American Revolution: Boston Tea Party

Painting of the Boston Tea Party showing people dumping tea into Boston Harbor.

Cornischong/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In the years following the French and Indian War, the British government increasingly sought ways to alleviate the financial burden caused by the conflict. Assessing methods for generating funds, it was decided to levy new taxes on the American colonies with the goal of offsetting some of the cost for their defense. The first of these, the Sugar Act of 1764, was quickly met by outcries from colonial leaders who claimed "taxation without representation," as they had no members of Parliament to represent their interests. The following year, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which called for tax stamps to be placed on all paper goods sold in the colonies. The first attempt to apply a direct tax to the colonies, the Stamp Act was met with widespread protests in North America.

Across the colonies, new protest groups known as the "Sons of Liberty" formed to resist the new tax. Uniting in the fall of 1765, colonial leaders appealed to Parliament. They stated that as they had no representation in Parliament, the tax was unconstitutional and against their rights as Englishmen. These efforts led to the Stamp Act's repeal in 1766, though Parliament quickly issued the Declaratory Act. This stated that they retained the power to tax the colonies. Still seeking additional revenue, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts in June 1767. These placed indirect taxes on various commodities such as lead, paper, paint, glass, and tea. Acting in opposition to the Townshend Acts, colonial leaders organized boycotts of the taxed goods. With tensions in the colonies rising to a breaking point, Parliament repealed all aspects of the acts, except the tax on tea, in April 1770.

The East India Company

Founded in 1600, the East India Company held a monopoly on the importation of tea to Great Britain. Transporting its product to Britain, the company was required to sell its tea wholesale to merchants who would then ship it to the colonies. Due to a variety of taxes in Britain, the company's tea was more expensive than tea smuggled into the region from Dutch ports. Though Parliament aided the East India Company by reducing tea taxes through the Indemnity Act of 1767, the legislation expired in 1772. As a result of this, prices rose sharply and consumers returned to using smuggled tea. This led to the East India Company amassing a large surplus of tea, which they were unable to sell. As this situation persisted, the company began to face a financial crisis.

The Tea Act of 1773

Though unwilling to repeal the Townshend duty on tea, Parliament did move to aid the struggling East India Company by passing the Tea Act in 1773. This reduced importation duties on the company and also allowed it to sell tea directly to the colonies without first wholesaling it in Britain. This would result in East India Company tea costing less in the colonies than that provided by smugglers. Moving forward, the East India Company began contracting sales agents in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Aware that the Townshend duty would still be assessed and that this was an attempt by Parliament to break the colonial boycott of British goods, groups like the Sons of Liberty spoke out against the act.

Colonial Resistance

In the fall of 1773, the East India Company dispatched seven ships loaded with tea to North America. While four sailed for Boston, one each headed for Philadelphia, New York, and Charleston. Learning of the terms of the Tea Act, many in the colonies began to organize in opposition. In the cities south of Boston, pressure was brought to bear on the East India Company's agents and many resigned before the tea ships arrived. In the case of Philadelphia and New York, the tea ships were not allowed to unload and were forced to return to Britain with their cargo. Though tea was unloaded in Charleston, no agents remained to claim it and it was confiscated by customs officers. Only in Boston did company agents remain in their posts. This was largely due to two of them being the sons of Governor Thomas Hutchinson.

Tensions in Boston

Arriving at Boston in late November, the tea ship Dartmouth was prevented from unloading. Calling a public meeting, Sons of Liberty leader Samuel Adams spoke before a large crowd and called on Hutchinson to send the ship back to Britain. Aware that law required Dartmouth to land its cargo and pay duties within 20 days of its arrival, he directed members of the Sons of Liberty to watch the ship and prevent the tea from being unloaded. Over the next several days, Dartmouth was joined by Eleanor and Beaver. The fourth tea ship, William, was lost at sea. As Dartmouth's deadline neared, colonial leaders pressured Hutchinson to allow the tea ships to leave with their cargo.

Tea in the Harbor

On December 16, 1773, with Dartmouth's deadline looming, Hutchinson continued to insist that the tea be landed and the taxes paid. Calling another large gathering at the Old South Meeting House, Adams again addressed the crowd and argued against the governor's actions. As attempts at negotiations had failed, the Sons of Liberty commenced a planned action of last resort as the meeting concluded. Moving to the harbor, over one hundred members of the Sons of Liberty approached Griffin’s Wharf, where the tea ships were moored. Dressed as Native Americans and wielding axes, they boarded the three ships as thousands watched from the shore.

Taking great care to avoid damaging private property, they ventured into the ships' holds and began removing the tea. Breaking open the chests, they tossed it into Boston Harbor. In the course of the night, all 342 chests of tea aboard the ships were destroyed. The East India Company later valued the cargo at £9,659. Quietly withdrawing from the ships, the "raiders" melted back into the city. Concerned for their safety, many temporarily left Boston. In the course of the operation, no one was injured and there were no confrontations with British troops. In the wake of what became known as the "Boston Tea Party," Adams began openly defending the actions taken as a protest by people defending their constitutional rights.


Though celebrated by the colonials, the Boston Tea Party quickly unified Parliament against the colonies. Angered by a direct affront to royal authority, the ministry of Lord North began devising a punishment. In early 1774, Parliament passed a series of punitive laws which were dubbed the Intolerable Acts by the colonials. The first of these, the Boston Port Act, closed Boston to shipping until the East India Company had been repaid for the destroyed tea. This was followed by the Massachusetts Government Act, which allowed the Crown to appoint most positions in the Massachusetts colonial government. Supporting this was the Administration of Justice Act, which permitted the royal governor to move the trials of accused royal officials to another colony or Britain if a fair trial was unobtainable in Massachusetts. Along with these new laws, a new Quartering Act was enacted. This allowed British troops to use unoccupied buildings as quarters when in the colonies. Overseeing implementation of the acts was the new royal governor, Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, who arrived in April 1774.

Though some colonial leaders, such as Benjamin Franklin, felt that the tea should be paid for, the passage of the Intolerable Acts led to increased cooperation among the colonies in regard to resisting British rule. Meeting in Philadelphia in September, the First Continental Congress saw representatives agree to enact a full boycott of British goods effective December 1. They also agreed that if the Intolerable Acts were not repealed, they would halt exports to Britain in September 1775. As the situation in Boston continued to fester, colonial and British forces clashed at the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Winning a victory, colonial forces commenced the Siege of Boston and the American Revolution began.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Boston Tea Party." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Revolution: Boston Tea Party. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Boston Tea Party." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).