Dec. 16, 2021

The Boston Tea Party

The Boston Tea Party

December 16th, 1773. American colonists, frustrated and angry at Britain for imposing “taxation without representation,” dump 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor

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Cold Open

It’s August 14th, 1765, on a warm summer evening in Boston, Massachusetts.

Andrew Oliver, a stamp man, slams his windows shut. Outside his home, an angry mob is coming for him.

Andrew was recently hired to enforce the Stamp Act, a British law that imposes new taxes on the American colonies. But many of the colonists aren’t happy about this new levy imposed by a government thousands of miles away, and they’re just as disgruntled with Andrew for enforcing the law. 

Earlier this morning, his fellow colonists hung an effigy from an elm tree in town. Pinned to its chest were the initials A.O., for Andrew Oliver. The sheriff urged Andrew to run and hide. And as he listens to the mob gathering on his front lawn, he wishes he would’ve listened. 

Andrew peeks outside and sees angry men surrounding his house, their faces lit by the flickering light of burning torches. He watches as they hoist his effigy in the air, before cutting off its head and lighting the body on fire. Andrew swallows and grows pale.

Outside, another man grabs a rock and throws it through the window shattering the glass. Andrew jumps, startled, as the stone skids across the floor. Spurred on by the window breaking, the crowd climbs his fence and swarms onto his front porch.

Andrew runs out the back door and flees to the safety of a neighbor’s house, as the rioters ransack his property and destroy everything but the wine in his cellar which they drink in celebration. After this experience, Andrew decides his new job just isn’t worth it. Three days later, he resigns.

But this is just the beginning of the unrest. As the British parliament continues to impose taxes on the American colonies, the anger grows, culminating eight years later, on December 16th, 1773, when American colonists strike back in an act of defiance.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is December 16th, 1773: The Boston Tea Party.

Act One: Acts of War

It’s December 17th, 1765, a chilly winter’s day in Boston, four months after the mob raided Andrew Oliver’s house.

Andrew adjusts his wig nervously as he steps onto his front porch to face another crowd of angry men. He reminds them that he's already resigned his post months ago. But these men aren’t satisfied with his resignation. They insist that Andrew swears - in front of the whole town - that he will never again work as a stamp man.

Andrew understands why they’re angry. Britain may need funds to administer its growing empire and to fill the hole in its finances left by the French and Indian War, but the Stamp Act is unfair. It demands the colonists pay a tax on printed materials - things they use every day like newspapers, legal documents, wills - even playing cards. Stamp Men, like Andrew, are meant to issue a stamp on these goods to show that the tax has been paid. But many colonists have refused to comply.

On the other side of the Atlantic, debate rages in the British Parliament about the unruly American Colonists. Many want them brought to heel. But some are more sympathetic, like the Irish politician Isaac Barré who describes these colonists as ‘Sons of Liberty’.

Today, Andrew Oliver wishes these ‘Sons of Liberty’ currently standing on his front porch would just leave him alone. But they aren’t going anywhere, not until Andrew swears an oath. It’s humiliating, but to deny them would be dangerous. The Sons of Liberty are a strange hodge-podge wherein businessmen and politicians rub shoulders with bar-brawlers and drunken whalers. It's a motley crew and the only thing they have in common is their hatred for Andrew.

So Andrew buttons his coat and follows the rabble to the elm tree in town – now known as the Liberty Tree. In as loud a voice as he can muster, Andrew promises that he will never again enforce the Stamp Act. The large crowd of onlookers cheer with delight.

But these Bostonians aren’t the only ones who are sick and tired of British tyranny. The discontent is spreading throughout the colonies, fueled by the Sons of Liberty and their motto: ‘No taxation without representation’. In the coming weeks, the Sons of Liberty will keep the pressure on, boycotting British goods and attacking custom houses and the homes of tax collectors.

Finally, after months of protest, in March of 1766, the British Parliament votes to repeal the Stamp Act. But the very same day, the British send a message to the colonies when Parliament passes the Declaratory Acts, asserting that the British government has unrestrained legislative power over the colonies.

Parliament will use that power to pass the Townshend Acts in 1767, which include the imposition of new taxes on imported goods like paint, china, glass, lead, and tea.


It’s June 10th, 1768, dusk in Boston Harbour, and one year after the Townshend Acts.

John Hancock, a wealthy shipping magnate, stands at the water’s edge, his fists clenched, as he watches British soldiers swarm over his ship, the Liberty.

Just yesterday, a customs official accused Hancock of smuggling wine into the harbor to avoid the tariffs brought about by the Townshend Acts. Hancock denied the charges. But the British officials didn’t believe him, and now they are taking possession of his ship. Hancock is frustrated, but he’s not surprised. This isn’t the first time he’s endured harassment.

A few weeks ago, Hancock had to forcibly eject a customs official from one of his ships when he found the man searching his holds without a warrant. Today, as he watches the British officials commandeer the Liberty, he is angry. But he’s not the only one.

A crowd has started to gather at the harbor. Hancock is popular among the townsfolk, especially with the Sons of Liberty. He is well known for standing up to the British.

So the crowd watching has swelled to as many as 3000 people. Enraged, the mob then marches to the home of the official collector of the port. But he isn’t home. So they return to the harbor where the official maintains a pleasure boat. The mob drags this boat from the water all the way to the Liberty Tree. And there, after conducting a mock trial, they light it on fire.

Meanwhile, the British maintain that John Hancock is a smuggler, and have filed charges. He will have his day in court and will be defended by John Adams – a founding father and a future president of the United States. Adams will get the charges against Hancock dropped, but the British will not return Hancock's ship. Instead, they will repurpose the Liberty to serve as part of the British Royal Navy, using Hancock's ship to patrol for custom violations. In retaliation, disgruntled American colonists will board the Liberty and burn it in protest.

But the turmoil in Boston Harbor is just beginning. The British will send more troops to occupy the city. But they will not succeed in quelling the unrest. Rather, the growing number of redcoats will unite the colonists, pushing them one step closer to revolution.

Act Two: Acts of Defiance

It’s the evening of March 5th, 1770 in Boston, two years after John Hancock’s ship was confiscated.

The air is frigid and the streets are lined with snow. A British Private named Hugh White stands guard outside the Customs House on King Street; the place where British Officials collect taxes. Just after 9 pm, a group of young men - American Colonists - approach White and begin to taunt him.

Tensions have been high between the colonists and the British Soldiers for some time. Many colonists - like these young men - resent the presence of the redcoats in Boston, just like they resent the high tariffs imposed by the Townshend Acts. As the colonists continue to taunt him, Private White grows increasingly angry. Fed up at the constant barrage of insults, White hoists his heavy gun in the air and strikes one of the young men.  

Word of this assault quickly spreads throughout the streets. And soon, the small group of young colonists grows into a large group of angry colonists. Among them, Crispus Attucks, a multiracial sailor who is part African-American and part Nantucket Indian.

Outnumbered, Private White retreats to the top of the steps in front of the Customs House. He loads his gun and threatens to open fire. The crowd below answers White by pelting him with ice and snow. White calls for reinforcements and soon, seven armed British soldiers arrive on the scene.

In the midst of this tense standoff, someone cries out: “fire.” The soldiers discharge their weapons into the crowd. Crispus Attucks falls to the slushy ground, a crimson puddle growing beneath him, from the hole of the musket ball tore through his flesh. 

Crispus Attucks is the first man to die in the American Revolution. When the smoke clears, two more colonists are dead; two others will die later as a result of their wounds. The fallen will be treated as heroes, their bodies transported to Boston’s Faneuil Hall, where they lie in state for three days. More than half of Boston’s population will join the procession carrying the victims’ caskets to the graveyard.

In a twist of irony though, ​​on the same day as the Boston Massacre, the Prime Minister of Great Britain asks Parliament to repeal the Townshend Acts, but it will take time for the news to cross the ocean. And it wasn't a complete repeal, the British want to retain some symbol of power over the colonies, so they cancel the taxes – on everything but tea.


It’s the afternoon of December 16th, 1773, in Milton, Massachusetts; three years after the Boston massacre.

Francis Rotch, a ship owner, shivers in the icy wind as he waits outside the home of Thomas Hutchinson, the acting governor of Massachusetts. Francis traveled ten miles south from Boston to confront Hutchinson. He is stuck in the middle of a “tea crisis”. Two of his ships, the Dartmouth and the Beaver, are docked in Boston Harbor, their holds packed with tea. But the American colonists do not want Francis to unload his cargo, because it belongs to the British East India Tea Company.

Months ago, Parliament passed the Tea Act, a law designed to save the failing East India Tea Company from bankruptcy. The Tea Act lowered the duty the Company paid on tea to the British government and in so doing gave such a cost advantage to the East India Tea Company that they enjoyed a de-facto monopoly, undercutting the business of colonial merchants.

So today, the colonists want Francis to return this tea back to London. But Francis’ ships can’t leave the harbor without permission from the acting Governor. So far, Hutchinson has refused. He wants the tea unloaded immediately so he can collect the tea tax as small as it is.

At last, Governor Hutchinson comes to the door. Francis pleads with him for permission to sail back to London. But once again, the governor refuses. Irritated, Francis gets back into his carriage. He tells the driver to make for Boston, and fast. He has a message to deliver.


When Francis’ carriage arrives in Boston, he heads straight for the Old South Meeting House where hundreds wait for his arrival. As Francis opens the door of the meeting house, the heat of the packed bodies hits his cold cheeks. He pushes into the room and explains that Governor Hutchinson will not allow his ships to leave until the tea is unloaded and the tax is paid.

The crowd groans with frustration. There are representatives of several towns here - men of all ages, colors, and creeds - but all sick of being forced to accept taxes imposed without their consent. Samuel Adams, one of the leaders of the Sons of Liberty, climbs on top of a bench and begins shouting “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country.” And the crowd roars in agreement.

Soon, Samuel Adams, and the other members of the Sons of Liberty take to the streets, and matters into their own hands. And through a brazen act of defiance, they will strike a blow for liberty.

Act Three: A Tea Party

It’s late at night on December 16th, 1773, at Griffin’s Wharf, in Boston Harbor, not long after Francis Rotch made his way into the Old South Meeting House.

George Hewes, a Boston shoemaker, stands with a somber group of men at the water’s edge. In the moonlight, George can make out the furled sails of the ships they plan to raid. Further out, he sees the shadows of British gunships. His heart begins to pound - with excitement and trepidation.

The Sons of Liberty have come up with a daring plan. The British want the tea unloaded. So the colonists decide to give them what they want and unload it… into the water. The plan is so audacious that the men have disguised themselves as Mohawk Tribesmen. They have rubbed coal dust on their faces and put feathers in their hair, in an attempt to make their disguises authentic.

There are three ships held to ransom in the harbor: Francis Rotch’s ships, the Dartmouth and Beaver, and another ship, the Eleanor. As George Hughes boards the Dartmouth, he asks the bleary-eyed captain for the keys to the hatches and a dozen candles. Then, he helps haul the first chest of tea onto the deck. He smashes his hatchet into the lid and the scent of tea fills the air.

George drags the splintered chest onto the gunwale of the ship. The chest balances there for a moment and falls into the harbor with a splash.


Over the next three hours, the Sons of Liberty will throw 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor.

The British government will react with fury. It will close the port of Boston, impose martial law, and implement another set of harsh laws known as the Intolerable Acts. But this will only fan the flames of revolution.

In 1775, British soldiers will cut down the Liberty Tree. But still, the rebels will not be cowed.

A year later, in 1776, the American colonies will be on a path to freedom from Britain at last.

As John Hancock is the first to sign the Declaration of Independence. Three years prior, Hancock had written: “No one circumstance could possibly have taken place more effectively to unite the colonies than this maneuver of the tea.” All on that frigid night in Boston Harbor, on December 16th, 1773. 


Next on History Daily. On December 17th, 1903 Orville and Wilbur Wright achieve the first powered, sustained, and controlled airplane flight in history. 

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham

This episode is written and researched by Vanessa de Haan.

Executive Producers are Steve Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.