The Boston Tea Party and the Beginning of the American Revolution

From a lecture Series presented by Professor Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D.

Well before the infamous Boston Tea Party, unrest in Boston grew so common that in September of 1768, two British infantry regiments were landed to keep order. For the next 18 months, those bewildered redcoats did nothing but unintentionally antagonize Bostonians.

"The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor" for the article on Boston Tea Party
Iconic 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier entitled “The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor”

Boston Massacre

They held band concerts on Sundays—Sundays in Puritan Boston. They took moonlighting jobs that bumped Bostonians out of work. They did the routine job of standing guard and challenging Bostonians in the streets, something that had never happened to them before. Without really seriously intending it, all they did was pile on antagonism upon antagonism, and despite being on orders to mind their behavior (or maybe it was because they were given orders to mind their behavior), the troops were constantly taunted.

Learn more: The Great Awakening

In February of 1770, there was a shooting incident that killed an 11-year-old boy. Then on March 5, a street fight involving a soldier brought the guard watch of the 29th Regiment out into King Street in Boston, where a crowd had gathered to watch the fight. The captain of the soldiers tried to disperse the crowd, but one of the soldiers, Hugh Montgomery, was hit by a club. He raised his musket, and “Bang!” Off it went.

Painting of the Boston Massacre
Boston Massacre

The other soldiers promptly began firing into the crowd, and in a few minutes three were dead and two others would die later of wounds. It was billed as the Boston Massacre, and it confirmed in the minds of Americans that the British had lapsed so far from virtue, lapsed so deeply into depravity, that they were now willing to shoot down their fellow British subjects without provocation. The outcry was so great that the 29th Regiment had to be withdrawn from Boston and a new government, headed by Frederick North, the Earl of Gifford, suspended the Townsend taxes, except for the tax on the imports of tea.

The suspension of most of those taxes brought quiet but not peace, because the mere suspension of the taxes was not the same thing as Parliament recognizing the legitimacy of the colonies’ protest against being treated as plantations. Americans relaxed their vigilance but not their anxieties. Committees of correspondence were organized, linking the colonial legislatures and monitoring British activities. A British revenue cutter was burned near Providence, Rhode Island, in June 1772, and American merchants tried to apply economic leverage on Parliament by boycotting English imports.

Learn more: The Rejection of Empire

Bargain Tea Causes Public Outcry 

Painting of Lord North
Lord North, prime minister of the United Kingdom, 1770-82

What blew the lid off this uneasy peace was the Tea Act of 1773, which is odd, because the Tea Act not only did not involve new taxes, but it actually offered Americans a luxury item at bargain prices. The Tea Act, in fact, didn’t even begin with America. It originated halfway around the world, in India, where the last of the great old joint-stock companies, the East India Company, was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

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Lord North’s government dreaded the prospect of being saddled with the government of India, and so Lord North proposed a bailout of the East India Company. All taxes except the Townsend tax on colonial imports of tea—all taxes on 17 million pounds of stockpiled Indian tea—would be lifted. That would drive down the price of Indian tea and help the East India Company move its inventory everywhere in the British Empire, including America.

Learn more: The Great War for Empire

However, far from being grateful at visions of cheap cups of tea, Americans were only prepared to put the most sinister of constructions on the Tea Act. Lowering the price of tea, they thought, was a trick to induce Americans to buy it at a bargain and thus lure them into paying that one remaining Townsend tax, the tax on tea; when they did that, that would legitimize Parliament’s claim to taxing rights in America. Therefore, in Philadelphia and New York, East India Company ships were persuaded to turn around and sail back to England. If they didn’t, a coat of tar and feathers was promised to their captains.

90,000 Pounds of Tea 

In Boston, however, Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson, still smarting from the destruction of his home and the Stamp Act riots, flatly ordered the three tea ships in his harbor unloaded over the fearful protests of their captains, who had already been visited by the Sons of Liberty. The captains were right to be fearful. On the night of December 16, 1773, Boston’s Sons of Liberty, thinly disguised as Mohawk Indians, boarded the ships and pitched 90,000 pounds of tea into Boston Harbor. In nearly 10 years of political turmoil, the Americans had protested, insulted, and harassed soldiers and representatives of the crown, but they had never taken direct destructive action until now, at least not in the open.

Boston Tea Party

Martial Law and Retaliation 

This Boston Tea Party, as it became known, broke that last line of restraint. “We must master them,” King George III remarked grimly, “or totally leave them to themselves.” With retaliation festering in their hearts, Parliament passed a series of punitive bills commonly labeled the “Intolerable Acts.” The Intolerable Acts, among other things, closed the port of Boston until compensation had been paid for the tea and replaced the civil government with martial law under the British army’s commander-in-chief in North America, Major General Thomas Gage.

Learn more: The American Revolution—Politics and People

Retaliation only bred more anger in America. A convention in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, adopted a series of resolves attacking the Intolerable Acts and sent those resolves to the other colonies. In May 1774, the Virginia burgesses declared that it was “an attack on all British America and threatens ruin to the rights of all.” Both Virginia and Massachusetts issued a call for a Continental Congress to meet in Philadelphia in September 1774. Twelve of the thirteen North American colonies sent representatives (except Georgia), and after endorsing the “Suffolk Resolves” and passing resolutions denying Parliament any power to directly tax the colonies, the Continental Congress agreed to meet again in May 1775 to evaluate the situation.

The British Are Coming! 

By then, the situation was beyond just evaluating. General Gage dissolved the Massachusetts legislature when he found he could not control it, only to have the members of the legislature reassemble in western Massachusetts, beyond his reach, calling themselves the Provincial Convention of Massachusetts. Rumors that the stockpiling of weapons and gunpowder by the Americans was taking place drove Gage to recommend the repeal of the Intolerable Acts and the dispatch of 20,000 troops to Boston, but Lord North’s government would have none of it.

Painting of Paul Revere, by J.S. Copley
Paul Revere, by J.S. Copley

In April 1775, after learning that a large cache of war supplies had been hidden in the town of Concord and that two of the leaders of the Sons of Liberty—John Hancock and Samuel Adams—were hiding in nearby Lexington, General Gage authorized a picked force of 800 British grenadiers and light infantry from the Boston garrison to slip out of town by night and strike Lexington and Concord at dawn on April 19.

The militia in Lexington was tipped off in advance by a member of the Boston Committee of Correspondence—a silversmith named Paul Revere—and when the British troops marched into Lexington, the militia was drawn up on the town green. There was an unplanned exchange of fire and the militia scattered, but Hancock and Adams were nowhere to be found in Lexington.

Learn more: The American Revolution

When the British marched to Concord, they found a much larger force of militia waiting for them. Forced to fall back, the British retreat turned into a rout almost all the way back to Boston. The time for patience, the time for politics, had ended. A revolution was about to begin.

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From the Lecture Series: A History of the United States, 2nd Edition
Taught by Professor Gary W. Gallagher Ph.D. and two others