Needham History: The Destruction of the Tea

Nothing but ye most impolitic conduct in Britain…

The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor.” A print by Nathaniel Currier, 1847. One of the iconic images. The event was not known as “The Boston Tea Party” until about 50 years after it occurred.

The Destruction of the Tea

In Commemoration of the 250th Anniversary of the Boston Tea Party this Saturday, December 16th. This is an abbreviated version of a talk that I gave at the History Center on December 10.

You all know the story. On the dark night of December 16, 1773, a group of colonists disguised themselves as Native Americans, boarded the English cargo ships Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver, and dumped their precious cargo of tea overboard. In all, they dumped 340 chests of the British East India Company’s tea, with an estimated value of £9700 – $1.7M in today’s dollars. The action was in protest of the Tea Act, which imposed a high tax on British tea sold in the colonies. It was the first real act of colonial rebellion, and set the stage for the increasing resistance of the next few years.

So, how did this come about? It goes without saying that the British regarded the American colonies as a source of revenue. That is what colonies were for. As long as the colonists also benefited in terms of defense, and market for their goods, and an access to land and employment that was not available to them in England, the system more or less worked. But then came the question of taxation. In England, British subjects could not be taxed without the consent of their elected representatives in Parliament. For this reason, Parliament could not tax the colonies; that was left to the colonial legislatures.

The American colonies were Britain’s main market, and the importation of goods was regulated. Tea, for example, was the monopoly of the British East India Company. Because the Company paid a high tax to Britain, the tea they sold in America was expensive. The Dutch also had tea colonies in India, so merchants in the colonies undercut this cost by buying smuggled Dutch tea. As a result, Britain was forced to reduce the taxes that it levied on the East India Company to reduce the market price of tea.

The end result, of course, was a significant loss of revenue for Britain, so Parliament tried for the first time to levy direct taxes on the colonies. The Sugar Act (1764) taxed sugar and molasses, and the notorious Stamp Act (1765) taxed all printed paper goods, from legal paper to newspapers and even playing cards. Since the colonies had their own legislative bodies, they argued that they could not be taxed by the British Parliament, in which they had no representatives. This was, they declared, Taxation without Representation!

Protests over the Stamp and Sugar Acts saw the organization of the Sons of Liberty as an agent of opposition. By 1766 the protests had grown so violent and the resulting boycotts and loss of revenue so significant that the Acts were repealed. Parliament declared that it still had the right to legislate in the colonies, but also worried that backing down had set a precedent for protest and opposition. How right they were.

Parliament made a second attempt to impose taxes on the colonies with the passage of the Townshend Acts (1767), which taxed necessities such as glass, lead, paper, and of course, tea. But this time, the colonies already had a mechanism for opposition in the organized network of the Sons of Liberty, and a precedent that they could successfully oppose Parliament’s will. Predictably, there were protests and boycotts of British tea. In the face of the protests, Parliament again backed down, and the Townhend Acts were repealed three years later – all except the Tea Tax. However, the tea tax was reduced, actually lowering the price below the price of Dutch tea.

But by this point, it was not really about the money for either side. It was all about whether (or not!) Parliament had the right to directly impose taxes on the colonies, or had to work through the colonial congresses. The tea tax, the last of the Townsend taxes still on the books, had to be paid within twenty days after the cargo was landed; failing that, the ship had to either turn back, or surrender the cargo to confiscation. This tax became the fulcrum of the dispute.

When the tea ship Dartmouth left England with its cargo of East India Company tea, The Sons of Liberty were ready for action. The Dartmouth arrived in Boston on November 29th. Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty organized a meeting at Old South Meeting House, demanding that the Dartmouth should turn back without paying the duties. As soon as the Dartmouth arrived in port, the Sons of Liberty were on the streets with broadsides proclaiming “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…

The Royal Governor, Thomas Hutchinson, refused permission for the ship to leave, and the Sons of Liberty posted men on the wharf to prevent the Dartmouth from unloading its cargo. In the meantime, the ships Eleanor and Beaver arrived in Boston, also carrying cargoes of tea.

December 16th was the last day that the Dartmouth could unload or leave, before its cargo would be confiscated. There was another large meeting that day at Old South, and they again demanded that the Governor allow the ships to leave. When he refused, Sam Adams is said to have announced, “This meeting can do nothing further to save the country.” Whether this was actually a prearranged signal is not certain, though it has become part of the legend. It is clear however, that the Sons of Liberty had a plan in place. As people poured out of the meeting, several began donning masks and disguising themselves as Mohawk warriors. The masks, of course, were to conceal their faces; the native dress was symbolic that they were asserting a new American identity, separate from the British.

That night, a number of these men – imprecisely estimated at about 200 – boarded the three ships and for three hours dumped the cargoes of tea into the harbor.

Whether or not Sam Adams helped to plan the “destruction of the tea,” as the event was called at the time, he certainly took the opportunity to do what he did best – immediately turn it into pro-American propaganda. This was not the act of a lawless mob, he declared, but the principled act of patriots in defense of their rights.

In Britain, even legislators who were sympathetic to the American concerns were horrified. They were well aware that this event could well be the start, not the end, of colonial resistance if they did not react quickly. Lord North, the Prime Minister, declared “Whatever may be the consequence, we must risk something; if we do not, all is over.” Parliament needed to assert is legal and legislative control over the American colonies, or lose them altogether. Their response was the rapid imposition of a series of sanctions that became known in America as the “Intolerable Acts.” The first three of these were specifically for Massachusetts.

The first was the Boston Port Act, which shut down the port of Boston entirely, establishing blockades to prevent shipping from entering or leaving. The second was the Massachusetts Government Act, which removed the right of MA citizens to elect their own representatives, and required towns to obtain the Governor’s permission to hold Town Meeting. The third was the Administration of Justice Act, which removed the right of individuals to bring charges against British officials, and moved any trial that did take place to a more-friendly venue, even back to England itself. Since witnesses had to appear in person, this also suppressed the ability of witnesses to bring testimony. And the fourth was the Quartering Act which applied to all the colonies, and which gave the Governors the broad ability to quarter soldiers in buildings other than actual military quarters. This raised fears that the Governors could quarter soldiers in public buildings and even private homes, effectively enforcing an undeclared martial law.

Needless to say, the Intolerable Acts did not subdue the colonists, and the battles at Lexington and Concord did not convince the British to back off. The war, and eventually American independence, were well on their way.

The story of the Boston Tea Party and its repercussions have always – of course – focused on Boston. But these events took place within a much broader context that involved all of the towns within the Massachusetts colony – towns such as Needham.

A view of Central Avenue in the early 19th century. The inset is a detail from the Town Meeting Minutes of December 1773, showing that the question of joining with the Boston Committee of Correspondence to protest the importation of Tea was “past in the Negative.”

Needham was not immune to the upheavals that were playing out in Boston, as much as it may have wanted to be. The town was well aware of what was going on in Boston and the towns around it – patriot firebrand Eleazer Kingsbury made sure of that. The town’s people for the most part were conservative, and the minister who led them, the Rev. Samuel West, like many Harvard-educated ministers, was a Tory at heart.

As I mentioned, the Sons of Liberty organized in 1764 in the midst of the early taxation protests. By 1772, at the time of the Townshend Acts, they ramped up the organization and began to expand their influence to the rest of the colony. The Sons had formed Committees of Correspondence, agencies whose role was to pass information and to coordinate opposition to Britain’s increasingly frequent aggressions. The Sons of Liberty sent out an appeal from Boston, hoping to recruit the towns in MA to form Committees of their own to work with them. Most of the towns – 206 out of about 220 of them – responded to Boston’s appeal.

Needham was not one of them.

On December 4, 1773 (two weeks before the Boston Tea Party), Needham Town Meeting took up this question of electing its own Committee of Correspondence in response to the Sons of Liberty’s appeal. The Warrant directed Town Meeting “To see if the Town will Chuse a Committee to join with the Committee of Correspondence of the Town of Boston relating to the importation of Tea.” The warrant article “pass’d in the negative” – that is, it was voted down. With the exception of partisans like Eleazer Kingsbury, Needham wanted no part in the doings of their troublesome Boston neighbors.

By mid-1774, however, this attitude had begun to change. Following the passage of the Intolerable Acts, Needhamites became increasingly restive. Rev. West noted in his memoir:

“[Britain] supposed that an energetic act of Parliament like ye Port Bill would silence every tongue and produce a ready submission to her will… There were some perhaps among us who at that early period indulged wishes for a separation…but they were very few indeed… Yet nothing but ye most impolitic conduct in Britain could have produced that reverse in ye general spirit which now discovered itself and which ended in a total alienation of affection and separation from her dominions.”

By March 1775, Needham was all-in – Town Meeting met in open violation of the Massachusetts Act, and it voted to not only create a Committee of Correspondence, with Capt. Robert Smith as its representative; but it also elected its revolutionary firebrand Eleazer Kingsbury as its first representative to the new Provincial Congress that was formed in reaction to the abolition of the MA legislature. It also voted to pay its taxes to the Provincial Congress rather than to the official designated by the Royal Governor.

Unlike Boston, which was the unruly and restless target of Parliament’s retribution, Needham was a conservative Tory town. Far from any major road, it did not interact with the city enough to be influenced by its political radicalism. Most Needham citizens were not looking for a break with Britain. I did not see any Needham names among the known participants in the Boston Tea Party.

Nevertheless, that towns such as Needham should have been so alienated as to shift from Tory sympathy to revolutionary fervor in less than two years says more about “the most impolitic conduct in Britain” toward its colonies, more about the inexorable road they paved to revolution, than the most spectacular “Destruction of the Tea.”

A detail from the Town Meeting Warrant of March 1775. Tucked in between two basic local housekeeping articles – Article 6 to set the annual tax rate, and Article 9 to fix the roads – are an appropriation to pay Eleazer Kingsbury for attending the Provincial Congress (Article 7), and an vote on whether to create a Committee of Correspondence for Needham (Article 8).

Gloria Polizzotti Greis is the Executive Director of the Needham History Center & Museum. For more information, please see their website at
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