7 Myths about the Boston Tea Party

Prewar Conflict (<1775)

November 12, 2013
by Benjamin L. Carp Also by this Author


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1. MYTH:

The Tea Act imposed a tax on American colonists (which is why tax protestors often revere the Boston Tea Party).


The Tea Act did no such thing; instead the actual law gave the East India Company a tax break on tea shipped to the American colonies, along with special new privileges for shipping tea directly to consignees in America, both of which would have reduced the price of tea for Americans.  On the other hand, Americans were already paying a tax of three pennies per pound on legally imported tea under the Revenue Act of 1767, which (unlike the other “Townshend duties”) was still on the books after 1770.  This combination of an existing tax on Americans and a new tax break for the East India Company concerned the Sons of Liberty, who worried that cheaper tea would seduce Americans into paying a tax passed by Parliament, where Americans weren’t represented.[i]

2. MYTH:

Americans boarded three British ships and dumped the king’s tea into the harbor on December 16, 1773.


The three ships, the Beaver, the Eleanor, and the Dartmouth, were all privately owned, and all three were at least partially owned by American colonists.  The tea itself belonged to the East India Company, which was a private joint-stock company.  Thus the Bostonians technically destroyed private property rather than launching a direct assault on the British state.

3. MYTH:

The Bostonians dumped full crates of tea into the harbor.


This myth is perpetuated by many historic recreations of the event, but it doesn’t seem to be true.  Most of these crates were too heavy to throw into the water, so the Bostonians chopped them open with axes and dumped the contents overboard. Also, the tea was loose-leaf, not brick tea.

4. MYTH:

The event has always been known as the “Boston Tea Party.”


The earliest known reference to the phrase “Boston Tea Party” comes from a newspaper story on December 30, 1825.  At a dinner celebrating the landing of the Pilgrims, W. P. Hawes offered the following toast: “The Boston Tea-party—May tyrants and oppressors throughout the world be speedily invited to a like entertainment.”[ii] Then shortly afterward in 1826, another story mentioned “a temperate, hardy old veteran” named Joshua Wyeth who “often boasts of the ‘Boston tea party.’”[iii] Initially the phrase may have referred to the party of men who dumped the tea, not the event itself.  An 1829 obituary of Nicholas Campbell reported that he “was one of the ever memorable Boston Tea Party.”[iv]  For the first fifty-three years afterward, people referred to the events of December 16, 1773, as “the destruction of the tea in Boston harbor,” or something similar.

5. MYTH:

The destruction of the tea galvanized colonists to revolt against the British.


Actually many Americans were uncertain about whether destroying the East India Company’s tea was a good idea.  Benjamin Franklin, the agent of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in London, initially urged Boston leaders to repay the East India Company for the destroyed tea.  Some newspaper pieces denounced the destruction of the tea.[v]  Within months, however, the British response to the destruction of the tea—the Coercive Acts of 1774—did inspire the American colonists to reconsider their relationship to the British government.  For instance, in early June 1774, after he had learned of the Coercive Acts, George Washington wrote, “The cause of Boston the despotic Measures in respect to it I mean now is and ever will be considered, as the cause of America (not that we approve their conduct in destroyg the Tea).”[vi]

6. MYTH:

The Boston Tea Party is a great example of nonviolent civil disobedience.


This is misleading in two respects.  First, although the Bostonians committed property destruction on December 16 rather than violence against persons, the destruction of the tea was also the culminating act in a series of violent threats and deeds against friends of government in Boston.  Bostonians intimidated importers and customs officers, threw rocks and shattered windows, printed death threats against the tea consignees, surrounded them at their homes and places of business, refused to allow the governor to give them armed protection, and effectively exiled them to a fortified island in the harbor. Second, when Charles Conner was caught trying to pocket tea on board the Beaver on the night of December 16, he was stripped of his coat, covered in mud, and beaten as he fled Griffin’s Wharf.  One observer wrote, “nothing but their utter aversion to make any disturbance prevented his being tar’d and feather’d.”  The tea destroyers did their best to act with restraint (they didn’t touch anything on the ships aside from the tea, and they even replaced a broken padlock), but their actions weren’t wholly nonviolent.[vii]

7. MYTH:

Ever since the Tea Party, Americans have deliberately chosen coffee over tea.


The reason Americans drink more coffee than tea is that for much of American history since 1773, the coffee of Brazil and the Caribbean has been cheaper and easier to obtain than tea from China or India, which was often subject to trade restrictions.  It is true that Americans engaged in new boycotts of tea in 1774, but their prejudice against tea didn’t last—they had too many fond memories of drinking it before 1773.[viii]


[i] Benjamin Woods Labaree, The Boston Tea Party (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 66–73, 116, 119, 121, 258; Benjamin L. Carp, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 20, 84, 166.

[ii] [New York] Statesman, December 30, 1825.  Thanks to Mary Harnell-Sesniak for pointing this out.  See also Alfred F. Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).

[iii] Baltimore Patriot and Mercantile Advertiser, January 28, 1826.

[iv] Providence Patriot, July 29, 1829.

[v] Benjamin Woods Labaree, The Boston Tea Party (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 164, 221.

[vi] George Washington to George W. Fairfax, June 10, 1774, in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, 1745–1799  (39 vols., Washington, 1931–44), 3:224, quoted in Labaree, Boston Tea Party, 234.

[vii] Carp, Defiance of the Patriots, 38–4, 75, 82–93, 100–104, 107–8, 128, 130.

[viii] Michelle Craig McDonald and Steven Topik, “Americanizing Coffee: Refashioning a Consumer Culture,” in Alexander Nützenadel and Frank Trentmann, eds., Food and Globalization: Consumption, Markets and Politics in the Modern World (New York: Berg, 2008), 109–27.


  • It always amazes me how mis-informed we are about history. Our schools need to do a better job of being accurate when teaching history. We owe it to our children and to history itself.

  • Mr. Parker: the Richard Clarke & Sons firm was one of a handful of consignees appointed to receive (and sell) the tea–since they were never physically able to take charge of the cargo, I’m not sure whether you can call them the owners.

  • Thanks to Mary Harrell-Sesniak for pointing to the 30 December 1825 edition of The Statesman (New York) as the earliest known reference to the phrase “Boston Tea Party.” The article has been updated to reflect this information, and to add a reference to the work of the late Alfred F. Young.

  • I am a tour guide at Washington’s Crossing State Park. I have been trying to find any information as to why 600 Hessians took off over the Assunpink bridge leaving Rall’s left flank in mid air. I can see a number under 100 but that many troops, makes no sense to me. They would not even stop and hold the south side of the bridge for the other troops. Where can I find this information.

    Thank you

    Dave Howard

  • Dave –
    There are any number of great sources on the battle at Trenton, I’d start at your own gift shop. Try:
    1. Fischer, David Hackett (2006). Washington’s Crossing. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517034-2.
    2. Mitchell, Craig (2003). George Washington’s New Jersey. Middle Atlantic Press. ISBN 0-9705804-1-X.
    3. Lengel, Edward (2005). General George Washington. New York: Random House Paperbacks. ISBN 0-8129-6950-2.
    4. Wood, W.J Henry (2003). Battles Of The Revolutionary War. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-81329-7.

    As to “why” the Knyphausen’s went south towards the Assunpink instead of northeast towards Rall: they had no choice. The Knyphausens were separated from the other two regiments by the street fighting, particularly Thomas Forrest’s cannon firing down Queen street. The main body of Rall’s force had already fallen back into the orchard. By this time the Hessians were leaderless; Rall was mortally wounded and all four Hessian Colonels were either dead or dying. Mercer’s and Sterling’s continentals had pushed through town into the open field, driving the main body of the Knyphausen’s before them which isolated the regiment to the south of the main action. Cut off, commander-less, outnumbered perhaps four to one, facing their own cannon turned upon them, the Knyphausens could no longer protect a failed flank and either retreated or were driven south to the boggy, briar-infested north bank of the Assunpink — where the “Hessian Sketch” indicates that the main bulk of Knyphausens surrendered. However, a separated group of Knyphausens near the end of Queen street “mistakenly” went towards the Assunpink bridge (ahem, some officers had previously penned comments critical of Rall’s military skills). Evidence suggests that some of them got over the bridge since Sullivan’s men later captured another 200 men on the road to Burlington and at least 300 of Ralls force are unaccounted for on casualty/capture lists. These unfortunates missed out on the warmth of Southern hospitality down here in Charlottesville.

    1. Thank you Dr. Gallagher. That clears up a lot for me. I have read Hacket-Fisher’s book and Osprey publications “the battles of Trenton and Princeton”. Neither of these books gave the details of this operation that you just did. I can use this on my tours. Once again, thank you very much.

      Your most obedient servant

      Dave Howard

  • I should also mention that Rick Britton wrote a nice piece for JAR in Jan 2013 about James Monroe’s participation at Trenton ( https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/01/james-monroe-bona-fide-hero-of-the-american-revolution/). Rick included a well-drawn map of the action. It shows how a division of Sullivan’s men, under Glover, crossed the Assunpink bridge and faced the Knyphausen’s from the south side of the creek, including cannon. In the article Rick noted that 6 of the 8 Hessian cannon were taken. The remaining two cannon were those of the Knyphausen regiment and (according to the “Hessian sketch”) were mired in the mud and abandoned as the Knyphausens moved south and east from the foot of Queen street.

    In truth I’m not a “doctor” of history, just a retired Colonel with rabid interest in the “Revolution”. There are a number of eminent contributors to this site who have diligently earned that title, speak with great authority and to whom we all owe the great debt of many evenings of riveting reading.

    1. Dear Mrs. Dinkins Borkowski;
      While not a JAR editor, I will rise to the defense. The article stated that the “The Tea Act” of 1773 did not impose a tax on tea. That is correct. The full text of the actual Tea Act is available on line at multiple places to peruse. I’ll point out the salient facts.

      The Tea Act empowered the Commissioners of the Royal Treasury the authority to grant licenses to the East India Company to export tea duty-free to America. It even went further, by allowing East India Company to “draw back”, or be credited for, customs taxes that they paid on tea that had been taxed when imported to Britain that was then re-shipped to America. By doing that the Tea Act lowered the cost of the tea such that Americans could purchase it at record low prices. The purpose of the act was to encourage sale of an overstock of tea which the East India Company had accumulated. In fact, the Tea Act was only valid so long as the East India Company had an unsold surplus of tea. If you read the final paragraph of the Tea Act (Section VI) you’ll see the catch that duty free licenses could only be issued so long as the East India Company had at least ten million pounds (in weight) of tea remaining in their warehouses. So the article is correct, the tea act did not create any tax on the American Colonies.

      Three other factors were critical to the Tea Party. First, when the collective laws known as the “Townshend Acts” were repealed, Parliament did not repeal the Townshend tax on tea. So although the Tea Act itself did not impose a tax, Americans were still subject to the tax imposed previously by the Townsend Act (although it was very small). Failure to repeal the tax on tea was, and was seen as, Parliament asserting its right to tax Americans – and of course, there was no American representation involved in the passage of any of the Townshend Acts. Second; since Americans had been boycotting tea as a result of the Townshend tax, tea had become a popular smuggling commodity. Last, the navigation acts required Americans to buy all of their imports from Britain. They could purchase the products of other nations provided that the goods were first imported to Britain. The Sugar Act of 1764 added greater enforcement of the Navigation Acts in an effort to curtail smuggling and was, of itself, a source of frustration to Americans, particularly merchants and vessel owners. Thus, what American “radicals” saw in the Tea Act was an attempt to push one of the few products still subject to the Townshend taxes, through a company that had already been granted a true monopoly on the product, for the benefit of that company (and its Parliamentary shareholders), at the expense of American consumers, merchants and shippers.

      Summary: Although the Tea Act did not impose any new taxes on Americans, the point in principle was threefold: the Townshend Taxes were taxation without representation; the Navigation Acts still stifled free trade in American colonies; and the Tea Act was yet one more example where British consortiums like the East India Company, share-owned primarily by members of Parliament, were still being given incredibly preferential treatment that stifled American merchants and the American economy.

  • Was it not that famous Welshman, Dr Richard Price, who in 1773 wrote a public letter to the American people saying they should ‘not submit to taxation without representation’ and that he would ‘rather throw English tea into the sea than pay an unjust tax upon it to an unjust government”

    Perhaps Dr Price ought to be recognised in this discussion for his contributions to American independence / right of representation and determination.

  • Such fascinating information we have here and I thank you Mr. Carp for pointing these facts out. That it may be, I will say that there were probably just as many encouraging this tea dumping behavior as those detesting it. I’m sure our founding fathers viewed this act to be a bit extreme but I bet they still had a good laugh. They were at the tipping point and if it wasn’t the Britains reaction to colonists dumping tea in the harbor, something else would have sparked the formation of the continental congress.

    1. There were protests against the East India Company tea in every big North American port. Only in Boston was the tea dumped so dramatically, but as I recall in Charleston it was impounded and in Philadelphia the ships turned back. In his book Prof. Carp emphasizes the rivalry among the ports, arguing that Bostonians felt pressure to be militant about the tea since cities to the south had succeeded in stopping the sale. So the availability, or at least the political significance, of tea was affected throughout the colonies, but as a result of that larger movement, not as a consequence of the destruction of tea in Boston.

      1. Mr. Bell I would beg to correct your description: the dumping of tea in Boston was not nearly as dramatic as the treatment tea received to the south in the capital of Maryland! In Annapolis they went so far as to build a gallows in the front yard of the owner of the ship that imported the tea and in the end the the ship that imported the tea from London was burned to waterline.

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