What was the Boston Tea Party?

The Boston Tea Party is the name given to an act of protest by Bostonians in the wake of the 1773 Tea Act, passed by Britain’s parliament in May 1773, which had allowed the East India Company to sell directly to its own agents in the colonies, strengthening its monopoly.


On the evening of 16 December 1773, around 100 men boarded three ships docked at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston Harbour and destroyed 46 tons of tea that belonged to the East India Company.

The act of destruction was part of a broader series of protests throughout Britain’s 13 North American colonies (and particularly in New England) over the previous decade, in response to rising taxes that were seen as unconstitutional because colonists were not represented in Britain’s parliament. This resentment is often captured by the phrase: “No taxation without representation”.

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By the early 1770s, there was widespread agitation by organised groups, including a cross-colony network known as the Sons of Liberty. The Boston Tea Party, carried out in part by the Boston branch of this network, was one in a string of protests against the rising duties.

The significance of the Boston Tea Party largely lies in the decisive reaction to the protest by Britain’s parliament, which enshrined the event as a key moment on the road to revolutionary war.

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When did the Boston Tea Party happen?

The tea was destroyed on the evening of 16 December 1773. Word of the protest began to spread as quickly as the following day.

Britain’s parliament responded with a series of restrictive acts on the colony of Massachusetts in early 1774. The crackdown provoked further unity in the 13 colonies and led to the First Continental Congress in September 1774, attended by delegates from 12 of the colonies.

Patrick Henry addresses the first Continental Congress
Patrick Henry addresses the first Continental Congress in 1774. (Image by Getty Images)

Why is it called the Boston Tea Party?

The protest wasn’t immediately known as the Boston Tea Party.

“In the immediate aftermath, and for many years later, it was just called the destruction of the tea in Boston Harbour, a factual description.” says Professor Benjamin L Carp, historian and author of books including Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (YUP, 2010). “There was no notion of coming up with some cutesy label for American history students to later memorise.”

He adds: “The first time I see the phrase ‘Boston Tea Party’ or ‘tea party’ in print is around 1826 – and then in the 1830s it becomes a more common way of describing this event. The historian Alfred F Young suggests that this may have either been an elite label to kind of whitewash the event – to say, ‘Oh, it was just the Boston Tea Party, it wasn't anything violent, no hint of mayhem here’.”

“Or [the name] may have been an ironic send-up by working-class audiences to say: ‘Hey, you want a tea party? Here was a tea party’.

“It doesn't acquire that multi-layered name until 50 years later.”

Why did the Boston Tea Party happen?

Protests had occurred throughout Britain’s 13 American colonies since the mid-1760s, in response to taxes imposed by Britain in the wake of the Seven Years’ War, known in the USA more commonly as the French and Indian War.

Fought between 1756 and 1763, the Seven Years’ War had erupted from tensions between France and Great Britain. The two powers were fighting in part over North American territories – though battles and skirmishes were fought all over the world.

By the end of the conflict, Britain’s national debt had nearly doubled from £75m to £133m, which resulted in more taxes being levied on Britain’s colonial subjects.

Disputed taxes included the 1765 Stamp Act – which imposed a tax on every piece of paper used in the colonies, from pamphlets to playing cards. Though resistance by American colonists caused the act to be repealed the following year, further divisive taxes followed.

A mob chases Thomas Hutchinson in a depiction of a 1765 Stamp Act protest
Stamp Act protests in 1765 targeted officials including Thomas Hutchinson, then Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts. (Image by Getty Images)

In 1767, the Townshend Acts – named after Charles Townshend, then British Chancellor of the Exchequer – had (among other measures) imposed taxes on imported goods including paint, glass, paper and tea. The revenue raised by the duties was accordingly used to pay the salaries of colonial governors and judges. This was seen as effectively buying the loyalty of local officials who were enforcing the taxes.

These acts had driven much reaction, as colonists rallied against the taxation. Some protests, particularly in Boston and New York, turned violent – stamp tax agents were burned in effigy, violent scuffles occurred between British troops and colonists, and figures of British authority were targeted by mob actions.

Some members of the Sons of Liberty network, which between 1765–1770 had worked to impose a series of boycotts of British goods across the colonies, also turned to brutal tactics. They intimidated customs officials and British agents, and even – in severe cases – adopted the brutal and humiliating punishment of tarring and feathering against some who broke the boycotts.

From October 1768, Boston was occupied by British troops sent to enforce the Townshend Duties, which further inflamed the resentments of colonists who felt their freedoms were being eroded by Britain’s authority. The Boston Massacre in 1770 – in which five colonists were shot dead by British soldiers – represented a turning point in many colonists’ views of British authority.

British ships and troops landing in Boston Harbour
A version of an engraving by Paul Revere, depicting the landing of British troops at Boston harbour, 1768. (Image by Getty Images)

By the time the Tea Act was passed in May 1773, the stage was set for a standoff between those loyal to the British parliament and those who saw the rising taxes as an assault on their liberties.

In November and December of 1773, the first shipments of East India Company tea arrived in the port of Boston, as well as New York, Philadelphia and Charleston.

While the governors of other colonies were able to deescalate tensions by quietly turning the ships around or managing the offloading of the tea into a holding warehouse, Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts – seen by many Bostonians as an increasingly inflexible figure upholding British authority – refused to allow the ships to return to England. He demanded that the tea should be unloaded and sold, so the duties could be collected.

On the night of 16 December 1773, a group of Boston colonists – many of whom were rallied by the Sons of Liberty both in protest of the taxation and fearful of the prospect of an East India Company monopoly on tea – took matters into their own hands.

What happened during the Boston Tea Party?

At a meeting later known as ‘the body of the people’ on the evening of 16 December 1773, a large number of Bostonians gathered at the Old South Meeting House to dispute the presence of the tea in the harbour.

Once it became clear that Governor Hutchinson was determined that the tea should be unloaded and there was no further recourse for debate with the governor, Samuel Adams, a prominent leader in local government and a member of the Sons of Liberty, stood and said: “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country.”

Samuel Adams
Samuel Adams, a prominent leader in local government and a member of the Sons of Liberty. (Image by Getty Images)

Whether or not (as has been debated) Adams’s words were a cue for what followed, a few minutes later, shouts and war cries were heard from the western end of the meeting house.

Shortly afterwards, a crowd amassed and headed towards Griffin’s Wharf, where the three East India Company ships – the Dartmouth, the Eleanor and the Beaver – were docked.

“The Bostonians felt that they had no other choice,” explains Professor Carp. “If the tea couldn't be sent back to London, they couldn’t allow it to land.”

“A group of a hundred – or maybe as many as 200 – men split into three parties. A subset of them boarded the ships, while another group of them guarded the wharves to make sure that there was no interference with what was about to happen.”

Climbing aboard, the men hoisted more than 46 tons of tea over the vessels’ rails and into the sea.

“We don't have a complete picture of who might have participated in this event,” explains Carp. “What we do know is that the majority of them seem to have been born in Boston. The majority of them were also between the ages of 18 and 29 (although there's some reason for bias there). And more than a third of them were probably under 21.”

The group was made up of “a strong proportion of young men, but also some established middle-aged men. A couple of them were college graduates. A lot of them were middle-class artisans and shopkeepers, and a number of them were working-class apprentices and even boys who participated in this event.”

One name often associated as a participant is shoemaker George Robert Twelves Hewes, who was reportedly also present at the event known as the Boston Massacre in 1770. It was Hewes who demanded the keys from the captain of the Dartmouth, and supervised the dumping. A member of Hewes’s party later praised the shoemaker’s leadership by declaring, “In the heat of conflict, the small man with the large name had been elevated from a poor shoemaker to Captain Hewes.”

During the protest, almost £10,000 worth of East India Company tea was dumped into Boston Harbour.

Was the Boston Tea Party peaceful?

The Boston Tea Party itself was almost entirely peaceful.

“The men on board these ships tried to remain orderly,” explains Professor Carp. “They accidentally broke a lock, and so then they came forward and immediately replaced it. They deliberately didn't touch any of the other goods aboard the Beaver, because the Beaver hadn't been unloaded otherwise.”

It wasn’t, however, entirely plain sailing. “There was a little bit of violence, some of it accidental. A hoist collapsed, and somebody got knocked out,” says Carp.

A horse trader named Charles Conner also found himself in trouble that night when he was caught pocketing tea. Other protestors responded by ripping his coat off and beating him up. As Carp explains, they then hung his coat in front of his house to set an example, with a sign reading: ‘We're not here to pocket this tea. We're not here out of selfish reasons. We are here to destroy this tea in order to object against the Tea Act.’

While it was a largely peaceful protest that night, the broader story of the Boston Tea Party has violence on both sides of the story.

How did the British react to the Boston Tea Party?

The British reaction to the destruction of the tea in Boston Harbour is a large part of the event’s significance in the wider story of the creation of the United States of America.

“One of the myths about the Boston Tea Party is that it was such a galvanising act of civil disobedience that it immediately inspired American colonists throughout the eastern seaboard to rally toward independence. But that's not true,” says Professor Carp. “It is parliament's reaction to the Boston Tea Party that will later galvanise a lot of Americans, because parliament passes a series of what are called the Coercive Acts. Later on in textbooks, they'll be called the Intolerable Acts, but that's not what they were called at the time.”

The Coercive Acts (or Intolerable Acts) imposed in 1774 were intended to punish the colony of Massachusetts for the act of rebellion. The most direct act was the Boston Port Act, which effectively shut the port of Boston to all trade, until it paid back the East India Company for the tea. In other words, the acts were “going to ruin Boston economically and hold the town of Boston responsible for repayment,” says Carp.

“There was also an act called the Administration of Justice Act,” he explains, “which has to do with British officials facing capital trials, being able to ask for a change of venue, and face a jury elsewhere. And then there's the Quartering Act, which has to do with the army's ability to quarter troops in unoccupied buildings in American cities.”

“These Coercive Acts are really what make people very angry, and cause the gathering of delegates at the First Continental Congress in September of 1774. They also lead to a lot of back-country protest and intimidation of what are called the Mandamus Councillors, and all sorts of other actions during 1774 that really accelerate the timetable towards armed insurrection.”

Why is the Boston Tea Party important?

The events of the Boston Tea Party immediately sent shockwaves around the colonies – and across the Atlantic.

“The dye [sic] is cast,” wrote Bostonian lawyer John Adams in a letter to James Warren on 17 December 1773. “Last night, three cargoes of tea were emptied into the harbour. This is the grandest event which has ever yet happened since the controversy with Britain opened!”

Adams, who would soon become a leading patriot – and later served as the second president of the fledgling United States of America – did not underestimate the importance of the events at Griffin’s Wharf the previous night.

“The people should never rise, without doing something to be remembered – something notable and striking,” he noted in his diary the same day. “This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important consequences.”

The consequences he spoke of came in the form of the Coercive Acts (above), which in turn prompted the formation of the Continental Congress.

The first of its kind, it brought together delegates from 12 of the 13 American colonies to Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia, to discuss the colonies’ future in the face of what they perceived as growing British aggression. Delegates included Samuel Adams and John Adams, both representing Massachusetts, as well as George Washington, future leader of the Continental armed forces and first president of the United States.

During meetings throughout September and October of 1774, delegates considered joint colonial interests and how they might coordinate resistance to British rule, which was increasingly seen as zealous and unfit.

While independence was not yet decisively on the table in congress’s discussions, by late 1774 the colonies had begun to take stronger measures as a unit. One of the first decisions was to endorse the Suffolk Resolves, passed in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which ordered citizens to not obey the so-called ‘Intolerable Acts’, to refuse imported British goods, and to raise a militia. Less than a year after the destruction of the tea, the fallout from the protest had blazed a path towards revolution.

In July 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, proclaiming the American colonies to be independent from Britain.

“I think it's really important to understand that this was real action; there was real peril and the stakes were incredibly high,” says Professor Sarah Purcell, historian and author of books including Sealed with Blood: War, Sacrifice, and Memory in Revolutionary America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

“One reason that [the Boston Tea Party] has lived in memory, and the reason it had such incredible political consequences, is that it’s an identifiable day in history where people took a series of actions that were not necessarily sanctioned by law, to oppose something that they believed was unjust – whether that is correct or not.”

“It's one of those days where you can point to a turning point,” says Purcell, “where colonial resistance turned into the American Revolution.”

“It's not very often that we can point to a single day in history where a single series of events shows us a turning point that dramatic. In part, it's because of the way parliament reacted with the crackdown against the city. But if that tea hadn't been destroyed, that wouldn't have happened.

“It’s a turning point in history that is legible to us 250 years later, where we can see a particular day, and decisions that people made on both sides of an issue, changing the course of world history.”

Timeline: From the Boston Tea Party to American Independence

16 December 1773 Protesters dump 340 crates of the East India Company’s tea into Boston harbour

January 1774 London learns of the destruction of the tea, and of other American protests

March 1774 Parliament passes the first of the so-called Coerciver Acts, the Boston Port Act, which closes the port of Boston until the town makes restitution for the tea

May 1774 Parliament passes two more laws for restoring order in Massachusetts. These laws limit town meetings, put the provincial council under royal appointments, and allow British civil officers accused of capital crimes to move their trials to other jurisdictions

1 June 1774 The Boston Port Act takes effect, and Governor Thomas Hutchinson departs for England, never to return. His replacement is General Thomas Gage, a military commander

Summer 1774 Massachusetts protesters resist the Coercive Acts by disrupting local courts and forcing councillors to resign their seats

September to October 1774 The First Continental Congress meets, declares opposition to the Coercive Acts, and calls for boycotts of British goods and an embargo on exports to Great Britain

February 1775 Parliament declares Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion. Governor Gage will later receive orders to enforce the Coercive Acts and suppress the uprising

19 April 1775 British regular troops and Massachusetts militiamen exchange fire at Lexington and Concord. In response, armed New Englanders surround the British fortifications at Boston

March 1776 American forces take Dorchester Heights and the British evacuate Boston

July 1776 The Continental Congress adopts the Declaration of Independence of the United States


Professor Benjamin L Carp and Professor Sarah Purcell were speaking to Elinor Evans on the podcast series: Boston Tea Party: Igniting a Revolution. The full, ad-free series is available now to members of HistoryExtra


Elinor EvansDigital editor

Elinor Evans is digital editor of HistoryExtra.com. She commissions and writes history articles for the website, and regularly interviews historians for the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast