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The Course of Human Events

The Boston Tea Party was the first expression in history of an American nation that had already taken form.

(Nathaniel Currier)

In the evening hours of December 16, 1773, a band of American Patriots boarded British merchant ships docked in Boston Harbor. The ships were carrying tea for the British East India company. One of them, the Dartmouth, had been there twenty days already. By law, it had to be unloaded—with force by customs agents, if necessary. Since November 30, watchful Patriots at the water’s edge had made clear they would not allow that to happen. They were incensed at the Tea Act, passed by Parliament earlier that year, which granted the East India Company the privilege of importing tea directly to the continent for the first time ever, imposing a direct tax on the import. That tax would be used to fund the salaries of colonial administrators, subverting a longstanding policy under which officials were paid by the elected colonial assemblies.

In the other major cities—New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston—Patriots had been successful in sending the tea ships back to England, but Governor Thomas Hutchinson had kept Massachusetts at a standstill. He could not unload the tea without a riot, and he was unwilling to call down the force that would be necessary to compel submission. Yet he would not allow the ships to be sent back without the tea making its way into the Boston economy. 


On December 16—the deadline at which customs would have had to impound the cargo—thousands of citizens gathered at the Old South Meeting House to discuss the situation. When the proceedings reached an impasse, Samuel Adams—a key leader of the Sons of Liberty, one of the most important militant Patriot forces—despaired: “This meeting can do no more to save the country.” (An interesting choice of words.) A small contingent of the men donned Mohawk war costumes and boarded the ships, pouring their cargo into Boston Harbor. 

The romantic retelling of this story in our history books sometimes undersells the scale of the events. It was hardly a few men in headdresses dumping a few crates of tea into the water. By some accounts, there were as many as 130 men in the raiding party. The destroyed tea—342 chests weighing about 270 pounds each—would be worth about $1.7 million today. The Tea Party was heavy with symbolism, yes, but it was also a clear and consequential act of rebellion.

Historical determinism is among the gravest errors of the Whigs, and the real nobility of the Revolution is often undermined by the radical excursions of its brainier participants. Yet there is a strong sense of inevitability to the story taken on the whole. By 1773, the American Revolution was absolutely going to happen. By the time of the Tea Party, it was not a question of tax policy or even of politics; it was a question of national destiny. There is some admission of that in scholars’ reevaluation last century of Hutchinson as a sort of tragic figure—one caught between allegiances to his homeland and his king; between the demands of subjects-cum-countrymen on the one hand and the great men of the old country on the other.

Hutchinson was not a bad man, and he was not a stupid man. He was also an American himself, born in Boston to one of the old colonial families. When war broke out, he was finishing the third volume of his History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. But somehow the scholar of colonial history had missed the singular fact of the Revolution. At the Albany Congress, the first meeting in the whole of the American colonies, Hutchinson was crucial to the development of the idea of Union, though he did not know how much would change in the ensuing twenty years; that was 1754, when the French and Indian War broke out. He was at times an effective administrator—as acting governor he had prevented the powder keg of the Boston Massacre from exploding into civil war—and his instincts were intensely conservative, but he could not see the ground shifting beneath his feet. (As far as he did understand it, he took it rather bitterly. By the time of the Declaration, he would observe that “if no taxes or duties had been laid upon the colonies, other pretences would have been found for exception to the authority of Parliament”—which is to say, independence would come one way or another.)

None faulted Hutchinson more for this failure than John Adams, Samuel’s cousin and fellow Patriot. In his diary on December 17, the day after the Tea Party, Adams wrote that it was “hard to believe” someone could be “so hardened and abandoned,” alleging that Hutchinson had watched the discord in Boston with “malicious pleasure.” Adams might have been carried away on this; Hutchinson was flawed, but not the kind of man to revel in his neighbors’ suffering. But nothing carried him away so much as excitement at the chain of events set off in the harbor the night before:


This is the most magnificent Movement of all. There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity, in this last Effort of the Patriots, that I greatly admire. The People should never rise, without doing something to be remembered—something notable And striking. 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 cant but consider it as an Epocha in History.

(One can only imagine how Adams’s diary might have read on January 7, 2021.)

The alternative, Adams wrote with characteristic hyperbole, would have meant “subjecting ourselves and our Posterity forever to Egyptian Taskmasters—to Burthens, Indignities, to Ignominy, Reproach and Contempt, to Desolation and Oppression, to Poverty and Servitude.” He knew already that December that what had come was Revolution. The Parliament would retaliate with the Coercive Acts in spring, and within another year the first shots had been fired. In time, Adams would be party not just to the Declaration of Independence but to the formal establishment of a new government; twenty-four years beyond the Tea Party, he would serve as president of the country for whose prospects his cousin had despaired that fateful night.

What had come before, though, is just as important as what came after. The Tea Act was only the latest in a long line of Parliamentary attempts to extend authority over the colonies, who in reality were united to England only through the Crown. The Americans of the 1760s and ‘70s experienced over and over a power from across the ocean subverting an established way of life. The abuses merely served to deepen a divide that geography and experience had cleaved. By the time of the Tea Party, the question of identity was settled—the Patriots disguised themselves as Mohawks, not as Redcoats. In my own family tree, most who fought in the Revolution were fifth- and sixth-generation Americans. Their grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfathers had crossed the ocean from England, and for a century and a half their people had made a nation of a wilderness, had made the beginnings of a country fundamentally different from the one whence they had come. There was no turning back the clock on America, no unsettling the continent. By 1773, Britain had peopled a new nation half a world away.

That is the definitive fact of the Revolution. It was not about three pennies a pound on tea, as those who would diminish the Founders’ cause derisively suggest. The historian Andrew Roberts, who is styled Baron Roberts of Belgravia under the play peerage of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, picks up the usual tune in the Spectator this week. Mr. Roberts seems convinced that he has discovered something notable in the fact that the Tea Act would actually have made tea slightly less expensive in the colonies, even including the Townshend tax. This can only mean that the Patriots were duped by a cabal of “smuggler-barons.”

He leaves most actual details unaddressed: the problematic invention of parliamentary authority over the colonies and the vigorous constitutional debate it sparked; the sudden but deliberate pivot to paying colonial authorities from London and the crisis of accountability it created; the question of national interest in trade against the mere reduction in the price of goods.

Roberts is more or less correct that a political and economic elite was the prime mover of the Tea Party. Yet he does not seem to understand that such an elite acting in concert with the great mass of men to defend and advance a common cause against competing interests is the essence of a nation. That is what the Tea Party (even Roberts’s sour reading of it) means: it is the first clear historical expression of the American nation that had been taking shape on this continent since 1620.

Two hundred and fifty years have passed from that moment—a quarter of a millennium. It is fashionable to remind ourselves of how young our nation is when compared to the empires of old. There were two thousand seven hundred and sixty five years from the moment of Rome’s foundation to the fall of the last emperor. Yet we are not nearly so young as those who despise us would like you to think. Our story is as vast and as honorable as any people could ask for, and the American nation is a fact of history, four centuries in the making. Whether it should become merely a fact of history—and soon—may hinge on the spirit of 1773.