Jane Cook

How do the American tea parties of today compare with the original Boston Tea Party? The scale is far different but the substance isn’t far off.

Bitterness over the dastardly tea tax led to the Boston Tea Party of 1773. The actual tax was very cheap: three-pence per pound of tea. That’s like shelling out $9.98 for every 16 ounce package of Pike Place Roast whole coffee beans from Starbucks instead of paying $9.95. Obviously tea was not ten dollars a pound back then, but you get the idea—three cents per pound. Cheap! Today’s tea parties are protesting an $800 billion stimulus plan—an exponential, google-like difference.

The tempers of Boston merchants had been simmering for three years at the unfair market advantage. The London tea merchants had a surplus of tea and could much more easily absorb the tax than their Boston counterparts. When three ships carrying chests of tea from London arrived in Boston Harbor on November 29, 1773, the tempers began to boil.

“But am persuaded, from the present dispositions of ye people, that no other alternative will do, than to have it [the tea] immediately sent back to London again,” Town councilman John Andrews noted. “Handbills are stuck up, calling upon Friends! Citizens! and Countrymen!”

The outcry was also against corruption. It’s true that outspoken critics such as Samuel Adams objected to the tea tax and previous taxes based on the principle of taxation without representation. The colonists did not elect members to Parliament. But corruption had also fueled the tea kettle fire. The sons of the Massachusetts governor were custom officials. They were skimming profits from the tea tax. The colonists were as hot about the skewed market as they were the corrupt collection system and taxation without representation.

While today’s protests are widespread, the scale of the 1773 protest involved more than a third of Boston, whose population was about 15,000 at the time. The people petitioned the governor to send the ships back to England with their tea in tow. More than 5,000 people—nearly a third of the town—gathered at the Old South Meeting House on December 16, 1773, to await the governor’s decision. When word came down that the London tea ships could unload their cargo, shouts went up.

“You’d thought that the inhabitants of the infernal regions had broke loose,” Andrews wrote of the commotion.

Jane Cook

Jane Hampton Cook is the author of Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War and The Faith of America’s First Ladies.