The Boston Tea Party is one of the most misunderstood signature events of the American Revolution. For starters, it wasn’t about high taxes. The following explains why, along with some other little-known facts about the Boston Tea Party.
- The Boston Tea Party didn’t protest excessive taxation. They protested a corporate bailout that threatened small merchants in Boston. For years the East India Company had to ship its tea to Britain and pay a commission, or tax, before selling it in the other colonies. In exchange, Parliament gave it a monopoly on tea. The tax paid by the East India Company in Britain made its tea more expensive in America than tea smuggled in from Dutch traders. When the East India Company ran into financial trouble, Parliament gave it a special deal. The company was allowed to keep its monopoly and export tea directly to America without paying the tax in Britain. That made East India tea cheaper in America than Dutch imported tea. It also made small, independent tea merchants less competitive than the East India Company. And even though Parliament’s action reduced the price of tea, it established the principle that America was subject to British taxes. Hence the Boston Tea Party.
John Singleton Copley, the artist who painted so many of the important people of the late 18th century, tried to work out a compromise with the Sons of Liberty. His father-in-law, an East India merchant, needed the tea. At the Old South Meetinghouse on Nov. 30, 1773, Copley argued for unloading the tea and keeping it in a warehouse while the colonists pressed their case with the governor and the Crown. He didn’t win his argument.
- A year before the Boston Tea Party, Rhode Island staged its own maritime protest against import taxes in the Gaspee Affair. The crew of the British customs schooner HMS Gaspee was aggressively boarding American ships in Narragansett Bay. They were searching for smuggled rum so they could collect the Sugar Tax. When the Gaspee ran aground, colonists led by John Brown and Abraham Whipple mustered 100 men to board longboats at night, capture the crew and burn the ship to the waterline.
- East India tea was carried to Boston in a fourth ship in addition to the Eleanor, the Beaver and the Dartmouth. The vessel was shipwrecked on Cape Cod and the patriots, again dressed as Indians, destroyed as much of the tea as they could.
- Benjamin Edes, printer of the Boston Gazette, was considered the father of the Boston Tea Party. He went to his grave without revealing who participated. He kept a list of participants locked in his desk drawer all his life. After he died, his widow gave the list to a Boston selectman named Benjamin Austin. According to his son Peter, the list disappeared forever.
- His son, Peter Edes, was imprisoned for 3-1/2 months by the British – but not because of the Boston Tea Party. (He did serve punch to the Tea Partiers, who gathered at his father’s house on the night they dumped the tea in the harbor. He turned 17 the net day.) The British noticed young Edes on Copps Hill cheering the patriots during the Battle of Bunker Hill. British regulars arrested him after searching his house and finding illegal firearms. He was probably punished for the sins of his father. Peter Edes later went into the printing business himself, publishing the first newspaper in eastern Maine.
- At least half a dozen towns along the coast destroyed tea in their own versions of the Boston Tea Party. In Providence, Greenwich and Princeton, N.J., patriots burned tea. In Annapolis, Md., they burned the whole ship. They turned tea-carrying ship captains back in New York and Philadelphia. In Chestertown, Md., and Charleston, S.C., they dumped tea into the water and in York, Maine, they seized it.
This story was updated in 2019.