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]
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.
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.
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.
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]
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]
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).
[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.