Spilling The Tea: Rebellious Facts About The Boston Tea Party

Before the Continental Congress got together, Americans protested British rule by throwing tea into the harbor. Even today, Americans joke about throwing tea into the ocean to declare their independence. Although most people know the CliffNotes version of the Boston Tea Party, the real story is much more complicated.

For instance, if you think that people revolted because of high taxes, you would be wrong. The motivation behind the Boston Tea Party is complex, and they didn’t even target British ships. Learn more about the “unofficial” American Revolution, the Boston Tea Party.

Taxes Didn’t Spark The Protest

Many people believe that the Boston Tea Party occurred because of taxes enacted by the Tea Act. In reality, the Tea Act lowered taxes on tea. The real issue was with the Townshend Revenue Act, which had been effective since 1767.

An illustration shows participants of the Boston Tea Party emptying tea into the ocean.
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The Print Collector/Getty Images

Along with tea, the Townshend Revenue Act placed high taxes on oil, lead, glass, paint, and paper. In 1770, Parliament repealed all of these taxes except for tea. The tea tax was intended to get the British East India Company out of debt; however, it had very negative consequences.

Before The Tea Act, Smugglers Resold Tea

The Tea Act gave the British a monopoly over tea sales. Before it, though, many Americans earned money by smuggling tea. They would buy from British and Dutch markets and then resell it at a higher price. Sometimes, they would sell it to the colonies; other times, they’d send the tea back to Europe.

A painting displays a young woman drinking tea above a harbor.
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One of the most famous tea smugglers was John Hancock–yes, the man who would sign the Declaration of Independence. He was a wealthy shipping magnate and made a lot of his money smuggling tea. As you can imagine, he disapproved of the Tea Act.

The New Taxes Hurt Tea Sellers

The Tea Act didn’t only lower taxes on tea. It also sliced the price in tea in half, as long as you bought it from the British East India Company. This left colonist store owners struggling to make ends meet because they had to sell tea at certain prices to make money. The British had gained a monopoly on the tea trade.

An illustration shows an American colonist reading the royal proclamation of a tax on tea.
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In addition, American colonists weren’t getting the best tea. As part of the Tea Act, the British East India Company could sell surplus tea in the American colonies. So Americans were basically getting Europe’s sloppy seconds.

The Group Was Called The Sons Of Liberty

The group that enacted the Boston Tea Party was called the Sons of Liberty. Historians aren’t sure when this secret group formed. However, records from 1765 indicate that the Sons of Liberty existed in New York and Boston. Both groups worked together by meeting up through an underground network.

An illustration shows the Sons of Liberty burning boxes of tea.
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PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Historians believe that the Sons of Liberty initially met to protest the Stamp Act of 1765. Their motto, “No taxation without representation,” would later become famous. When the Tea Act arose in 1773, the Sons of Liberty were quick to react.

Samuel Adams Was Apparently The Leader

Founding father Samuel Adams is credited as being the leader of the Sons of Liberty. The son of a wealthy brewer, Adams had long protested British rule. He even wrote his Harvard thesis about it.

A portrait shows the founding father Samuel Adams.
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Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Although Samuel Adams organized and encouraged people to join the Boston Tea Party, he did not dump tea into the ocean. Like John Hancock, he led a more diplomatic role. However, he did organize boycotts that involved violent acts such as smashing windows and looting British officers’ homes.

Initially, Protesters Tried To Send Tea Back To England

The Sons of Liberty didn’t immediately haul tea into the ocean. Instead, they planned to send all the packed tea back to England. In December 1773, the ship Dartmouth docked in Boston. The crew had 20 days to unload all of the cargo and return to England.

Colonists ride a rowboat in the Boston Harbor.
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Fotosearch/Getty Images

The Sons of Liberty quickly went to work. They unloaded all the cargo except for the tea. Samuel Adams negotiated with the ship’s owners, who resisted, saying that they legally had to unload their cargo. Eventually, the Royal Governor of Massachusetts announced that Dartmouth must be allowed to leave.

Protesters Snuck Onto The Boat In Disguise

Since the Sons of Liberty couldn’t send the tea back to England, they resorted to more drastic measures. On December 16, 1773, several men disguised themselves as Native Americans and stormed the ships. To this day, nobody knows who participated in the Boston Tea Party.

A painting depicts the Sons of Liberty dumping tea in disguise.
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Ed Vebell/Getty Images

According to one source, they were lead by an anonymous commander. The protesters quickly overpowered the crew and gathered as much tea as they could. In total, they tossed 342 chests of tea into the harbor. British officers later led them off, but nobody was arrested.

…But Their Disguises Were Not Convincing

Although the Sons of Liberty dressed as Native Americans, they didn’t do so convincingly. They covered their faces with coal soot and all carried tomahawks. Obviously, they didn’t speak the language–everyone could tell that they were actually Bostonians in disguise.

The participants of the Boston Tea Party, disguised as Native Americans, throw tea overboard in this art piece from 1898.
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GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

But the disguise wasn’t meant to convince people, says history professor Benjamin Carp. During the 1700s, it was customary for protesters to dress up as another community, such as Catholic priests. They did it to obscure their identities since they were committing a crime.

The Ships Targeted Were American, Not British

Although the Boston Tea Party protested British law, the ships targeted were not British. The protesters attacked three ships: the Dartmouth, Beaver, and Eleanor. Each ship carried over 100 chests of tea. Although the tea was British, the ships themselves were American, built by affluent merchants throughout the state.

A painting shows colonists waving at the Sons of Liberty during the Boston Tea Party.
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Initially, four ships were planned to sail to Massachusetts. The fourth ship, the William, ran aground on the way. Some of its tea later washed up on the Boston’s shores, and the Sons of Liberty destroyed them.

The Protest Caused Thousands Of Pounds Worth Of Damage

The Boston Tea Party destroyed over 92,000 pounds of tea. Plus, the tea’s containers were smashed by axes and dumped into the ocean. This cost the British East India Company at least £9,659. In today’s money, that’s over $1,700,000. If the tea had not been destroyed, it could have brewed around 18,523,000 cups.

In 1874, workers shovel tea into a pile.
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Besides the lost tea, one of the ships also maintained damage. Although the protesters didn’t harm the ship or crew members, one of them destroyed a padlock. The padlock was a crew member’s personal property, and the Patriots replaced it afterward.

In Response, Britain Passed The Coercive Acts

In response to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament and King George III passed even more strict laws on the American colonies. The Coercive Act closed the Boston harbor until the tea was paid for, interrupting local businesses. It also granted freedom of religion to Catholics since most protesters were Protestant.

An actor gives a speech during a re-enactment of the Boston Tea party.
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

But the Coercive Acts also put Massachusetts under martial law. They ended all free elections for town officials and put British judges in charge. Colonists were enraged by these changes, eventually dubbing them the “Intolerable Acts.”

Riots Began After The Coercive Acts, Not The Tea Party

Contrary to popular belief, the riots in Massachusetts did not begin after the Boston Tea Party. Most residents ignored the Tea Party until the Coercive Acts came into play. They saw the Coercive Acts as a violation of their colonial charter and their natural rights as humans.

Boston colonists chase the governor of Massachusetts in response to the Stamp Tax.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Parliament hoped that the Coercive Acts would only anger the few radicals in Massachusetts. The opposite happened. People from all over the state boycotted the acts, and many called for an act of revolution. The acts garnered sympathy from other states and united the colonies together.

Benjamin Franklin Offered To Pay For The Dumped Tea

After the Boston Tea Party, the British East India Company demanded that the residents of Boston pay for the lost tea. But one man offered to replenish all of the £9,659 lost. Benjamin Franklin offered to pay for all of the dumped tea himself.

An illustration shows Benjamin Franklin reading at a table.
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Stock Montage/Getty Images

Franklin lived in London at the time, and he wrote a letter to the leaders of the Sons of Liberty, Samuel Adams and John Hancock. He agreed that the tax laws in America were unjust, but he also claimed that the British East India Company was not the enemy. British law was the enemy, in Franklin’s eyes.

George Washington Disapproved Of Destroying Tea

After the Boston Tea Party incident, many of America’s leaders expressed their opinions about it. George Washington disapproved of the destruction of the tea. He claimed that Bostonians “were mad” and that it was inappropriate to destroy private property.

A painting displays George Washington.
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Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

At the same time, Washington understood why the protesters acted. In June 1774, he wrote that “the cause of Boston…ever will be considered as the cause of America.” He was right in that the Boston Tea Party became a symbol of protesting British rule just before the Revolution.

There Was A Second Boston Tea Party

In March 1774, there was a second Boston Tea Party. In response to the Coercion Acts, 60 protesters snuck onto a ship called Fortune. They threw 30 chests of tea into the harbor, less than 10% of the tea disposed of during the first Tea Party.

A vintage illustration shows members of the Boston Tea Party destroying tea crates.
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GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

The second Boston Tea Party did not become as famous as the first. However, it did inspire a string of tea parties in other states. Protesters in Maryland, South Carolina, and New York all threw British tea into the ocean at some point.

It Wasn’t Originally Called The Boston Tea Party

Over 50 years after the Boston Tea Party, it still wasn’t called the Boston Tea Party. Americans didn’t have a good name for the event. Colonists simply called it “the destruction of the tea,” and everyone knew what they meant.

Boston Tea Party re-enacters pour water into the harbor.
David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The earliest known reference of “the Boston Tea Party” comes from an 1826 newspaper. In the 1830s, two books referencing the event came out. They were called Retrospect of the Tea-Party and the Traits of the Tea Party. Eventually, Americans would call the protest “the Boston Tea Party.”

No One Was Harmed Throughout The Protests

Throughout the American Revolution, several violent protests occurred. However, the Boston Tea Party was not one of them. The Sons of Liberty took great care not to harm the ships’ crew members, and nobody was hurt. They also didn’t touch any of the property on board; only the tea.

British soldiers are depicted in this illustration.
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Fotosearch/Getty Images

After the Sons of Liberty destroyed the tea, there was no skirmish. British soldiers confronted them, but there was no fight amongst the soldiers or the Tories. Only one participant, Francis Akeley, was caught and arrested. The rest of the protesters slipped away without punishment.

The Protest Led To The First Congress

Although the Coercive Acts specifically targeted Massachusetts, other colonies agreed that they went too far. The Boston Tea Party garnered sympathy from other states, eventually forming the First Continental Congress.

John Hancock holds up a Declaration during the First Continental Congress.
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MPI/Getty Images

On September 5, 1774, delegates from 12 states met during the First Continental Congress. They created The Declaration and Resolves, which criticized the Coercive Acts and boycotted British products. If the Boston Tea Party hadn’t happened, the First Congress would not have convened. Historians consider this to be the start of the Revolutionary War.

The Tea Wasn’t Even From India

Although the British East India Company shipped the products, the tea itself did not come from India. The East India Company did not establish tea plantations in India until the 1830s. During the Boston Tea Party era, all tea came from China.

A tea farmer holds loose leaf tea.
China Photos/Getty Images
China Photos/Getty Images

All of the tea was loose-leaf; tea bricks did not appear until 150 years later. Most of it (about 265 chests) were black teas: Bohea, Congou, and Lapsang Souchong. Seventy-five chests contained two green teas, Hyson and Singlo. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both enjoyed Hyson green tea.

The Site Of The Boston Tea Party No Longer Exists

The Boston Tea Party happened at a port called Griffin’s Wharf. It was a part of the Boston Harbor, but it no longer exists today. Griffin’s Wharf was an important area of commerce throughout the 18th century. In the 19th century, the harbor was filled in as a part of industrialization.

The Boston Tea Party Museum is on a boat in the Boston Harbor.
Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Historians debate over where, exactly, Griffin’s Wharf was. Most agree that it existed on the corner of Congress Street and Purchase Street. Today, Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum sits on a bridge near where the Boston Tea Party took place.