Harlow Giles Unger
cover of American Tempest

American Tempest
How the Boston Tea Party
Sparked a Revolution

by Harlow Giles Unger

Hardcover, 228 pages, illustrated
US: $26.00 / CAN $32.95 / UK £15.99
ISBN: 9780306818868

Published by Da Capo Press


Introduction to American Tempest

Bostonians had just stepped out of their homes to go to work when they spotted the notices on fence posts and trees: “Friends! Brethren! Countrymen! That worst of plagues, the detestable tea is now arrived…. The hour of destruction or manly opposition to the machinations of tyranny stare you in the face.”

It was Monday morning at nine, November 29, 1773, when the first church bell tolled, then a second, and another—until every church tower in the city rocked in the fearful crescendo. All but paralyzed with fear by the din, neighbors glanced at each other, then began trotting down the narrow alleys to the waterfront. Shopkeepers who had just opened for business shuttered their doors and joined the flow of people—hundreds, at first, then thousands, from all directions swarming into the square in front of Faneuil Hall. All tried forcing their way in—rich, poor…merchants, thugs … men and boys … clubs, rifles, pistols, and a variety of missiles in hand, ready to shatter windows of the capitol or fire at the gods in heaven. They called for the blood of those they hated—British officials, those who supported British rule, those who deprived them of what they perceived as liberty. They called for the overthrow of a government that had fostered their prosperity for generations and protected them from enemy attacks by hostile Indians, French troops, and Spanish conquistadores for a century and a half.

Massachusetts Chief Justice Peter Oliver puzzled over the tempest swirling around him: “For a colony which had been nursed in its infancy with the most tender care and attention, which has been indulged with every gratification that the most forward child could wish for … to plunge into an unnatural rebellion … must strike some with a degree of astonishment. By advertising to the historic page, we shall find no previous revolt… but what originated from sever oppressions.”

The cause of the ruckus was indeed astonishing: a three=penny-per-pound tax on British tea, which was nothing more than a “social beverage” largely consumed by idle women as “a sign of politeness and hospitality … a mark of civility and welcome.” But men seldom drank it, and it ranked below ale or rum among the beverages that Americans consumed most. Indeed, only about one-third of the population drank as many as two cups a day, and the tax had no effect on consumption. Eminently affordable by almost every American, tea had first appeared in America as an all-purpose elixir for “headaches, giddiness, and heaviness … colds, dropsies, and scurvies—and it expelleth infection… prevents and cures agues, surfeits, and fevers.”

Although the largest, wealthiest merchant groups routinely paid whatever duties the government demanded and absorbed the tiny extra costs, second-tier and third-tier merchants on the edge of failure evaded duties and tried to gain a competitive edge by buying low-cost, smuggled Dutch tea that they could sell at prices well below those of dutied English teas. The British government, however, badly needed to collect those duties. It had accumulated debts of more than £1 million in the French and Indian War in the north and west, and Parliament was determined to step up tax enforcement to force Americans to assume more of the costs of their own defense.

Boston’s mid-level merchants objected and, as Massachusetts Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson put it, “From so small a spark, a great fire seems to have been kindled.” (footnote) The dissenting merchants responded to the increased taxes by organizing waterfront workers into a raging mob that surged through the streets, taking control of the town and its government. The mob brooked no dissent, burning homes of the most outspoken opponents and sending the dreaded tumbrel, “in imitation of the Inquisition coach,” to the doors of citizens who dared voice support for the established government. The squeaking wooden tipcart arrived at dawn, its drivers breaking down doors and ragging shrieking victims from their beds for transport to the “Liberty Tree.” A jeering mob awaited to strip them, swab them in scalding tar, and dress them in chicken feathers before hanging them by the waist from a branch to be scorned, beaten, and humiliated.

“The tarring and feathering and riots reigned uncontrolled,” Chief Justice Peter Oliver recalled. “the Liberty of the press was restrained by the very men who had been halloowing for liberty…. Those printers who were inclined to support government were threatened.” After the mob burned down the home of a merchant who had paid the required duties on imported tea, a churchman at the conflagration assured the merchant’s frightened neighbors “that it was all right, it being in a good cause.”

Oliver explained that “all the struggle and uproar arose from the selfish designs of the merchants.” He called them “mock patriots who disguised their private views by mouthing it for liberty … [but] who will sacrifice everything for money.”

The struggle and uproar climaxed on Thursday, December 16, 1773, with the legendary “Boston Tea Party,” when an estimated six to seven dozen men, many amateurishly disguised as Indians—who were then a symbol of freedom—dumped at least £10,000 of tea (about $1 million today) into Boston harbor. Whatever the motives of its perpetrators, they unleashed social, political, and economic forces they would never again be able to control.

The Boston Tea Party provoked a reign of terror in Boston and other American cities, with Americans inflicting unimaginable barbarities on each other. Mobs dumped tea and burned tea ships in New York; Philadelphia; Charleston, South Carolina; and elsewhere—and Boston staged a second tea party a few months after the first one. The turmoil stripped tens of thousands of Americans of their dignity, homes, properties, and birthrights—all in the name of liberty and independence. Nearly 100,000 Americans left the land of their forefathers forever in what was history’s largest exodus of Americans from America, and untold thousands who refused to leave their native land fled westward into the dangerous wilderness to start life anew under new identities.

Even in the face of such horrors, John Adams saw a grander picture, calling the Boston Tea Party nothing sort of “magnificent” and insisting it displayed “a dignity, a majesty, a sublimity…. This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important consequences, and so lasting, that I cannot but consider it as an epocha [sic] in History.”

Ironically, few, if any, Americans today—even those who call themselves Tea Party Patriots—know the true and entire story of the original Tea Party and the Patriots who staged it. Their names are long forgotten; no monument lists them or describes what they did and why. Before the original Tea Party Patriots disembarked, they swore never to reveal each other’s names, although British authorities accused John Hancock, Sam Adams, James Otis—and even fat little John Adams—of dumping some of the tea. Although the names of Tea Party Patriots are of some interest, what John Adams called the “important consequences” of the Tea Party had far more impact on American history—socially, politically, and economically. One social consequence, for example, was a shortage of tea that helped transform Americans into a nation of coffee drinkers. However, the political and economic consequences went far beyond culinary tastes and also affected the minds, hearts, souls, and lives of almost every American then and now. These included, among others, a declaration of independence, a bloody revolution, and a modern world’s first experiment in self-government.

What a party! What a teapot! And what a tempest!

Copyright Harlow Giles Unger