On December 16, 1773, patriot and Sons of Liberty member Adam Collson is said to have yelled out, “Boston Harbor, a teapot tonight!” He got his wish, with protestors dumping an estimated 46 tons of tea into Boston Harbor. The event helped lead to the Revolutionary War and became a foundational moment in American history—but the event was not without controversy. From the motives of the participants to the focus on Boston and even the name of the event, the Boston Tea Party is full of fault-lines.
1. The Boston Tea Party was prompted by the promise of cheap tea.
The colonists had protested and boycotted the Townshend Acts of 1767, which levied import duties on things like tea, paper, lead, and glass. In 1770, the British government repealed many of the taxes that were part of the Townshend Acts, but not all of them—the tax on tea remained in place. According to History.com, the other taxes were thought to be bad for trade, but if all the taxes were nixed, it would seem like Britain had acquiesced to colonial protest. (It’s also possible that, because tea wasn’t grown in England, it was less of a concern.)
Many colonists were simultaneously thrilled and angered by the new tax rules. One 1770 advertisement proclaimed, “whereas the Duty on Tea still remains unrepealed, We do hereby also further agree, that we will not import from Great Britain, any Tea, until the said Duty be taken off; all other Articles which are free of Duty, we agree to import as usual.” They bought the bulk of their tea from smugglers instead.
Soon after, a financial crisis was brewing in Europe that threatened the destruction of the British East India Company (EIC), forcing them to ask for a bailout. The EIC was sitting on millions of pounds of tea, which seemed a good way to pay these debts—if they could find a market. According to historian Benjamin L. Carp, Europe and England were already saturated with tea and therefore not an option. America seemed an obvious place to unload the extra tea, but lingering anger about taxation and concern about the EIC made that difficult, and the British government was still afraid that repealing the tea tax would make Britain look weak.
2. There was concern that the East India Company’s tea would push out local merchants’ smuggled tea.
Even though the colonists were (largely) firm in their stance against British tea, they were still drinking the beverage. John Adams visited John Hancock in 1771 and recorded that he drank “Green Tea, from Holland I hope, but don’t know.” He probably could have guessed: A contemporary estimate (though possibly an exaggeration) was that around 80 percent of the tea consumed in Massachusetts was smuggled. In New York and Philadelphia, that number was 90 percent.
It’s long been argued that many of the merchants—especially John Hancock—were upset that this cheaper tea would price their smuggled tea out of the market, though the role of smugglers in Boston versus those in New York and Philadelphia is debated.
3. Many colonists weren’t thrilled about the Tea Act.
The colonists had three complaints about the new order: First, the tea tax was still unjust, but colonists might begin to accept it because the tea wasn’t so pricey. Second, the EIC was a monopoly acting with special privileges in the colonies, cutting out most local merchants. (Some modern historians argue that the monopoly angle was just as, if not more, important than taxation.) Finally, the tax was being used to fund salaries for civil officials in Massachusetts, which took away much of the ability to hold these officials accountable from the citizens of Massachusetts.
There was also the issue of the EIC’s actions in Bengal.
4. The East India Company itself was probably a major cause of the Boston Tea Party.
The East India Company had a royal charter that allowed it to fight wars, and in 1757, the company seized control of the region of Bengal, which it then proceeded to bleed dry with exorbitant taxes. By 1770, Bengal was experiencing a severe famine in which between 1 and 3 million people are estimated to have died; the public held the EIC responsible.
There was concern in the colonies that America would be the next to suffer at the hands of the EIC. One New York writer commented that the EIC was “lost to all the Feelings of Humanity,” having “monopolized the absolute Necessaries of Life in India, at a Time of apprehended Scarcity.” According to Carp, a Pennsylvanian lawyer even proclaimed that the East India Company would “cast their Eyes on America, as a new Theatre, [whereon] to exercise their Talents of Rapine, Oppression and Cruelty. The Monopoly of Tea, is, I dare say, but a small Part of the Plan they have formed to strip us of our Property. But thank GOD, we are not Sea Poys, or Marattas, but British Subjects, who are born to Liberty, who know its Worth, and who prize it high.”
5. Four ships brought tea to Boston.
In the fall of 1773, the first ships filled with tea began to sail for the Americas: The Nancy was bound for New York, the Polly for Philadelphia, and the London for Charleston. The Dartmouth, the Eleanor, the Beaver, and the William were bound for Boston.
On November 28, the Dartmouth arrived in Boston Harbor with a shipment of tea and other cargo, followed by the Eleanor and the Beaver a couple of weeks later. The William, however, hit bad weather and ran aground near Provincetown, Massachusetts.
6. The Sons of Liberty organized the Boston Tea Party.
The Sons of Liberty had emerged in 1765 to protest the Stamp Act, and they weren’t just in Boston—Benedict Arnold, for instance, was involved with the Sons of Liberty in Connecticut. But the Boston group was the most famous; both Samuel Adams and John Hancock were prominent members. (Adams and Hancock were so notorious, in fact, that during the Siege of Boston in 1775, British general Thomas Gage offered a pardon to everyone in the city except Samuel Adams and John Hancock, “whose offences are of too flagitious a nature.”) According to History.com, it was Adams who planned the tea party along with 60 members of the Sons of Liberty.
7. The date of the Boston Tea Party—December 16, 1773—didn’t have a particular significance.
It was simply a question of time. The rules were that a ship had to be unloaded within 20 days after docking. If it wasn’t, the cargo (in this case tea) would be seized and auctioned off. With the arrival of the tea in Boston Harbor in late November 1773, a meeting of Bostonians was called at Faneuil Hall in Boston to decide what to do. Too many people showed up, so they adjourned to the Old South Meeting House.
The non-tea items on the Dartmouth were unloaded soon after its November 28 arrival in Boston harbor, but the tea stayed onboard—no one was willing to touch it. This created an uncomfortable waiting game: If 20 days passed, the tea would be auctioned. And if that happened, there were worries the tea would enter America, open the door to more taxation, and embarrass the Bostonians in the eyes of their fellow colonists. Boston tried to send the tea back to Britain, but that was against the law, and Governor Thomas Hutchinson refused to issue a permit.
By December 16, the forced unloading of the Dartmouth was imminent, and a large group of citizens assembled at the Old South Meeting House in Boston to hear if, at the last minute, Hutchinson would finally relent and allow the ship to leave. When news arrived that he wouldn’t, Samuel Adams supposedly said, “they had now done all they could for the Salvation of their Country.” At the same time, people began to leave, possibly to gather those who were preparing themselves for what was to come.
8. The Sons of Liberty “dressed up” as Native Americans during the Boston Tea Party.
According to Carp, the Sons of Liberty probably knew that Hutchinson wouldn’t let the ship leave, so they devised a plan. A select group of men would take an oath of secrecy, promise not to vandalize anything—apart from the tea, of course—or commit violence. Then they would dress as Native Americans.
The disguises were important for a few reasons: Members of the group would be able to disavow their participation, and by choosing to disguise themselves as outsiders, they would hopefully protect the majority of colonists from facing the consequences of what they were about to do.
There was also potential symbolism of the Native American outfits, which separated the colonists from King and Parliament. As Carp writes for History Extra, “These were crude costumes, not meant to conceal so much as warn the community not to reveal the perpetrators’ identities. Yet the choice of a Native American disguise was still significant. Americans were often portrayed as American Indians in British cartoons, and the colonists were often lumped in with the Indigenous population and derided as savages. What better way to blunt the sting of this epithet than to assume an Indian disguise?”
9. The value of the tea tossed during the Boston Tea Party could have bought 46 two-story houses and brewed 18.5 million cups of tea.
As night fell on December 16, some of the Sons of Liberty darkened their faces, wrapped themselves up in blankets and shawls, and arrived at the Old South Meeting Hall. Shortly after, they marched down to where the ships were located, and over the next few hours, 340 chests of tea, some weighing 400 pounds, were smashed open and the contents dumped into Boston Harbor. “This was in fact 46 tonnes of tea worth more than £9659,” Carp writes. “At the time, a tonne of tea cost about the same as a two-story house.” According to the Boston Tea Party Museum, the tea was worth $1.7 million in today’s dollars, and modern estimates indicate that “the destroyed tea could have brewed 18,523,000 cups of tea.”
10. The tea tossed overboard during the Boston Tea Party wasn’t in brick form.
Contrary to internet lore—and Bostonian gift shops—there’s no reason to believe the tea was in the form of bricks. One participant later recalled that some people tried to steal some tea, trying to “snatch up a handful from the deck, where it became plentifully scattered.” But the others quickly put a stop to that.
11. The Boston Tea Party was the climax of weeks of violence and intimidation by Bostonians.
Carp writes in The Journal of the American Revolution that “the destruction of the tea was also the culminating act in a series of violent threats and deeds against friends of government in Boston. Bostonians intimidated importers and customs officers, threw rocks and shattered windows, printed death threats against the tea consignees, surrounded them at their homes and places of business, refused to allow the governor to give them armed protection, and effectively exiled them to a fortified island in the harbor.”
12. The tea from the William escaped the Boston Tea Party.
Much to Samuel Adams’s chagrin, tea from the William, beached near Provincetown, made it ashore in America. Eventually, some of that tea was sold, under the theory that since no duty was paid for the salvaged tea it was morally in the clear. Not everyone agreed, however—one town selectman had his hands and face tarred.
13. Tea Parties weren’t exclusive to Boston.
The words Boston and Tea Party are deeply ingrained in our consciousness, but Bostonians weren’t the only ones protesting British tea. When the Polly arrived in Pennsylvania in December 1773, the ship’s captain was reportedly brought before what was then the largest meeting in Philadelphia’s history, where he was told that the tea wouldn’t be allowed and had to be returned to England.
The captain complied, probably spurred by handbills promising to tar and feather anybody who helped pilot the ship, and—according to one early 20th-century source—a notice he received himself saying, “What think you, Captain ... of a halter round your neck, ten gallons of liquid tar decanted on your pate, with the feathers of a dozen wild geese laid over that to enliven your appearance.” The Nancy (which arrived in 1774 due to storms) also turned around.
When the tea arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, it was eventually unloaded and put in storage. At the time, letting the tea land was controversial, but the patriots there may have gotten the last laugh: It’s said that in 1776, the tea was sold to help cover expenses of fighting off the British. (The London would then go to New York under a different commander with some more tea onboard ... which the New Yorkers dumped overboard.)
Lexington decided to beat Boston entirely. An issue of the Massachusetts Spy newspaper from December 16, 1773—the same day as the Boston Tea Party—proclaimed, “We are positively informed that the patriotic inhabitants of Lexington, at a late meeting, unanimously resolved against the use of Bohea tea of all sorts, Dutch or English importation; and to manifest the sincerity of their resolution they brought together every ounce contained in the town, and committed it to one common bonfire.”
More “tea parties” would take place in York, Maine; Annapolis, Maryland; Greenwich, New Jersey; and even Boston again. In March 1774, the Fortune arrived in Boston with 28 chests of tea, which were promptly thrown overboard.
14. Not everyone was thrilled with the Boston Tea Party.
Many Americans were aghast at the actions in Boston. In a letter to George William Fairfax, George Washington wrote, “the Ministry may rely on it that Americans will never be tax’d without their own consent that the cause of Boston the despotick Measures in respect to it I mean now is and ever will be considerd as the cause of America (not that we approve their cond[uc]t in destroyg the Tea),” while Benjamin Franklin argued for some form of restitution.
15. Britain responded harshly to the Boston Tea Party.
Britain decided to punish Boston with the Coercive Acts, also known as the Intolerable Acts, which temporarily closed Boston’s port, restricted Massachusetts’s self-government, allowed troops to be quartered in colonists’ homes, and permitted some trials to be moved outside of Massachusetts. These acts turned public opinion to the Bostonian side and helped lay the groundwork for the revolution.
16. It wasn’t called the Boston Tea Party for 50 years.
Before the 1820s, the event was referred to as something like “the destruction of the tea in Boston harbor” [PDF]. Carp has proposed that the first references to the Boston Tea Party are to a party of people—for instance, an 1829 obituary for Nicholas Campbell said that he “was one of the Boston Tea Party, who committed one of the first acts of resistance to British oppression by the destruction of a cargo of Tea in Boston Harbour.”
Historian Alfred Young argues that the name was no accident, writing, “The contest over names ... is part of a larger contest for the public memory of the Revolution … What did it mean, then, in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, to speak of the event as the ‘tea party’ and not as the ‘destruction of the tea’? Very likely the new term served both conservative and radical claimants to the Revolution.”
For some, tea party could have reduced how radical the event was—Young notes that the Oxford English Dictionary definition for Boston tea-party is “a humorous name for the revolutionary proceeding in 1773”—and for others it served as a humorous juxtaposition with muscular men having a dainty tea party.
17. There have been other Tea Party movements.
Despite potentially having humorous origins, the phrase Tea Party struck a chord. In 1953, a group of women from Los Angeles dumped boxes labeled ‘TEA’ from a ship on a film studio lot as part of the “Taxpayers’ Economic Association Party,” or T.E.A. Party, for short. Their goal was to talk about the cost of government and high taxes. In 1976, the Montana Tea Party was formed to protest utility rates in that state, and in the 1980s, the Michigan Tea Party received national attention for recalling two state senators following a tax increase.
But undoubtedly the Tea Party most familiar today emerged in 2009. One of the group’s founding members, Christina Botteri, explained to the BBC that “We realized that government spending without the will of the people is a form of taxation without representation.”
18. 2023 marks the Boston Tea Party’s 250th anniversary.
Massachusetts launched a series of programs throughout 2023 to honor the historic event’s 250th anniversary. The grand finale will be a live reenactment of the Boston Tea Party on December 16.
A version of this story originally ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2023.