The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 13

Author: George Bancroft  | Date: A.D. 1773

The Boston Tea-Party

A.D. 1773


One of the most famous demonstrations of the purpose of the American colonies to resist what they regarded as the unjust taxation laid upon them by Great Britain was this unique occurrence in Boston harbor. Everywhere in the colonies the people had begun to go without articles that were subject to taxes. They ceased to import goods for clothing, and wore homespun. It was not easy to find a substitute for tea, but various plants and leaves were used instead of it, and store tea became a popular designation of real tea as distinguished from domestic herbs. At last the English Government abandoned all taxes except that laid on tea; this the Government insisted upon laying as strictly as ever. Ships with cargoes of tea were sent with the expectation that the colonists would pay the tax. What followed upon the arrival of the tea-ships at Boston and Charlestown, and gave to American history the "Boston Tea-party," is fully told in Bancroft’s pages.

ON Sunday, November 28th, the ship Dartmouth appeared in Boston harbor with one hundred fourteen chests of the East India Company’s tea. To keep the Sabbath strictly was the New England usage. But hours were precious; let the tea be entered, and it would be beyond the power of the consignees to send it back. The selectmen held one meeting by day and another in the evening, but they sought in vain for the consignees, who had taken sanctuary in the Castle.

The committee of correspondence was more efficient. They met also on Sunday, and obtained from the Quaker Rotch, who owned the Dartmouth, a promise not to enter his ship till Tuesday; and authorized Samuel Adams to invite the committees of the five surrounding towns, Dorchester, Roxbury, Brookline, Cambridge, and Charlestown, with their own townsmen and those of Boston, to hold a mass meeting the next morning. Faneuil Hall could not contain the people that poured in on Monday. The concourse was the largest ever known. Adjourning to "the Old South" Meeting-house, Jonathan Williams did not fear to act as moderator, nor Samuel Adams, Hancock, Molineux, and Warren to conduct the business of the meeting. On the motion of Samuel Adams, who entered fully into the question, the assembly, composed of upward of five thousand persons, resolved unanimously that "the tea should be sent back to the place from whence it came at all events, and that no duty should be paid on it." "The only way to get rid of it," said Young, "is to throw it overboard." The consignees asked for time to prepare their answer; and "out of great tenderness" the body postponed receiving it to the next morning. Meantime the owner and master of the ship were converted and forced to promise not to land the tea. A watch was also proposed. "I," said Hancock, "will be one of it, rather than that there should be none," and a party of twenty-five persons, under the orders of Edward Proctor as its captain, was appointed to guard the tea-ship during the night.

On the same day the council who had been solicited by the Governor and the consignees to assume the guardianship of the tea, coupled their refusal with a reference to the declared opinion of both branches of the General Court that the tax upon it by Parliament was unconstitutional. The next morning the consignees jointly gave as their answer: "It is utterly out of our power to send back the teas; but we now declare to you our readiness to store them until we shall receive further directions from our constituents"; that is, until they could notify the British Government. The wrath of the meeting was kindling, when the sheriff of Suffolk entered with a proclamation from the Governor, "warning, exhorting, and requiring them, and each of them there unlawfully assembled, forthwith to disperse, and to sure cease all further unlawful proceedings, at their utmost peril." The words were received with hisses, derision, and a unanimous vote not to disperse. "Will it be safe for the consignees to appear in the meeting?" asked Copley; and all with one voice responded that they might safely come and return; but they refused to appear. In the afternoon Rotch, the owner, and Hall, the master, of the Dartmouth, yielding to an irresistible impulse, engaged that the tea should return as it came, without touching land or paying a duty. A similar promise was exacted of the owners of the other tea-ships whose arrival was daily expected. In this way "it was thought the matter would have ended." "I should be willing to spend my fortune and life itself in so good a cause," said Hancock, and this sentiment was general; they all voted "to carry their resolutions into effect at the risk of their lives and property."

Every shipowner was forbidden, on pain of being deemed an enemy to the country, to import or bring as freight any tea from Great Britain till the unrighteous act taxing it should be repealed, and this vote was printed and sent to every seaport in the province and to England.

Six persons were chosen as post-riders to give due notice to the country towns of any attempt to land the tea by force, and the committee of correspondence, as the executive organ of the meeting, took care that a military watch was regularly kept up by volunteers armed with muskets and bayonets, who at every half-hour in the night regularly passed the word "All is well," like sentinels in a garrison. Had they been molested by night, the tolling of the bells would have been the signal for a general uprising. An account of all that had been done was sent into every town in the province.

The ships, after landing the rest of their cargo, could neither be cleared in Boston with the tea on board nor be entered in England, and on the twentieth day from their arrival would be liable to seizure. "They find themselves," said Hutchinson, "involved in invincible difficulties." Meantime in private letters he advised to separate Boston from the rest of the province; and to begin criminal prosecutions against its patriot sons.

The spirit of the people rose with the emergency. Two more tea-ships which arrived were directed to anchor by the side of the Dartmouth at Griffin’s wharf, that one guard might serve for all. The people of Roxbury, on December 3d, voted that they were bound by duty to themselves and posterity to join with Boston and other sister-towns to preserve inviolate the liberties handed down by their ancestors. The next day the men of Charlestown, as if foreseeing that their town was destined to be a holocaust, declared themselves ready to risk their lives and fortunes. On Sunday, the 5th, the committee of correspondence wrote to Portsmouth in New Hampshire, to Providence, Bristol, and Newport in Rhode Island, for advice and cooperation. On the 6th they entreat New York, through MacDougall and Sears; Philadelphia, through Mifflin and Clymer, to insure success by "a harmony of sentiment and concurrence in action." As for Boston itself, the twenty days are fast running out; the consignees conspire with the revenue officers to throw on the owner and master of the Dartmouth the whole burden of landing the tea, and will neither agree to receive it nor give up their bill of lading nor pay freight. Every movement was duly reported, and "the town became furious as in the time of the Stamp Act."

On the 9th there was a vast gathering at Newburyport of the inhabitants of that and the neighboring towns, and, none dissenting, they agreed to assist Boston, even at the hazard of their lives. "This is not a piece of parade," they say, "but if an occasion should offer, a goodly number from among us will hasten to join you."

On Saturday, the 11th, Rotch, the owner of the Dartmouth, is summoned before the Boston committee with Samuel Adams in the chair, and asked why he has not kept his engagement to take his vessel and the tea back to London within twenty days of its arrival. He pleaded that it was out of his power. "The ship must go," was the answer; "the people of Boston and the neighboring towns absolutely require and expect it;" and they bade him ask for a clearance and pass, with proper witnesses of his demand. "Were it mine," said a leading merchant, "I would certainly send it back." Hutchinson acquainted Admiral Montagu with what was passing; on which the Active and the Kingfisher, though they had been laid up for the winter, were sent to guard the passages out of the harbor. At the same time orders were given by the Governor to load guns at the Castle, so that no vessel, except coasters, might go to sea without a permit. He had no thought of what was to happen; the wealth of Hancock, Phillips, Rowe, Dennle, and so many other men of property seemed to him a security against violence; and he flattered himself that he had increased the perplexities of the committee."

The decisive day draws nearer and nearer; on the morning of Monday, the 13th, the committees of the five towns are at Faneuil Hall, with that of Boston. Now that danger was really at hand, the men of the little town of Malden offered their blood and their treasure; for that which they once esteemed the mother-country had lost the tenderness of a parent and become their great oppressor. "We trust in God," wrote the men of Lexington, "that should the state of our affairs require it, we shall be ready to sacrifice our estates and everything dear in life, yea, and life itself, in support of the common cause." Whole towns in Worcester County were on tiptoe to come down. "Go on as you have begun," wrote the committee of Leicester on the 14th; "and do not suffer any of the teas already come or coming to be landed or pay one farthing of duty. You may depend on our aid and assistance when needed."

The line of policy adopted was, if possible, to get the tea carried back to London uninjured in the vessel in which it came. A meeting of the people on Tuesday afternoon directed and, as it were, "compelled" Rotch, the owner of the Dartmouth, to apply for a clearance. He did so, accompanied by Kent, Samuel Adams, and eight others as witnesses. The collector was at his lodgings, and refused to answer till the next morning; the assemblage, on their part, adjourned to Thursday, the 16th, the last of the twenty days before it would become legal for the revenue officers to take possession of the ship and so land the teas at the Castle. In the evening the Boston committee finished their preparatory meetings. After their consultation on Monday with the committees of the five towns, they had been together that day and the next, both morning and evening; but during the long and anxious period their journal has only this entry: "No business transacted; matter of record."

At ten o’clock on the 15th, Rotch was escorted by his witnesses to the custom-house, where the collector and comptroller unequivocally and finally refused to grant his ship a clearance till it should be discharged of the teas.

Hutchinson began to clutch at victory; "for," said he, "it is notorious the ship cannot pass the Castle without a permit from me, and that I shall refuse." On that day the people of Fitchburg pledged their word "never to be wanting according to their small ability"; for "they had indeed an ambition to be known to the world and to posterity as friends to liberty." The men of Gloucester also expressed their joy at Boston’s glorious opposition, cried with one voice that "no tea subject to a duty should be landed" in their town, and held themselves ready for the last appeal.

The morning of Thursday, December 16, 1773, dawned upon Boston, a day by far the most momentous in its annals. Beware, little town; count the cost, and know well, if you dare defy the wrath of Great Britain, and if you love exile and poverty and death rather than submission. The town of Portsmouth held its meeting on that morning, and, with six only protesting, its people adopted the principles of Philadelphia, appointed their committee of correspondence, and resolved to make common cause with the colonies. At ten o’clock the people of Boston, with at least two thousand men from the country, assembled in the Old South. A report was made that Rotch had been refused a clearance from the collector. "Then," said they to him, "protest immediately against the custom-house, and apply to the Governor for his pass, so that your vessel may this very day proceed on her voyage for London."

The Governor had stolen away to his country house at Milton. Bidding Rotch make all haste, the meeting adjourned to three in the afternoon. At that hour Rotch had not returned. It was incidentally voted, as other towns had already done, to abstain totally from the use of tea; and every town was advised to appoint its committee of inspection, to prevent the detested tea from coming within any of them. Then, since the Governor might refuse his pass, the momentous question recurred, "Whether it be the sense and determination of this body to abide by their former resolutions with respect to the not suffering the tea to be landed." On this question Samuel Adams and Young addressed the meeting, which was become far the most numerous ever held in Boston, embracing seven thousand men. There was among them a patriot of fervid feeling, passionately devoted to the liberty of his country, still young, his eye bright, his cheek glowing with hectic fever. He knew that his strength was ebbing. The work of vindicating American freedom must be done soon, or he will be no party to the great achievement. He rises, but it is to restrain, and being truly brave and truly resolved he speaks the language of moderation: "Shouts and hosannas will not terminate the trials of this day, nor popular resolves, harangues, and acclamations vanquish our foes. We must be grossly ignorant of the value of the prize for which we contend, of the power combined against us, of the inveterate malice and insatiable revenge which actuate our enemies, public and private, abroad and in our bosom, if we hope that we shall end this controversy without the sharpest conflicts. Let us consider the issue before we advance to those measures which must bring on the most trying and terrible struggle this country ever saw." Thus spoke the younger Quincy. "Now that the hand is to the plough," said others, "there must be no looking back," and the whole assembly of seven thousand voted unanimously that the tea should not be landed.

It had been dark for more than an hour. The church in which they met was dimly lighted, when at a quarter before six Rotch appeared, and satisfied the people by relating that the Governor had refused him a pass, because his ship was not properly cleared. As soon as he had finished his report, Samuel Adams rose and gave the word: "This meeting can do nothing more to save the country." On the instant a shout was heard at the porch; the war-whoop resounded; a body of men, forty or fifty in number, disguised as Indians, passed by the door, and, encouraged by Samuel Adams, Hancock, and others, repaired to Griffin’s wharf, posted guards to prevent the intrusion of spies, took possession of the three tea-ships, and in about three hours three hundred forty chests of tea, being the whole quantity that had been imported, were emptied into the bay without the least injury to other property. "All things were conducted with great order, decency, and perfect submission to Government." The people around, as they looked on, were so still that the noise of breaking open the tea-chests was plainly heard. A delay of a few hours would have placed the tea under the protection of the Admiral at the Castle. After the work was done, the town became as still and calm as if it had been holy time. The men from the country that very night carried back the great news to their villages.

The next morning the committee of correspondence appointed Samuel Adams and four others to draw up a declaration of what had been done. They sent Paul Revere as express with the information to New York and Philadelphia.

The height of joy that sparkled in the eyes and animated the countenances and the hearts of the patriots as they met one another is unimaginable. The Governor, meantime, was consulting his books and his lawyers to make out that the resolves of the meeting were treasonable. Threats were muttered of arrests, of executions, of transportation of the accused to England; while the committee of correspondence pledged themselves to support and vindicate each other and all persons who had shared in their effort. The country was united with the town, and the colonies with one another more firmly than ever. The Philadelphians unanimously approved what Boston had done. New York, all impatient at the winds which had driven its tea-ship off the coast, was resolved on following the example.

In South Carolina the ship with two hundred fifty-seven chests of tea arrived on December 2d; the spirit of opposition ran very high; but the consignees were persuaded to resign, so that, though the collector after the twentieth day seized the dutiable article, there was no one to vend it or to pay the duty, and it perished in the cellars where it was stored.

Late on Saturday, the 25th, news reached Philadelphia that its tea-ship was at Chester. It was met four miles below the town, where it came to anchor. On Monday, at an hour’s notice, five thousand men collected in a town meeting; at their instance the consignee, who came as passenger, resigned; and the captain agreed to take his ship and cargo directly back to London and to sail the very next day. "The ministry had chosen the most effectual measures to unite the colonies. The Boston committee were already in close correspondence with the other New England colonies, with New York and Pennsylvania. Old jealousies were removed and perfect harmony subsisted between all." "The heart of the King was hardened against them like that of Pharaoh," and none believed he would relent. Union therefore was the cry; a union which should reach "from Florida to the icy plains" of Canada. "No time is to be lost," said the Boston press; "a congress or a meeting of the American States is indispensable; and what the people wills shall be effected." Samuel Adams was in his glory. He had led Boston to be foremost in duty and cheerfully offer itself as a sacrifice for the liberties of mankind.


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Chicago: George Bancroft, "The Boston Tea-Party," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 13 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed December 1, 2022,

MLA: Bancroft, George. "The Boston Tea-Party." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 13, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 1 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Bancroft, G, 'The Boston Tea-Party' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 13. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 1 December 2022, from