On December 16, 1773, thousands of Bostonians gathered inside the Old South Meeting House to debate what to do about the recently arrived shipment of British tea from the East India Company. For 10 years, American colonists had angrily petitioned Parliament over “taxation without representation.” In 1770, Parliament relented and repealed all of the controversial Townshend Acts except for one, the tariff on imported British tea.

As the meeting adjourned without resolution, the agitated crowd heard a chorus of “war whoops” from the back of the meeting house. Outside, a large party of men dressed like Native Americans descended on Griffin’s Wharf crying, “Boston Harbor a teapot this night!” Around 100 Sons of Liberty, disguised as “Mohawks,” boarded three ships, broke open 342 chests of tea with hatchets and dumped the contents into the Boston Harbor.

Today, the Boston Tea Party is celebrated as a patriotic act of civil disobedience, but not all Americans—including Founding Fathers—at the time approved of a costumed mob destroying private property, even if it was owned by a Parliament-granted monopoly like the East India Company.

“You see a mixed reaction in the colonies for sure,” says historian Benjamin Carp. “There were definitely some full-throated cheers, but there were also many people who wagged their fingers and said, this is a terrible idea and thought it had gone too far.”

Celebrating ‘The Destruction of the Tea’

News of the event, known simply as “the destruction of the tea” (it wasn’t called the Boston Tea Party until the early 19th century) spread quickly, and many Americans were thrilled at how the Bostonians had dealt with the Crown’s wretched tea.

Even John Adams, a relatively conservative figure compared to his firebrand cousin, Samuel, gushed about the event in his diary. “This is the most magnificent Movement of all,” he wrote the following day. “There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity, in this last Effort of the Patriots, that I greatly admire.”

As news of the destroyed tea spread throughout Massachusetts and the other colonies, more “tea parties” followed, although none with the scale of Boston. In towns like Marshfield and Charlestown, Massachusetts, citizens raided storage cellars and their own pantries to rid their villages of British tea. Instead of dumping it in the water, the tea was burned in patriotic ceremonies.

In Philadelphia, the Sons of Liberty threatened to tar and feather the captain of a ship carrying British tea, so he sailed back to England. And in South Carolina, a large shipment of tea wasn’t outright destroyed, but the colonial governor was pressured to lock it away in storage, where it rotted.

John Hancock, the wealthy Boston merchant and Patriot, was amazed at how a single action in Boston seemed to rally the colonies together behind a shared cause.

“No one Circumstance could possibly have Taken place more effectually to Unite the Colonies than this Manœvere of the Tea,” Hancock wrote.

George Washington Weighs In

Other Founding Fathers took a more measured tone, including George Washington, who was then living at Mt. Vernon, his country estate in Virginia.

In June 1774, six months after the Boston Tea Party, Washington wrote a letter to an associate complaining of the “Invasion of our Rights & Priviledges by the Mother Country.” Washington’s grievance was with the Coercive Acts (also known as the Intolerable Acts), a series of laws passed by Parliament to punish Massachusetts and the other colonies for the Tea Party rebellion.

But unlike Hancock, Washington didn’t cheer the destructive act itself.

“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,” wrote Washington, followed by a parenthetical aside: “(not that we approve their conduct in destroying the Tea).”

“Washington often talks like this,” says Carp. “He’s clearly expressing sympathy for Boston, but he’s also temporizing a little bit. He knows what he has to say. And that’s the same kind of reaction from a lot of towns in Massachusetts.”

Criticism and Fear in Massachusetts

In his book, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, Carp documents the responses of 80 Massachusetts towns immediately after the Boston Tea Party. Most town assemblies recognized the necessity of doing something to preserve their rights and freedoms, but many also objected to the methods used by the hatchet-wielding Sons of Liberty.

In Marshfield, one of the towns where citizens burned their own tea in solidarity with Boston, the majority of residents signed a resolution calling the Tea Party “illegal and unjust and of a dangerous Tendency.”

In Freeport, Massachusetts, townsfolk flatly denounced the Bostonians for “acting their savage Nature in the Destruction of the Tea.” Freeport residents weren’t fans of Parliament, but they also knew how the British would respond to such an openly rebellious act.

“[We] fear [it] will bring upon us the Vengeance of an affronted Majesty, and also plunge us in Debt and Misery, when the injured Owners of said Tea shall make their Demand for the Value of the same.”

Benjamin Franklin Scolds Boston

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin
DeAgostini/Getty Images
Portrait of Benjamin Franklin

News of the Boston Tea Party reached Britain on January 19, 1774, and London newspapers printed colorful accounts of the destruction of the tea by “aboriginal” assailants. At first, King George III and Parliament dismissed it as an isolated incident, but then the full scope of colonial opposition to the tea tax became clear. The rejected shipment of tea from Philadelphia returned a week later, followed by the news of the commandeered tea in South Carolina.

In his book, Carp quotes the Middlesex Journal, a British newspaper, which reported, “The whole Continent is in a flame, from Boston to Charles Town, and the whole of the inhabitants, to a man, appear unanimously resolved to dispute with their lives the right of taxation in the mother country.”

All of this put Benjamin Franklin in a difficult position. Franklin, who was born in Boston, was living in London as an agent for the Massachusetts House of Representatives. It was Franklin’s job to advocate with British leaders on behalf of the colonists. Franklin believed in diplomacy and hoped that the long-simmering tensions between Britain and the colonies could be resolved peacefully. The Boston Tea Party severely jeopardized those hopes.

In early February, Franklin sent an urgent letter to Patriot leaders in Boston, including Samuel Adams and John Hancock, advising them to repay the East India Company for the destroyed tea, worth roughly $2 million today.

“I am truly concern’d, as I believe all considerate Men are with you, that there should seem to any a Necessity for carrying Matters to such Extremity, as, in a Dispute about Publick Rights, to destroy private Property,” wrote Franklin, who saw only one natural consequence if the colonies failed to repay the debt. “[If] War is finally to be made upon us, which some threaten, an Act or violent injustice on our part, unrectified, may not give a colourable Pretence for it.”

When Franklin’s letter arrived in Boston, Samuel Adams dismissed the elder statesman’s plea to compensate the East India Company. According to the 1964 book The Boston Tea Party by the late historian Benjamin Woods Labaree, Adams commented that while Franklin was a great philosopher, he was a poor politician.

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