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Revolutionary War Image Gallery The Boston Tea Party (print), 1846. See more pictures of the American Revolution.

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How the Boston Tea Party Worked

The United States is a country steeped in myths, stories, and powerful images, especially from the American Revolution. Few stories have endured like the Boston Tea Party. Some of the basic facts about the Boston Tea Party are fairly well known. It took place, of course, in Boston, on the evening of Dec. 16, 1773, at a place called Griffin's Wharf. Over the course of three hours, a crowd of about 150 (that's 50 men per each ship, including the Darmouth, the Beaver and the Eleanor) helped to heave 342 chests of tea into the harbor [sources: PBS, Walker]. The East India Company estimated its losses at nearly 9.7 thousand British pounds -- that amount of money represents the equivalent of 18.5 million cups of tea [source: The Old South Meeting House] This massive amount of tea turned the water in the harbor brown for several days [source: The American Revolution].

We know who some of the protesters were but, many also remain unknown. And only one man, a fellow various called Francis Akeley or Francis Eckley, was sent to jail. So what caused this famous act of protest? Were people really dressed as American Indians, and why? What does the Boston Tea Party have to do with "taxation without representation?"

In this article, we'll take a look at those questions and more as we consider this important event in American history. We'll also discuss what exactly caused the residents of Boston to be so upset about a few shipments of tea and why those patriots' acts may have contributed to the start of the American Revolution.

A list in the Boston Gazette, dated Jan. 1, 1770, of the merchants who "audaciously continue" to import British goods into Boston, despite the boycott upheld by many patriotic colonials as a protest against British taxation.

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Taxation Without Representation

Before we look at the Boston Tea Party itself and the events immediately preceding it, it's important to examine how such great tensions between the American colonists and the British government developed. At its core, the Boston Tea Party was a conflict over taxation. You may have heard the phrase "taxation without representation," which developed in this era. Unlike their British brethren, the people living in the 13 colonies did not have direct representatives in the British parliament. Because of that, the colonists had no way to vote for how they would be taxed or who would represent them. And because of this lack of representation, the British government was free to tax the colonists in any way -- and for any amount -- that it saw fit. With no way to fight taxation and no way to claim their rights, many colonists feared that their property could be taken away through debilitating taxes.

Since it had free reign to tax colonists, the years leading up the Revolution saw the British government introduce a number of taxation laws. However, because of protests, the government modified or repealed many of these laws soon afterwards. These laws and subsequent protests contributed to growing tensions throughout the colonies, particularly in Boston, where the British government stationed soldiers in October 1768.

It's easy to understand why the colonists were upset about taxation without representation. But why was tea a focal point of so many protests? First, tea was a very popular drink in Britain and in the colonies. Colonists drank a lot of tea -- at least 1.2 million pounds (544,311 kilograms) a year [source: The Old South Meeting House]. Besides being popular, tea represented a direct connection to the British government, both culturally and financially. The British East India Company imported the tea, known as Bohea or black tea, although it was actually grown in China. By law, the British East India Company was the only company allowed to import tea into the colonies.

Since the British government had such a close hold on the importation of tea and the ability to tax at will, it instituted high taxes on the product to pay for the costly French and Indian Wars. These taxes frequently resulted in the smuggling of cheaper, non-British tea and boycotts of British tea. The British government responded by repealing tea taxes through the 1767 Indemnity Act. That act was short-lived; later that year, the Townshend Acts restored the taxes on tea, in addition to taxing many other commonly imported goods. Subsequent protests and boycotts of British goods caused the government to repeal the Townshend Acts in 1770.

During this time, other taxation schemes were stoking the fires of rebellion. The Stamp Act, passed in 1765, caused riots and protests throughout the colonies. The reaction was so severe that by the time the act went into effect, all stamp commissioners had resigned their positions or left the colonies [source: PBS].

In 1773, the same year as the Boston Tea Party, the British government passed the Tea Act, which authorized the British East India Company to ship tea directly to colonies while the government levied a tax of three pence on each shipment. While the Tea Act actually lowered the price of tea for colonists, many colonists were still angry at being taxed at all. Colonists responded by pressuring local merchants to refuse the shipments, arguing that, despite the low prices on tea, the act was a backdoor method for the royal government to levy taxes [source: The Old South Meeting House]. Merchants resisted the pressure and continued to receive the tea.

John Lamb speaking at the Sons of Liberty Meeting at New York City Hall. The meeting's agenda addressed concerns about British tea being imported to the city. 

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The Dartmouth Sails In

On Nov. 27, 1773, a ship named the Dartmouth sailed into Boston Harbor. Two days later, a group of patriots that called itself the "Body of the People" convened at the Old South Meeting House to discuss what it could do about the tea on that ship. The meeting was to be held at the now-famous Faneuil Hall, but it proved too small a venue. So, the crowd moved to the Old South Meeting House, the biggest building in Boston at the time [source: The Old South Meeting House].

Over at the Old South Meeting House, the group of patriots decided that it would not allow the ship to unload its cargo and that they would not pay any duties, or taxes, on it. Instead, they demanded that the ship return the tea to England. They reached similar decisions about two other ships that would soon arrive, also carrying loads of tea. The protesters were so adamant about not letting the ships unload the tea that they assigned 25 civilians to guard the docks and sent out messages to neighboring towns. The townspeople -- or patriots as anti-British rebels eventually called themselves -- opposed allowing the tea to be unloaded because if that happened, they would still owe a duty even if the tea wasn't sold.

The Royal British governor, Thomas Hutchinson, responded by attempting to keep the ships in the harbor so that the tea could eventually be unloaded. Governor Hutchinson instructed his military commanders to prepare to use force to stop the ships from leaving without unloading the tea. He also requested that members of the Sons of Liberty, a group behind the protest, should be arrested and charged.

On Nov. 30, 1773, several thousand colonists met once again at the Old South Meeting House to discuss the developing crisis. One man offered a compromise from the local merchants. The merchants said that they would receive the tea but not sell it, while they waited to hear more from the British government. The assembled colonists refused. Any offloading of the tea meant paying the tax -- the colonists' main grievance. At the meeting's end, the colonists resolved that "tea should never be landed in this province" [source: The Old South Meeting House].

Meanwhile, two other ships, the Eleanor and the Beaver, were sailing towards Boston loaded with tea. The Eleanor arrived on Dec. 2, and the Beaver followed five days later. The arrival of both ships raised the tensions in Boston. Between Nov. 30 and the final, decisive meeting on Dec. 16, many more meetings took place at the Old South Meeting House as the protesters debated a plan of action.

Samuel Adams (1722-1803) attended the meeting from which the plans for the Boston Tea Party were born.

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The Final Meeting and the Tea Party

By Dec. 14, 1773, support for the boycott of British tea had reached neighboring towns, who had communicated messages of support. Signs were posted all over the city of Boston announcing another meeting in the Old South Meeting House. Some now legendary figures from early American history attended the meeting, including Samuel Adams, Paul Revere and John Hancock.

The attendees told Francis Rotch, owner of the Dartmouth, to ask Gov. Hutchinson for permission to sail out of Boston and back to England. But Gov. Hutchinson would not let the ships leave without unloading the tea.

The governor's decision was announced at a morning meeting of the Body of the People on Dec. 16. Between 5,000 to 7,000 people came to hear the verdict [source: The Old South Meeting House]. The patriots had named midnight of Dec. 16 their final hour to find a solution, so the atmosphere was tense already. Once they heard the verdict, frustrations mounted, and by that afternoon, the crowd could take no more. Someone let out a war cry. Others echoed the cry while some in attendance called for everyone to rush to Griffin's Wharf. A mob descended upon the harbor, divided into three groups -- one for each of the ships -- and began opening crates and dumping tea into the sea.

While a large mob attended the Boston Tea Party, little violence occurred. The ships' crews generally stood by impassively, and the surrounding British warships did not fire their weapons. Some local residents who tried to make off with tea found themselves shoved and kicked by protesters. One of the revelers reported that after the destruction of the tea "the stillest night ensued that Boston had enjoyed for many months" [source: The American Revolution]. Still, the lack of violence does not mean that the patriots weren't determined; the next day some of them returned to Griffin's Wharf and, seeing some tea still floating on top of the water, they approached it in small boats and destroyed what remained by hitting it with their oars.

The first Continental Congress is held in Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia on Sept. 5, 1774. The congress met to define American rights and to organize a plan of resistance against the Coercive Acts, which were imposed by the British Parliament as punishment for the Boston Tea Party.

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Consequences of the Boston Tea Party

The Boston Tea Party was, until that time, one of the most dramatic protests against British colonial rule. Tensions were already high because of many tax laws passed and repealed by the British government and the protests against them. Three years earlier, on March 5, 1770, British soldiers shot and killed five colonists in what became known as the Boston Massacre. The massacre was still a source of outrage for the colonists, and men such as Samuel Adams delivered speeches protesting it in the Old South Meeting House.

Because of slow transport times, England didn't receive news of the Boston Tea Party until January 1774. The British government made their official announcement two months later and embarked on an effort to crack down on the unruly colonists. On April 1, 1774, the authorities closed the port of Boston. Four new regiments of British soldiers arrived in Boston. General Thomas Gage replaced Thomas Hutchinson as governor, and Benjamin Franklin, who at the time represented Massachusetts, was criticized in Parliament for spreading material that showed outgoing governor Hutchinson in a poor light.

The Intolerable Acts, passed in 1774 and also known as the Coercive Acts, represented another attempt by the British government to make an example of Massachusetts. The Intolerable Acts were actually composed of several laws that gave British authorities more control over the colonists and limited the colonists' ability to obtain more power. The Quebec Act set aside a large chunk of land west of the colonies and handed it to the province of Quebec. The Massachusetts Government Act revoked the colony's charter and made it a crown colony with fewer rights (such as outlawing impromptu gatherings). This same act also installed General Gage as the military governor. The Boston Port Bill closed the Boston Harbor. The Administration of Justice Act allowed British officials charged with serious crimes to have their trials take place in Britain or a different colony. Finally, Parliament passed a revision of the Quartering Act, which authorized British soldiers to stay in colonists' homes.

The Boston Tea Party was not the official beginning of the American Revolution, but it was an early, important defining event. The rebellion against colonial rule and subsequent crackdown by the British government galvanized the colonies in their opposition to the Crown, as evident by protests against tea in places outside Massachusetts. Other tea shipments intended for the colonies were forced to return to Britain. In Charleston, British-imported tea made it off the boats but not out of the warehouses where it was stored.

Ten months after the Boston Tea Party, the First Continental Congress met in September 1774. The Declaration of Independence came less than two years after that. The colonies were on their way to outright rebellion and eventual independence, and the Boston Tea Party remains a seminal moment in the development of the nation.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • "Boston 1774." Liberty! Chronicle of the Revolution. Twin Cities Public Television. 2004. http://www.pbs.org/ktca/liberty/chronicle_boston1774.html
  • "How the Boston Tea Party Began." Old South Meeting House. 1999. http://www.oldsouthmeetinghouse.org/osmh_123456789files/BostonTeaPartyBegan.aspx
  • "Intolerable Acts." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. http://search.eb.com/eb/article-9042639.
  • "Mohawk Was Emerging as a Symbol of Liberty in the New Land." Boston Tea Party Historical Society. 2008. http://www.boston-tea-party.org/mohawks.html
  • "The Boston Tea Party." The American Revolution. 2007. http://www.theamericanrevolution.org/hevents/bteapart.asp
  • "The Boston Tea Party." United Kingdom Tea Council. http://www.tea.co.uk/index.php?pgId=38
  • "The Townshend Act." The Avalon Project. Yale Law School. 2007. http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/amerrev/parliament/townsend_act_1767.htm
  • "What was the Boston Massacre?" Boston Massacre Historical Society. 2008. http://www.bostonmassacre.net/
  • PBS. Liberty! Chronicle of the Revolution, Boston 1774. (April 15, 2010). http://www.pbs.org/ktca/liberty/chronicle_boston1774.html
  • Pollard, Dave. "The Boston Tea-Party As 'Eco-Terrorism.'" How to Save the World. Salon.com. Feb. 29, 2004. http://blogs.salon.com/0002007/2004/02/29.html
  • Walker, Ida. "The Boston Tea Party." Abdo Publishing Company. July 2007. (April 15, 2010).