Whatever we call the Boston Tea Party—civil disobedience, political protest, destruction of private property, vigilante politics, terroristic intimidation—it was not a riot. Boston had several of those in the years from 1765 to 1777 (and others before and afterward). In riots, crowds spontaneously rampaged against individual people and buildings; the genteel political leadership sometimes tried to stop the violence and always disavowed it.
In contrast, the Tea Party was one of the most carefully controlled public activities of pre-Revolutionary Boston: planned in advance, carried out with efficiency, and directed exactly at its target. Naturally, the political class celebrated afterwards. When John Adams heard the news in Braintree, he wrote in his diary:
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 men out to destroy the East India Company tea took great care not to injure any people along the way. By law, Customs officials had to watch over ships until they were unloaded to prevent smuggling. One official on the boats that night was tide waiter Owen Richards. This Welshman was well known to Bostonians: he had participated in controversial searches of John Hancock's ships in 1768, was detained for trumped-up reasons after the Massacre in 1770, and was tarred and feathered later that same year after he condemned a ship from New London for smuggling. But on 16 Dec 1773, the crowd simply asked Richards to go below deck and not peek. (Which he did.)
To get to the tea chests on one ship, the men had to break a lock. So scrupulous were the organizers that the next day someone anonymously supplied the ship’s captain with a replacement lock. The only property they wanted to destroy, they thus signaled, was the dutied tea.
The tea destroyers also made sure people understood they were not out for personal advantage. Merchant John Andrews wrote to a friend in Philadelphia about
Captain Conner, a letter of horses in this place, not many years since remov’d from dear Ireland, who ript up the lining of his coat and waistcoat under the arms, and watching his opportunity had nearly fill’d ’em with tea, but being detected, was handled pretty roughly.Even sixty years later, when speaking to James Hawkes in 1834, George R. T. Hewes recalled detecting “Captain O’Connor” in the act of theft. (I’m collecting more information about Conner for a future posting. Note the typical eighteenth-century Bostonian attempt to blame the foreigner and, even better, the Irishman.)
They not only stripp’d him of his cloaths, but gave him a coat of mud, with a severe bruising into the bargain; and nothing but their utter aversion to make any disturbance prevented his being tar’d and feather’d.
Despite the organizers’ best efforts, however, at least one man at the Tea Party brought a little tea home with him. The Bostonian Society exhibits a small vial of leaves that Thomas Melvill (grandfather of novelist Herman Melville) reportedly shook out of his boots and the wrinkles in his clothing when he went home that night. The Massachusetts Historical Society owns a similar jar of leaves, shown above when it was on display at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, but those were collected from the seawater at Dorchester. Hewes recalled men rowing around the harbor on 17 Dec, pounding floating masses of tea into the water to ensure that none remained drinkable.
(Folks might remember fictional versions of two Tea Party anecdotes above. In Johnny Tremain, Esther Forbes makes Johnny’s old bedmate Dove into the person who tries to steal tea. In Mr. Revere and I, Robert Lawson describes Paul Revere’s mother gleefully gleaning tea leaves from the wrinkles of his clothing.)