The Boston Tea Party and a Tradition of Violence
Part 3 of our series on the Boston Tea Party focuses on the protest that patriots eventually carried out against the 1773 Tea Act. The actual act of dumping the tea was, in its nonviolence, unusual in Boston history.
When you read about the events leading up to the Tea Party, you quickly become a little uncomfortable with the readiness of Bostonians to physically attack people and destroy their property as the first means to their ends. Violence was sanctioned in odd ways in colonial Boston. “Pope’s Day” was an annual holiday, observed on November 5th, during which boys roamed the city knocking on doors and asking for money; if denied, they broke all the windows in the house. Later, older boys and men carried effigies of Satan and the pope, the two groups heading from North and South End and celebrating their meeting in the center of town with an enormous fistfight; the winning group then took the losers’ effigies and burned them.
This kind of “playful” violence was all too easy to organize into political violence. Here are just a few examples, again from Benjamin Carp’s fantastic Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America:
—August 1765: effigies of a British minister and an American stamp distributor (of the unpopular Stamp Act) were hung in the South End; at dusk the effigies were taken down by a crowd who then completely destroyed a building owned by the stamp distributor, went to the man’s house and threw rocks at the windows, broke in, and destroyed some furniture. When Governor Hutchinson tried to reason with the rioters, they threw bricks at him. The stamp distributor resigned the next day.
—June 1768: When smuggler John Hancock’s ship was held by authorities who suspected it had smuggled goods, a group of over 300 Bostonians attacked the customs officers, throwing bricks and stones at them, and then went to the house of one officer and broke all the windows.
—March 1770: a group of men and boys were throwing rocks at British soldiers who were competing with them for jobs (many soldiers moonlighted to enhance their income); this turned into the Boston Massacre when the soldiers opened fire, afraid for their lives as the crowd grew in size and malice.
—November 1771: customs officials seize a boat carrying smuggled tea; another boat comes up alongside and thirty armed men attack the customs officials with clubs, swords, and guns. They forced the British captain into the hold, where he nearly died of his wounds, while they took the tea and left, wounded men lying on the decks of two boats.
—November 1773: a crowd gathered outside the house of a man who had a commission to sell tea from the EIC, shouting and beating down his gate. The commissioner yelled at them from an upper window to leave, and fired a shot. The mob shattered all the windows of the house and were only turned away from assaulting the owner by the pleas of some patriots that there were women in the house.
Tea commissioners were routinely summoned to public meetings by anonymous letters which threatened their lives as well as their jobs if they did not show up. Commissioners and others deemed hostile to the patriot cause were tarred and feathered—the “American torture.”
When the tea that the Tea Act mandated be sold in America arrived in November 1773, the governor knew he could not protect the men commissioned to receive and sell it from the people; those commissioners (one of them an elderly man) fled to the British Fort William on Castle Island in Boston Harbor, and there they stayed for many months after the Tea Party, justly feaful of their lives.
This willingness to use violence got mixed reviews from patriot leaders. Some felt it was justifable because it was in protest of an unfair government. Others felt it gave the patriot cause a bad name, and attracted lowlifes who weren’t fighting for democracy. All knew it had to be carefully managed to keep it under control: at any moment a mob nominally in the service of colonial leaders could become a force that knew no loyalty and could not be controlled by anyone.
It is certainly unsettling for modern-day Americans to read about the tactics our ancestors were ready to use when they believed themselves to be crossed. Mob violence is not something we condone today, and so much of the violence in colonial Boston seems to have been based not in righteous anger but in personal habit and popular tradition that it’s hard to see it as truly patriotic.
Patriot leaders like Samuel Adams knew they would have to keep violence out of their official platform, disassociating the decisions of the General Court from the purveyors of mob violence. The Tea Party would be a triumph of this difficult position.