By Tony Williams
On December 16, Americans recognize and celebrate the 240th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. We honor what patriot John Adams called an act “so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid, and inflexible.” Adams rightly predicted that the Boston Tea Party would be remembered as a significant event in the resistance against British tyranny. “It must have so important consequences, and so lasting, that I can’t but consider it an epocha in history.”
The events of the Boston Tea Party are familiar to most schoolchildren. The colonists were angered by the Tea Act which gave a monopoly to the East India Company and the tax that was retained from the Townshend Acts. The Bostonians refused to allow the tea to be landed in Boston and threatened the tea agents. After a democratic mass meeting of thousands in which Sam Adams warned that they would make “Boston harbor a tea-pot tonight!” the assembled crowd make their way to Griffin’s Wharf to destroy the tea. Patriots dressed up like Mohawk Indians and methodically dumped an incredible 90,000 pounds of tea worth £10,000 into the water.
For the colonists, it was not a matter of paying a few extra pence for their tea, but rather the constitutional principle of Englishmen not wanting to be taxed without their consent. George Washington asked from Virginia: “What is it we are contending against? Is it against paying the duty of 3d. per pound on tea because burdensome? No, it is the right only . . . as Englishmen, we could not be deprived of this essential and valuable part of our Constitution.”
In response to the Boston Tea Party, the British passed several acts collectively known as the “Coercive Acts,” which systematically violated the rights of the colonists in Massachusetts. Their right to trade was violated, their right to their property and not to have troops in their home without their consent was violated, their right to self-government was violated, their right to justice and local trial by jury for accused royal murderers, and their right to settle out West was violated.
The colonists believed that these acts constituted a systematic British plan of despotism to enslave the colonists. They argued for their rights as Englishmen, but they also argued that their natural rights from nature and nature’s God were being violated as well. Washington wrote, “An innate spirit of freedom first told me, that the measures, which administration hath for some time been, and now are most violently pursuing, are repugnant to every principle of natural justice; whilst much abler heads than my own hath fully convinced me, that it is not only repugnant to natural right, but subversive of the laws and constitution of Great Britain itself.”
It is no surprise then that Washington averred, “The crisis is arrived when we must assert our rights, or submit to every imposition.” Although history is filled contingency and reconciliation was certainly possible to avert war and revolution at this point, it is also true that the Boston Tea Party triggered a series of events that would ultimately lead to independence and self-government for Americans.
It is for that reason that Americans rightly commemorate the event.
Tony Williams is the WJMI Program Director and has written about the Boston Tea Party and related events in his book America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.