What is in this little vial, only 2½ inches tall? Its contents are a carefully preserved relic; one that harkens back to a celebrated tax protest in Revolutionary-era Boston. The material collected in this container is tea, said to have been caught in the boots worn by one of the participants in the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773. It was on view in the exhibition "Sowing the Seeds of Liberty: Lexington and the American Revolution."
In the 1700s, Britain fought a number of wars in the colonies--in particular, the French and Indian War (1756-1763)--at huge expense. These wars, in part undertaken to preserve and protect these settlements, effectively doubled Britain’s national debt. To pay this debt, the British parliament instituted new taxes on the American colonies. Used to setting and collecting taxes at the town and colony levels through their own elected representatives, residents balked at the change. Many felt the new taxes went against their basic rights as Englishmen. Protests greeted the first taxes in the 1760s and continued as the British government tried different ways to generate tax revenue from the colonies.
Boston’s port-town economy relied on trade, so taxes on imported goods especially pained city residents. The 1767 Townshend Act taxed imported glass, paper, paint and tea. To voice their objections to it, colonists harassed the customs commissioners and boycotted the taxed goods. These protests, coupled with the high cost of enforcement, prompted the British government to repeal the act in 1770. However, parliament retained the tax on tea in the act that followed because, as David Hackett Fischer has stated, it was “so small that British ministers believed even Boston might be willing to swallow it.”
This law, the 1773 Tea Act, brought tensions between the colonists and the British government to the breaking point. The almost bankrupt East India Company asked the British government for assistance with their dire financial situation. The Tea Act granted the company the right to sell tea in the colonies tariff and duty free. As a result, the company representatives’ tea was cheaper than that sold by local merchants. Both Boston’s merchants and people concerned about principles of representation and liberty—two groups that had not always seen eye-to-eye—were moved to protest.
Some colonists, like the residents of Lexington, Massachusetts, expressed their views about the tax by agreeing as a community to not use tea in their homes. They declared anyone who did “an Enemy to this Town & to this Country.” Residents promised that those who purchased and drank tea, “…shall by this Town be treated with Neglect & Contempt.” To underscore their views Lexingtonians, as it was reported in the Boston papers, “brought together every ounce [of tea] contained in the town, and committed it to one common bonfire.” You can read more about the bonfire in a previous post.
Some Bostonians chose to protest in a more violent manner. On December 16, 1773, about 150 men disguised as Native Americans dumped 342 chests of tea into the Boston harbor. Interestingly, the protesters—even as they destroyed the East India Company’s product—took care to respect others’ property and public order. Organizers punished one protester who purloined tea for his own use.
The British government took a dim view of this protest. A government investigation of the event called it a, “…crime of high treason, namely to the levying of war against His Majesty.” The government retaliated for these, “violent and outrageous Proceedings at the Town and Port of Boston” by passing what the colonists called the Intolerable Acts in 1774. Just sixteen months later, Massachusetts militia members and British Regulars exchanged the first shots of a civil war at Lexington and Concord.
Did participants know they had taken part in a history-shaping protest? Perhaps. Several people collected and later preserved relics of the event, such as another sample of tea found the next morning on the shores of Dorchester Neck that is part of the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. In 1973, as the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts and other organizations in the commonwealth prepared for the American Bicentennial, Paul Fenno Dudley (1894-1974) donated this vial of tea to the Grand Lodge’s Museum. The Grand Lodge's collection is now housed at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library in Lexington.
Vial, 1800s or 1900s. Unidentified maker. Tea, 1700s. Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts Collection. Gift of Paul F. Dudley, 1973, GL2004.1868a-c. Photograph by David Bohl.
“Americans Throwing the Cargoes of the Tea ships into the River, at Boston.” Engraving from W.D. Rev. Mr. Cooper. The History of North America. London: E. Newbery, 1789. Library of Congress.
Theodore Draper, A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution (New York: Times Books, 1997), 415.
David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 25-26.
Charles Hudson, History of the Town of Lexington, Vol. I, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913), 84.
Massachusetts Historical Society, “Object of the Month: ‘Boston Harbor a tea-pot tonight.’” http://www.masshist.org/objects/2006february.cfm (accessed on May 22, 2012).
Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, exhibition labels from “Sowing the Seeds of Liberty: Lexington and the American Revolution,” 2007 through the present.
Anita P. Worthen, The First Tea Party Held at Lexington? (Lexington, Massachusetts: Lexington Bicentennial Committee, 1973).