On December 16, 1773—250 years ago—Samuel Adams gathered an angry crowd in Boston. Three ships loaded with East India Company tea were docked in Boston Harbor.
One ship, the Dartmouth, had been docked for 20 days while the people of Boston protested and argued. That day, December 16, was the day the conflict would inevitably boil over—because by British law, it was the deadline for tea importers to unload tea from the Dartmouth and pay the tea tax.
But the tax wasn’t the colonists’ main problem with the tea. The main problem was England’s enforcement of a ruthless government-backed monopoly.
‘The ruin of American freedom’
“Five ships, loaded with TEA, on their Way to America!” John Dickinson, a Philadelphia attorney and politician, exclaimed on November 7 in a letter shared widely by the Sons of Liberty.
Six years earlier, British Parliament had enacted a tea tax on the colonists in the Townshend Revenue Act. The tea tax would go directly toward financing the colonial governors, keeping America’s sapling government financially dependent on England—a blow to those dreaming of a free and independent America.
The colonists had no choice but to continue importing tea from England: A 1721 British law forbade them from legally importing tea from anywhere else. Some merchants began illegally smuggling Dutch tea, which was untaxed.
All British tea, of course, was East India Company tea. The British government gave the East India Company a monopoly on British tea in 1698. But until 1773, the company wasn’t allowed to sell its tea directly in the colonies; instead, it auctioned tea at wholesale in Britain to middlemen, who exported it to the colonies.
That changed with the Tea Act of 1773. To boost the East India Company’s revenue—which was hit hard by Dutch smuggling—the British government gave the company a new monopoly on all tea imported to the colonies. Without having to sell to middlemen merchants, East India would be able to sell tea so cheaply in the colonies that, even with the added tea tax, it would be cheaper than smuggled Dutch tea.
So in November, when the Sons of Liberty began agitating against the approaching ships, it wasn’t the financial cost of the tax they were worried about—the East India Company tea on those ships was priced far lower than what colonists were used to. The colonists didn’t like the tax on principle: because it kept the colonies’ government financially dependent on England and because it had been enacted without American representation in Parliament.
But most of all they hated being robbed of choice by an England-enforced monopoly.
In his November 7 letter, John Dickinson slammed England for “establish[ing] a Monopoly for the East India Company, who … hope to repair their broken Fortunes by the Ruin of American Freedom and Liberty!”
He continued, dipping into sharp-edged sarcasm,
Pray, have you heard, whether they, and the Ministry, have not made a Property of US, and whether We, our Wives, and Children, together with the hard-earned Fruits of our Labour, are not made over to this, almost bankrupt Company, to augment their Stock, and to repair their ruined Fortune? … The Monopoly of Tea, is, I dare say, but a small part of the Plan, they have formed to strip us of our Property.
The colonists should reject the tea, Dickinson urged:
Resolve therefore, nobly resolve, and publish to the World your Resolutions, that no Man will receive the Tea, no Man will let his Stores, or suffer the Vessel that brings it to moor at his Wharf, and that if any Person assists at unloading, landing, or storing it, he shall ever after be deemed an Enemy to his Country, and never be employed by his Fellow Citizens.
On November 29, in an echo of Dickinson’s letter, a handbill was put up around Boston:
Friends! Brethren! Countrymen!—that worst of plagues, the detested tea, shipped for this port by the East India Company, is now arrived in the harbor; the hour of destruction, or manly opposition to the machinations of tyranny, stares you in the face.
December 16, 1773
When ships arrived with East India Company tea to other colonies, the Sons of Liberty and other colonists were able to convince American merchants not to accept the tea. A tea ship that arrived in New York City simply turned around and sailed back to England.
But Massachusetts was a different story: Two of the merchants prepared to accept the imported tea were sons of Thomas Hutchinson, the Royal Governor of Massachusetts Bay. The governor persuaded his sons not to give in to the Sons of Liberty.
On December 16, Samuel Adams held his last-ditch-effort meeting to accomplish what other colonies had managed: get colonial merchants to reject the tea and convince ships’ captains to return to England. But during that meeting, Adams lost hope of resolution: The governor refused to budge.
Adams told the boisterous crowd, “This meeting can do nothing further to save the country.”
There’s a popular legend that Adams was giving a secret signal to the Sons of Liberty to start the Boston Tea Party. But historians deny this, pointing out that Adams actually tried to quiet the crowd and continue the meeting.
But whatever Adams intended, by the end of the meeting, the Sons of Liberty were headed to the harbor. Some were dressed as Mohawk warriors. They boarded all three ships, including the Dartmouth, and dumped 342 chests of tea overboard.
In today’s money, that tea was worth about $1.7 million.
The legacy of the Boston Tea Party
The next day, John Adams wrote in his diary:
This is the most magnificent Movement of all. There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity, in this last Effort of the Patriots, that I greatly admire. The People should never rise, without doing something to be remembered—something notable And striking. This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences, and so lasting, that I can’t but consider it as an Epocha in History.
By rejecting the enforced monopoly of the East India Company—and dumping well-priced tea to make a point—the participants of the Boston Tea Party sparked the fight for American independence. England retaliated after the Tea Party with the Intolerable Acts of 1774, which curbed economic liberty and other rights in Massachusetts. Colonists formed the First Continental Congress in response later that year.
Another, more minor consequence of the Boston Tea Party: Coffee rose in popularity in America as an alternative to tea, which became an unpatriotic symbol. “Accordingly I have drank Coffee every Afternoon since, and have borne it very well,” John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail on July 6, 1774. “Tea must be universally renounced. I must be weaned, and the sooner, the better.”
Today, 250 years later, the East India Company monopoly is dead. But on a smaller scale, state governments and regulatory bodies across America still protect entrenched businesses and keep competitors out in an affront to the economic liberty that colonists fought for. For modern-day examples, see PLF’s Choosing the Gatekeepers report on licensing boards or read about our Ursula Newell Davis case.