The Boston Tea Party was a direct action against a corporate monopoly that led to the birth of the United States. The raiders of the Tea Party pledged silence for 50 years. One of them, George R. T. Hewes, lived that long and got his story published. He tells how the British government tried to give the East India Company, the biggest corporation of the day, a monopoly on tea, the biggest drug of the day:x70
The [East India] Company … received permission to transport tea, free of all duty, from Great Britain to America … Hence it was no longer the small vessels of private merchants, who went to vend tea for their own account in the ports of the colonies, but, on the contrary, ships of an enormous burthen, that transported immense quantities of this commodity, which by the aid of the public authority, might, as they supposed, easily be landed, and amassed in suitable magazines.
The East India Company sent big loads of tea to American cities:
Accordingly the Company sent its agents at Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, six hundred chests of tea, and a proportionate number to Charleston, and other maritime cities of the American continent. The colonies were now arrived at the decisive moment when they must cast the dye, and determine their course …
Philadelphia and New York sent the tea back:
At Philadelphia, those to whom the teas of the [East India] Company were intended to be consigned, were induced by persuasion, or constrained by menaces, to promise, on no terms, to accept the proffered consignment.
At New-York, Captain Sears and McDougal, daring and enterprising men, effected a concert of will between the smugglers, the merchants, and the sons of liberty. Pamphlets suited to the conjecture, were daily distributed, and nothing was left unattempted by popular leaders, to obtain their purpose.
Among the pamphlets circulating was The Alarm by Rusticus, which warned that the American colonies could meet a fate like that of Bengal, which underwent famine while the East India Company had a monopoly on grain trade:x71
Are we in like Manner to be given up to the Disposal of the East India Company, who have now the Assurance, to step forth in Aid of the Minister, to execute his Plan, of enslaving America? Their Conduct in Asia, for some Years past, has given simple Proof, how little they regard the Laws of Nations, the Rights, Liberties, or Lives of Men. … Fifteen hundred Thousands, it is said, perished by Famine in one Year, not because the Earth denied its Fruits; but [because] this Company and their Servants engulfed all the Necessaries of Life, and set them at so high a Rate that the poor could not purchase them.
The public felt the moment of truth was near:
In Boston the general voice declared the time was come to face the storm. Why do we wait? they exclaimed; soon or late we must engage in conflict with England. Hundreds of years may roll away before the ministers can have perpetrated as many violations of our rights, as they have committed within a few years. The opposition is formed; it is general; it remains for us to seize the occasion. The more we delay the more strength is acquired by the ministers. Now is the time to prove our courage, or be disgraced with our brethren of the other colonies, who have their eyes fixed upon us, and will be prompt in their succor if we show ourselves faithful and firm.
On November 28th, 1773, the first of the tea-bearing ships docked in Boston Harbor, and the morning after, as Hewes recounts, a notice was published:
Friends, Brethren, Countrymen! That worst of plagues, the detested TEA, has arrived in this harbour. The hour of destruction, a manly opposition to the machinations of tyranny, stares you in the face. Every friend to his country, to himself, and to posterity, is now called upon to meet in Faneuil Hall, at nine o’clock, this day, at which time the bells will ring, to make a united and successful resistance to this last, worst, and most destructive measure of administration.”
Unlike in Philadelphia and New York, the governor and receiving agents in Boston would not send the tea back. So the Bostonians placed guards to watch the ships, and send an alarm should they start to unload.
The factors who were to be the consignees of the tea, were urged to renounce their agency, but they refused and took refuge in the fortress. A guard was placed on Griffin’s wharf, near where the tea ships were moored. It was agreed that a strict watch should be kept; that if any insult should be offered, the bell should be immediately rung; and some persons always ready to bear intelligence of what might happen, to the neighbouring towns, and to call in the assistance of the country people.”
After some days, the ship commanders declared that on December 17th they would unload the tea by force if needed:x72
The tea … was contained in three ships, lying near each other at what was called at that time Griffin’s wharf, and were surrounded by armed ships of war, the commanders of which had publicly declared that if the rebels, as they were pleased to style the Bostonians, should not withdraw their opposition to the landing of the tea before a certain day, the 17th day of December, 1773, they should on that day force it on shore, under the cover of their cannon’s mouth.
On the day before the threatened day, a throng gathered — riled and ready to dump tea:
Things thus appeared to be hastening to a disastrous issue. The people of the country arrived in great numbers, the inhabitants of the town assembled. This assembly … was the most numerous ever known, there being more than 2000 from the country present.
… the public mind [was] already wrought up to a degree of desperation, and ready to break out into acts of violence, on every trivial occasion of offence….
Finding no measures were likely to be taken, either by the governor, or the commanders, or owners of the ships, to return their cargoes or prevent the landing of them, at 5 o’clock a vote was called for the dissolution of the meeting and obtained.
But cooler members got the crowd to stay and further consider the gravity of such action. One of them, Josiah Quiney, gave this warning:
… Greatly will he deceive himself, who shall think, that with cries, with exclamations, with popular resolutions, we can hope to triumph in the conflict, and vanquish our inveterate foes. Their malignity is implacable, their thirst for vengeance insatiable. They have their allies, their accomplices, even in the midst of us – even in the bosom of this innocent country; and who is ignorant of the power of those who have conspired our ruin? Who knows not their artifices? Imagine not therefore, that you can bring this controversy to a happy conclusion without the most strenuous, the most arduous, the most terrible conflict; consider attentively the difficulty of the enterprise, and the uncertainty of the issue. Reflict [sic] and ponder, even ponder well, before you embrace the measures, which are to involve this country in the most perilous enterprise the world has witnessed.
The crowd gave the governor one more chance, then ended the meeting and headed for the docks:
The question was then immediately put whether the landing of the tea should be opposed and carried in the affirmative unanimously. Rotch [a local tea seller], to whom the cargo of tea had been consigned, was then requested to demand of the governor to permit to pass the castle [return the ships to England]. The latter answered haughtily, that for the honor of the laws, and from duty towards the king, he could not grant the permit, until the vessel was regularly cleared. A violent commotion immediately ensued; and … a person disguised after the manner of the Indians, who was in the gallery, shouted at this juncture, the cry of war; and … the meeting dissolved in the twinkling of an eye, and the multitude rushed in a mass to Griffin’s wharf.
The raiders went in disguise:
It was now evening, and I immediately dressed myself in the costume of an Indian, equipped with a small hatchet, which I and my associates denominated the tomahawk, with which, and a club, after having painted my face and hands with coal dust in the shop of a blacksmith, I repaired to Griffin’s wharf, where the ships lay that contained the tea. When I first appeared in the street after being thus disguised, I fell in with many who were dressed, equipped and painted as I was, and who fell in with me and marched in order to the place of our destination.
The boarding parties acted deliberately, and did no damage except to the cargo:
We were immediately ordered by the respective commanders to board all the ships at the same time, which we promptly obeyed. The commander of the division to which I belonged, as soon as we were on board the ship appointed me boatswain, and ordered me to go to the captain and demand of him the keys to the hatches and a dozen candles. I made the demand accordingly, and the captain promptly replied, and delivered the articles; but requested me at the same time to do no damage to the ship or rigging.
We then were ordered by our commander to open the hatches and take out all the chests of tea and throw them overboard, and we immediately proceeded to execute his orders, first cutting and splitting the chests with our tomahawks, so as thoroughly to expose them to the effects of the water.
In about three hours from the time we went on board, we had thus broken and thrown overboard every tea chest to be found in the ship, while those in the other ships were disposing of the tea in the same way, at the same time. We were surrounded by British armed ships, but no attempt was made to resist us.
The raiders resolved that all of the tea be destroyed, and none be used:
… there were several attempts made by some of the citizens of Boston and its vicinity to carry off small quantities of [tea] for their family use. …
One … came on board for that purpose, and when he supposed he was not noticed, filled his pockets, and also the lining of his coat. But I had detected him and gave information to the captain of what he was doing. We were ordered to take him into custody, and just as he was stepping from the vessel, I seized him by the skirt of his coat, and in attempting to pull him back, I tore it off; but, springing forward, by a rapid effort he made his escape. He had, however, to run a gauntlet through the crowd upon the wharf nine each one, as he passed, giving him a kick or a stroke.
The raiders kept their identities secret, even among themselves:
We then quietly retired to our several places of residence, without having any conversation with each other, or taking any measures to discover who were our associates; nor do I recollect of our having had the knowledge of the name of a single individual concerned in that affair, except … the commander of my division … There appeared to be an understanding that each individual should volunteer his services, keep his own secret, and risk the consequence for himself. No disorder took place during that transaction, and it was observed at that time that the stillest night ensued that Boston had enjoyed for many months.
The Boston Tea Party led to the British blockade of Boston Harbor, the battles of Lexington & Concord, the American Revolutionary War, and the U.S. Constitution.x73 Shortly after the Constitution was adopted in 1787, Thomas Jefferson tried to amend it to add a declaration of rights:x74
By a declaration of rights, I mean one which shall stipulate freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of commerce against monopolies, trial by juries in all cases, no suspensions of the habeas corpus, no standing armies.
Jefferson got all but two of those into the Bill of Rights. One of the missing rights was the “freedom of commerce against monopolies” — the one that could today dampen the need for further “tea parties”.
About 10 million people, approximately one third of the population of the affected area, are estimated to have died in the famine. …
Fault for the famine is now often ascribed to the British East India Company policies in Bengal. According to others, however, the famine was not a direct fault of the British regime, but was only exacerbated by its policies. …
As lands came under company control, the land tax was typically raised by 5 times what it had been – from 10% to up to 50% of the value of the agricultural produce. … As the famine approached its height, in April of 1770, the Company announced that land tax for the following year was to be increased by a further 10%.
The company is also criticised for forbidding the “hoarding” of rice. This prevented traders and dealers from laying in reserves that in other times would have tided the population over lean periods, as well as ordering the farmers to plant indigo instead of rice.
By the time of the famine, monopolies in grain trading had been established by the Company and its agents. The Company had no plan for dealing with the grain shortage, and actions were only taken insofar as they affected the mercantile and trading classes. …