American Tempest

How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution


By Harlow Giles Unger

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On Thursday, December 16, 1773, an estimated seven dozen men, many dressed as Indians, dumped roughly £10,000 worth of tea in Boston Harbor. Whatever their motives at the time, they unleashed a social, political, and economic firestorm that would culminate in the Declaration of Independence two-and-a-half years later.

The Boston Tea Party provoked a reign of terror in Boston and other American cities as tea parties erupted up and down the colonies. The turmoil stripped tens of thousands of their homes and property, and nearly 100,000 left forever in what was history’s largest exodus of Americans from America. Nonetheless, John Adams called the Boston Tea Party nothing short of “magnificent,” saying that “it must have important consequences.”

Combining stellar scholarship with action-packed history, Harlow Giles Unger reveals the truth behind the legendary event and examines its lasting consequence–the spawning of a new, independent nation.







There is nothing so easy as to persuade people that they are badly governed.


List of Illustrations


  1. Town of Boston

  2. Boston, its harbor and environs, 1775–1776


  1. James Otis, Jr.

  2. Thomas Hancock

  3. Harvard College

  4. Thomas Hutchinson, Jr.

  5. Samuel Adams

  6. Peter Oliver

  7. Hancock House on Beacon Hill

  8. Hancock House interior

  9. Thomas Pownall

10. John Hancock

11. Patrick Henry speaks against the Stamp Act

12. Castle William

13. The Green Dragon Tavern

14. John Dickinson

15. William Pitt, Earl of Chatham

16. Thomas Cushing, Jr.

17. British troops drill on Boston Common

18. John Adams

19. Frederick Lord North

20. Bostonians paying the excise man

21. The Boston Massacre

22. The Boston Gazette’s front page

23. Faneuil Hall

24. The Boston Tea Party

25. Customs Commissioner John Malcolm on the scaffold

26. Joseph Galloway

27. Old South Meeting House

28. Bostonians in distress

29. Edmund Burke

30. General Thomas Gage hears the pleas of Boston’s boys

31. Patrick Henry

32. Major General Dr. Joseph Warren

33. Paul Revere

34. Thomas Jefferson

35. Commander in Chief George Washington

36. The Tory’s Day of Judgment

37. King George III

38. Boston rebuilt, 1789

39. The Declaration of Independence


My deepest thanks to the wonderful staff at my publisher, Da Capo Press of the Perseus Books Group. All work incredibly hard behind the scenes and seldom receive the public acknowledgment they deserve for the beautiful books they produce and market. I owe a great debt of thanks to Publisher John Radziewicz, who has championed the publication of this and other books on American history. Special thanks, too, to Lissa Warren, the brilliant director of publicity, whose tireless efforts I believe do more to promote the study of American history than many schools and colleges. Among other essential contributors to this and other Da Capo books are Kevin Hanover, director of marketing, and the wonderful sales force of the Perseus Books Group; marketing executive Sean Maher, editor Jonathan Crowe; the incredibly skilled—and patient—Cisca L. Schreefel, associate director of editorial services and project editor for this book; copy editor Josephine Mariea; proofreader Anna Kaltenbach; and indexer Robie Grant.

Finally, my most sincere thanks to my wonderful editor Robert Pigeon, executive editor at Da Capo Press, for the time, energy, passion, and skills he contributed to this book, and to my literary agent Edward W. Knappman of New England Publishing Associates, for his enduring faith in my work.

Author’s Note: Spellings and grammar in the eighteenth-century letters and manuscripts cited in this book have, where appropriate, been modernized to clarify syntax without altering the intent of the original authors. The original spellings may be found in the works cited in the endnotes and bibliography.


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.”1

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, craftsmen, farmers, shipfitters, seamen, laborers . . . beggars, thieves, 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 adverting to the historic page, we shall find no previous revolt . . . but what originated from severe oppressions.”2

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, drop-sies, and scurvies—and it expelleth infection . . . prevents and cures agues, surfeits and fevers.”3

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.”4 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 dragging 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.5

“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.”6 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.”7

Oliver explained that “all this 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.”8

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 short 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.”9

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 the modern world’s first experiment in self-government.

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

Chapter 1

”Rally, Mohawks!”

Thousands had pushed into the Old South Meeting House, “turning the House of God into a den of thieves,” according to Massachusetts Chief Justice Peter Oliver. “Thus assembled, they whiled away the time hissing and clapping, cursing and swearing until it grew near darkness and then the signal was given to act their deeds of darkness.”1

A burst of blood-curdling war whoops from without silenced the huge congregation for a moment.

“Rally, Mohawks!” came a cry from the rear—and again the terrifying war whoops from beyond. From the pulpit, moderator Samuel Adams called out, “This meeting can do no more to save the country.”2 And the doors of the church burst open, spilling congregants onto the stony parvis in the icy moonlit air.

“Boston harbor a tea-pot tonight!” someone shouted.

“Hurrah for Griffin’s Wharf!” answered another.

“The Mohawks are come!” a third voice called.3

Fifty or more men stood huddled in the shadows of the buildings opposite the church—blankets draped over their heads and shoulders, their faces smeared with lamp-black. Poised as Indians, they wore tomahawks, knives, or pistols in their belts and carried an axe or hatchet in their hands. Together, they represented the first—the original—Tea Party Patriots and would redound through history as a collective symbol against government taxation without the consent of the taxed.

As the throng burst from the church, the Mohawks signaled to them to follow in silence along Milk Street, then a sharp right toward the waterfront, flowing like molten lava—steadily, relentlessly—until it reached Fort Hill. Other “Indians” stepped into the line of march, “one after another, as if by accident, so as not to excite suspicion.”

Three ships lay tied to the pier as the procession approached Griffin’s Wharf. Armed guards protected the entrance, but stood away as the Indians approached. The crowd of followers halted on a rise above the wharf to watch the Indians as they boarded the ships. Like a swarm of locusts, the Indians spread across the decks, with some attaching blocks and tackles to lift chests from the holds. Chest after chest rose from the darkness of the ship’s bowels onto the decks, where axes and hatchets split their seams so expertly that spectators barely heard a sound. “We resembled devils from the bottomless pit rather than men,” recalled Joshua Wyeth, a sixteen-year-old blacksmith at the Tea Party. “Many of [us] were apprentices and journeymen, not a few, as was the case with myself, living with Tory masters.

We boarded the ship . . . and our leader in a very stern and resolute manner, ordered the captain and crew to open the hatchways and hand us the hoisting tackle and ropes, assuring them that no harm was intended them. . . . Some of our number jumped into the hold and passed the chests to the tackle. As they were hauled on deck, others knocked them open with axes, and others raised them to the railing and discharged their contents overboard. . . . We were merry . . . at the idea of making so large a cup of tea for the fishes.4

A reporter from the Massachusetts Gazette was also on the scene:

They applied themselves so dexterously to the destruction of this commodity that, in the space of three hours, they broke up three hundred and forty-two chests, which was the whole number in these vessels, and discharged their contents. . . . When the tide rose, it floated the broken chests and the tea insomuch that the surface of the water was filled there-with a considerable way from the south part of the town to Dorchester Neck and lodged on the shores [see map 2, page 82]. . . . The town was very quiet during the whole evening and the night following. Those who were from the country went home with a merry heart, and the next day joy appeared in almost every countenance, some on account of the destruction of the tea, others on account of the quietness with which it was effected.5

The Tea Party left government officials irate, with Chief Justice Peter Oliver condemning it as a “villainous act.” Tea Party leaders, he said, had “assembled the rabble . . . to perpetrate the most atrocious acts of treason and rebellion.”6

One of the brilliant minds of his native Boston, Justice Oliver pointed out that few, if any, of the men who dumped the tea into Boston harbor that night could even explain their irrational behavior. None consumed as much tea as he did ale, rum, or whiskey; few had any objections to others consuming tea, including their wives; and most bore no malice toward the East India Company, which owned the tea. Moderators at the church who inspired the assault on the tea ships at Griffin’s Wharf had railed against taxation, yet the tax on tea was negligible—a mere three-pence per pound, or slightly more than one-tenth of one penny for a nine-pence cup of a beverage consumed largely by women as “a sign of politeness and hospitality . . . a mark of civility and welcome.” On the surface, the Tea Party seemed a senseless, wanton act of vandalism—beyond the ludicrous, drawing the disbelief of most Americans, the ill will of many others, and the wrath of government.

“Had they been prudent enough to have poured it into fresh water instead of salt water,” Oliver sneered, “they and their wives and their children and their little ones might have regaled upon it at free cost for a twelve month. But now the fish had the whole regale to themselves. Whether it suited the constitution of a fish is not said, but it is said that some of the inhabitants of Boston would not eat of fish caught in the harbor, because they had drank of the East India Company tea.”

To Samuel Adams and other organizers of the Tea Party, however, the tea had become a symbol of property, and the tax on it represented nothing less than confiscation of that property from its rightful owners or purchasers. In fact, the Tea Tax, small as it was, marked the fourth time in forty years that Parliament had tried to tax Americans without their consent. They began with the Molasses Act of 1733, then added the Grenville acts in 1764, the Stamp Act of 1765, and, finally, the Townshend Acts of 1767, which included the notorious Tea Tax that would irritate Americans for more than eight years and provoke the Boston Massacre in 1770, the Boston Tea Party in 1773, and the American Revolution in 1775.

“I truly can have no property which another can by right take from me when he pleases,” Samuel Adams thundered. “If our trade may be taxed, why not out lands? Why not the produce of our lands and everything we possess or make use of?”7

Chief Justice Oliver, however, dismissed Adams’s complaints, insisting that personal ambitions lay behind the carping of Adams and other organizers of the tax protests.

“Toward the latter end of the year 1760,” Oliver explained, “the chief justice of the province of Massachusetts died, and a mentally unbalanced, but politically ambitious young lawyer, James Otis, Jr., swore that if his father was not appointed justice of the superior court [to replace the deceased jurist], he would do all the mischief he could to the government [and] would set the province in a flame if he died in the attempt.”8 Oliver’s brother-in-law Thomas Hutchinson, a phenomenally prosperous Boston merchant who later became Massachusetts royal governor, agreed that Otis provided the “spark” that kindled the conflagration that eventually engulfed Boston.

At the time of Otis’s outburst, Hutchinson was lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, and the death of the chief justice had interrupted a critical trial with constitutional ramifications. By seniority and years of service in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Otis’s father, Colonel James Otis, Sr., deserved the higher post. Indeed, two former royal governors had promised him the job as a reward for service as militia commander in the war against the French and for twenty-five years of service as judge in Barnstable, Massachusetts. Elected Speaker of the House of Representatives, Otis was both the logical and the most popular choice, but the new royal governor, Sir Francis Bernard, rejected him because of what he said was a clear conflict of interest: His son, James Otis, Jr., was one of the lawyers representing a group of Salem merchants opposing the crown. Instead, Bernard appointed Hutchinson rather than the elder Otis, and according to Oliver, “the two Otises now exerted themselves, totis viribus [with all one’s might], to revenge their disappointment in Mr. Hutchinson’s destruction.”9

Bernard’s choice of Hutchinson set off a storm of protests. Although a brilliant graduate of Harvard College, Hutchinson was one of Boston’s leading merchants and faced no less a conflict of interest in judging a group of Salem merchants than the elder Otis. In addition, Hutchinson was not even a lawyer and had no legal training. Even Hutchinson himself puzzled over Bernard’s decision to appoint him, given Bernard’s own background in the law. Hutchinson’s deficiencies became evident when he took his seat on the bench and faced the brilliant arguments of the younger Otis—a consummate lawyer who attacked with a vengeance. He did not disguise his intent to humiliate the great merchant, who, Otis believed, was more responsible than Bernard for crippling his father’s career and, indeed, damaging the older man emotionally.

“Otis was a flame of fire,” according to John Adams. “He demonstrated the illegality, the unconstitutionality, the iniquity and inhumanity” of the crown’s case so cogently “that every man appeared to me to go away ready to take arms against it. No harangue of Demosthenes or Cicero ever had such effects.” Adams was a young lawyer then and had come to observe what he and many of his colleagues considered one of the most important cases in colonial history. “American independence,” Adams enthused, “was then and there born; the seeds of patriots and heroes were then and there sown.”10

At the heart of the case was whether a customs official had the right to issue a blanket search warrant, or “writ of assistance,” and, without warning, “search in all suspected places” for smuggled goods—on a merchant’s ship, in his barns, in any and every room of his home and anywhere on the merchant’s property he chose. Otis called writs “against the fundamental principles of law,” arguing that “every man is an independent sovereign. . . . His right to his life, his liberty, no created being could rightfully contest. Nor is his right to property less contestable.”11

James Otis, Jr. A young Boston lawyer, his irrational hatred for Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson turned him into a revolutionary. A beating administered by Boston’s Customs Commissioner left him insane for the rest of his life. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

The crown, however, did not dispute man’s right to property—only his right to property that he smuggled to America without paying import duties.

The roots of the dispute stretched back three decades to 1733, when Britain passed the Molasses Act—the first of a series of ill-advised tax laws that would eventually incite Americans to rebellion. The Molasses Act of 1733 added a six-pence-a-gallon duty on foreign molasses, which American distillers claimed would all but destroy their industry, drive many of them into bankruptcy, and put thousands of their employees out of work. It was not the first time Parliament had interfered in American trade, but it was the first time Parliament had enacted a tax that seemed to limit the growth of a colonial industry. The Navigation Act of 1660, for example, had restricted the carrying trade in and out of the American colonies to British or American ships, but the restriction spurred the growth of an enormous American ship-building industry that not only eclipsed England’s shipbuilders but made it the finest such industry in the world. New England’s huge, virgin forests yielded seemingly endless supplies of the finest oak for ships’ hulls and incomparably strong and flexible white pines for use as masts. Massachusetts shipbuilders built better quality ships at half the price of comparable English ships, and because of the nearness of forests to the sea, they built them in one-third the time. By 1700 Massachusetts shipyards alone were launching 140 ships a year, and by mid-century, American shipyards as a group had built more than 30 percent of all the ships sailing under the British flag.


On Sale
Mar 8, 2011
Page Count
304 pages
Da Capo Press

Harlow Giles Unger

About the Author

Acclaimed historian Harlow Giles Unger is a former Distinguished Visiting Fellow at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. He is the author of twenty-six previous books, including twelve biographies of America’s Founding Fathers and three histories of the early Republic. He lives in New York City.

Learn more about this author