Boston Tea Party
Mention Tea Party today and most people think of politics or a genteel afternoon social, but in 1773 Tea Party meant men throwing tea into the harbor. While the actual dumping took place on the waterfront, the party began right around the corner from our office at the Old South Meeting House.
Built in 1729 as a Puritan meeting house, Old South was the largest building in Boston and used for public meetings as well as church services. Probably the best known gathering occurred on December 16, 1773, when colonists met to decide what to do about British tea.
The problem was the tea was subject to a new tax imposed by Parliament earlier that year. The tax was small and coupled with related regulatory changes actually lowered prices, but to the colonists it was “taxation without representation.” To the British, it was part of a Parliamentary bailout of the politically connected East India Company, which was in severe financial distress.
Ships carrying British tea to Charleston, Philadelphia and New York turned back when met by local protests. The Boston ships wanted to turn around as well, but the royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson, wouldn't let them.
British law gave ships 20 days to unload or customs officials could confiscate their cargos. December 16th was the deadline. Thousands of people gathered at Old South to see what would happen. When they learned that the governor again had refused to allow the ships to depart without paying the duty, the party began.
The rest is history. A crowd went to the wharf where the tea ships were docked. Colonists, some disguised as Mohawk indians, threw all the tea into the harbor.
Destruction of the tea was, of course, vandalism, and patriots including Benjamin Franklin argued it should be paid for. Several merchants offered to pay in full, but the British refused. Instead, they closed Boston harbor and took other steps that sparked a series of disputes that led to armed conflict in 1775.
Old South’s prominence as a patriot meeting place had consequences. During the siege of Boston, the British made it into a riding school, spreading dirt on the floors and destroying all pews and part of the gallery. Portions of the priceless library of pastor Thomas Prince were burned.3
A century later, Old South again served as a symbol of Boston’s resilience when it survived the fire of 1872, which destroyed much of downtown. Flames from adjoining buildings lapped Old South, but volunteers and firefighters worked to save the historic building. The photo at the left shows the devastation surrounding the church.
Even before the fire, Old South’s congreqgation had been looking to relocate to the newly-built, fashionable Back Bay. In 1875, they moved to Copley Square. The congregation still worships at Old South once a year on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.5 The rest of the year Old South is open to the public as a museum and venue for public meetings.
- Detail from W.D. Cooper. “Boston Tea Party.” London: E. Newberry, 1789. At Library of Congress.
- Detail from print at the Boston Public Library.
- E.W. Burdett, History of the Old South Meeting-House in Boston, Boston, B.B. Russell 1877, pp 84-85. What remains of Prince’s library has been on deposit at the Boston Public library since 1866.
- Detail from 1872 photo at the Boston Public Library.
- Old South Church web site.