Just Twenty-Two Casual Thoughts on the Boston Tea Party 243 Years Ago Friday December 16th
Tax on products imported to the Colonies must be paid within twenty days of entering a port. On the twenty-first day customs officials could confiscate the contents of the ship.
With one day and a night left for the three tea ships in the Boston Harbor, Sam Adams called for meetings at Faneuil Hall and as the crowd swelled to seven thousand people the meeting moved to the Old South Meeting House.
As a frame of reference there were approximately sixteen-thousand Bostonians at the time. Tax on tea was not the main issue. Three pence then, inflated for the time value of money is a nominal amount even today. To quote James Otis, “taxation without representation is tyranny”. At a second level distribution of the tea was monopolized by four merchants. The Governor’s two sons were two of the four. Since 1767 tax on tea had been brewing along with England's restrictions on technology imports. Parliament worked very hard at ensuring two-million of their citizens felt like second class citizens.
The prominent consumers of tea in Colonial America were women. They were passionate about their tea perhaps more than their English relatives. Several historical references suggested that men questioned if tea was becoming a drug. Women were most vocal about its influence and social necessity.[i]
Men typically drank rum even during work; often, three times, starting early in the day.[ii] The most popular drink overall was cider followed by milk. Even Puritans saw rum and other stiff drinks as a fact of life, if managed. The colonial militias often would not march if rum allotments were inadequate.
Rum played an important economic role. It was made from molasses, the by-product of sugar production. The Caribbean sugar plantations shipped molasses to New England that returned as Rum. Trade expanded to Europe and Africa. Rum was concentrated and more potent than wine or cider. It saved stow space and in any port could be diluted with water. Unfortunately, this often meant there was more room to stow slaves and improve economies of scale.
Does this mean Parliament thought tea and the women that ran Colonial households were a soft target? Not nearly. The Objective was saving the East India trading Company and bringing the Colonist back under Parliamentary rule.
The three tea ships were the first ships to arrive with imported tea from the East India Trading Company, under a recent parliamentary law, designed to save East India from bankruptcy. Many members of Parliament invested in the East India Trading Company. Several times they voted with their pocketbooks to finance the company through another fiscal crisis.
The Company caused their own problem. The East India Trading co-op attempted to monopolize the tea from India and China. Their warehouses around the world were bulging with dated tea. A 3-5 year supply was on hand with a cost above fair market value. The Colonies reacted by smuggling[iii] in Tea from the Dutch and French, under-cutting the market. Parliament then fixed the price of East India tea below the fair market price of smuggled tea. This move only moderated the issue over price, not taxation and monopolization.
John Rowe, of Rowe’s Wharf fame, was an avid tea drinker and owned one of the three tea ships, the Eleanor. He is quoted by several participants at the Old South Meeting House the night of the Party, “perhaps salt water and tea will mix tonight”. John Rowe kept an extensive diary with 2,294 entries. Here is his entry for the night of the tea party; perhaps intentionally defensive.
Dec. 16. — I being a little unwell staid at home all day and all the
evening. The Body meeting in the forenoon adjourn'd untill afternoon.
Broke up at dark. Several things passed between JNIr. Rotch^ and them.
A number of people appearing in Indian dresses went on board the three
ships Hall, Bruce, and Coffin (sic); they opened the hatches, hoisted out the
tea, and flung it overboard ; this might, I believe, have been prevented.
I am sincerely sorry for the event. Tis said near two thousand people
were present at this affair.[iv] (See an image of the original entry below.)
Other estimates suggest 7,000 people surrounded the three tea ships that night while 100-125 Colonial Mohawks did their deed.
John Rotch, owner of the other two ships and contents, attended the Old South Meeting House, rode to Governor Hutchinson at his Milton home and tried desperately to save his tea. The Governor did not act. Sam Adams did.
With these words Sam Adams ended the meeting at the Old South Meeting House (also attended by British Officers intent on upholding the customs duties on tea), “This meeting can do nothing further to save the country”, the signal to the Sons of Liberty to disguise themselves as Mohawks and march to Griffin Wharf and the three tea ships.
The Mohawk disguises were weak at best but the debate continues over the ethics and value of concealment.
The top British Admiral, John Montague supervising the eleven men of war in the Boston Harbor witnessed the entire event while having dinner with Loyalists just opposite Griffins Wharf and the tea ships. He did nothing to alert the British Army or Navy.
It took all night to complete the task. Participants arrived home at dawn often surprising their families in their war like costumes. Paul Revere never acknowledged his part in the party. He arrived home to a good breakfast and a visit from Sam Adams. He was on his horse in less than an hour to bring the news of the Tea Party to New York City and Philadelphia. [v]
In parallel, New York, Charleston and Philadelphia refused entry of their tea ships. They were suspicious and vocal about Boston’s commitment to the non-importation ban on tea and other products. Consequently, Paul Revere’s express ride was essential proof to the rest of the Colonies of Boston’s resolve.
The end result; Parliament then insisted that Boston pay 9,659 in pound sterling for the tea. Upon failure to do so Parliament issued the “Coercive Act” (Intolerable Act or Boston Port Act), literally closing the Boston Harbor to any movement of goods in or out. This move in 1774 had a severe impact on the economy, everyone’s diet and the political unrest now primed to explode.
[i] Paul Revere & the world he lived in [by] Esther Forbes. / [by] Esther Forbes
Forbes, Esther. 1942.
Midnight ride, industrial dawn : Paul Revere and the growth of American enterprise / Robert Martello. / 1968, John Hopkins University Press 2010.
[iii] Smuggling was a relative term. If you were forced to deal with a monopoly like the East India, Parliament arrangement, fair market trading became smuggling.
[iv] Massachusetts Historical Society, Diary of John Rowe or https://archive.org/stream/diaryofjohnrowe00pier/diaryofjohnrowe00pier_djvu.txt
[v] [v] Paul Revere & the world he lived in [by] Esther Forbes. / [by] Esther Forbes
Forbes, Esther. 1942.
John Rowe's hand written diary notes of December 16, 1773, compliments of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
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