not just keeping the ships in the harbor, but keeping the tea on board the ships. So over time, these meetings start to draw about 5,000 different people. And that's a big number considering that the population was only around 15,000. And eventually they get enough people clamoring, especially by virtue of the sons of liberty who were a pretty active group of protestors and patriots.

Jane McGrath: Sam Adams and -

Candace Gibson: Sam Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock - they decide they can do something about this. And around this time, there's two more ships that come in, The Eleanor and The Beaver. So they're down at Griffin's Wharf. The people are at the Old South Meetinghouse. They've been meeting for months. They've been discussing - and then finally out of nowhere - well, maybe not out of nowhere - but unexpectedly someone lets out a battle cry. And it's more of a guttural noise than anything else, and it riles the people up and they turn into a mob. And they stormed down to the wharf and spend three hours - there's a 116 of them - dumping tea into the harbor.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And they ended up dumping 90,000 pounds, I think it was?

Candace Gibson: Yeah. And by today's dollars, that's about $1 million worth of tea, or 18.5 million cups. And the water was brown for days.

Jane McGrath: I imagine.

Candace Gibson: But it was a polite mob, as far as you can use that term.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, it wasn't violent.

Candace Gibson: Yeah. I think that there was some kicking and screaming - and the colonists who actually tried to filch some tea and take it home for themselves. They were rebuked by kicking, punching, hitting - that sort of thing.

Jane McGrath: Which shows a testament to the principle of the matter? The rioters had some pride in the principle of the thing.

Candace Gibson: Right. They were making a statement. It was completely against the British government. It wasn't about the each other. And only one man out of that 116 people was arrested. And at this point, the colonists had to reevaluate, "What happens next?" And the day after this, which would have been December 17, 1773, they went back, they observed the harbor. There was still some tea floating around, so they beat it with their oars and made it go underwater. It had all but been destroyed, but the British government didn't get word of the Tea Party - it was called - until January 1774.

Jane McGrath: That's right. Obviously it took some time for the news to get over there with the ships. There wasn't planes back then. So when the message finally got there, they were less than pleased to say the least. And they enacted a few different things as punishment to Boston, in particular. One was the Port of Boston was closed. And they said, "You can't reopen until the East India Company is reimbursed for all the tea that you destroyed." And other things - the Quartering Act was reinstated, the idea of British troops being able to stay in the houses of colonists at the time. And another one was that British officials who were accused of major crimes couldn't be tried in the colonies. England was obviously suspicious of that at this point. So they said, "You have to ship them back to Britain before you try them." And finally, I think there were restrictions on town meetings in Massachusetts in particular. They were obviously afraid of more rabblerousing going on there.

Candace Gibson: And so a lot of people have the misconception that the Boston Tea Party was the direct link to the Amer ican Revolution.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that's the idea you get in history class, yeah.

Candace Gibson: And that's not true. Because we know the concept of make noise, get it repealed went on for a little while. But then finally - about ten months after the tea party occurred - some citizens got together. And this was when the Declaration of Independence began to be drafted and people really started to think about having an organized rebellion against England, not just the citizens of Boston. Not just Massachusetts, but all the colonies who'd been feeling this way for awhile.

Jane McGrath: And you could make the case that even other colonists who were for independence eventually looked at the Boston Tea Party as rabble-rousers, a nuisance, an uncalled for mob. And it's interesting to look back on it and see that now it goes down in history as this myth of the creation of the United States, at least.

Candace Gibson: And I love the name Boston Tea Party. I'm not quite sure how that came to be, but we know that one of the cries that was uttered during the rebellion was, "Let's make a teapot of the harbor."

Jane McGrath: And they did.

Candace Gibson: They did. And I just think it really speaks to the American spirit that these people were inventive and ingenious in what they did. Because in the end, like you said, they owed some money to the British East India Company. But there weren't lives lost.

Jane McGrath: That's true.

Candace Gibson: It was all done in good patriotic form.

Jane McGrath: Peaceful protest somewhat.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, mobs are funny like that.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And if you want to learn more about mobs, there's a podcast called Smart Mobs in Stuff You Should Know another How Stuff Works podcast.

Candace Gibson: And for even more about the city of Boston and the American Revolution and Tea itself, be sure to check out howstuffworks.com.

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