Samuel Adams, Tea Tax, and the Declaration of Rights


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

In April 1770, the Parliament of England repealed all of the duties stemming from the Townshend Acts, except for one—the tax on tea. But Samuel Adams, along with many other colonists, wasn’t satisfied. Determined to advance the rights of the American colonists, Adams continued to wage battle in the printed press for the hearts and minds of the people.

Illustration of the Bostonians throwing chests of tea into the water
To protest the monopoly that the East India Company had on tea, Bostonians threw hundreds of chests of tea into the water. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Power of the Press

Samuel Adams once explained the value of this tactic as follows: “There is nothing so fretting and vexatious, nothing so justly terrible to tyrants, and their tools and abettors as a Free Press.” Given that approximately 85% of adult males in Massachusetts were literate, the press had an impressive reach. 

Newspaper circulation in Boston during the late colonial period was in the thousands. The fact that so many Bostonians read so much of what patriotic pundits like Samuel Adams wrote helped galvanize them. And Boston came to be known as the cradle of liberty.

Marble statue of Samuel Adams
Samuel Adams’s pen greatly affected the protests against the tax on tea. (Image: Thomas R./Public domain)

The Sting of Samuel Adams’s Pen

Any effective action on behalf of the colonist rights needed to extend beyond Massachusetts. So, Adams urged patriots across the colonies to coordinate their efforts. First, towns throughout Massachusetts established committees of correspondence to communicate colonial grievances. Then, other colonies did as well. The rationale was that should another crisis with Britain arise, the committees of correspondence would ensure a unified response. 

Tensions dissipated, but Adams saw no respite to British tyranny, including the tax on tea. Adams believed that if the colonists didn’t resist the tax, they were abdicating their rights as Englishmen. As a result, while the voices of other protestors retreated somewhat during this period, Adams continued to stoke the fires of dissent.

The British rightly identified him as the colony’s chief incendiary. Fellow patriot John Hancock observed that, “Every dip of [Samuel Adams’s] pen stung like a horned snake.” Another observer stated that, “If at any time before the Declaration of Independence the Revolution had proved a failure, Samuel Adams would probably have been the first victim on the scaffold.”

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Trouble at Boston Harbor

While the colonists protested the British tax on tea, smugglers helped to circumvent the duty. The royal chartered East India Company saw its tea trade plummet and inventories pile up. So, in May 1773, Parliament approved the Tea Act, giving the East India Company a monopoly on tea sales in the American colonies. The colonists saw this move as a further erosion of the colony’s economic autonomy, since it directly undercut colonial merchants.

Adams, and the other members of the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence, now sent a letter to their counterparts in other colonies urging unity. Together, they agreed that none of the colonies would accept East India Company Tea. Not surprisingly, the issue came to a head in Boston. When a ship arrived in Boston Harbor containing 114 chests of East India Company tea, thousands protested. As more ships arrived filled with tea, the Sons of Liberty sprang into action.

On a cold evening in December 1773, the Sons of Liberty—dressed as Native Americans—boarded the ships docked in the harbor and dumped 342 chests of tea into the water. Adams wasn’t among those who took part, but he spread the news far and wide. In response, British authorities decided to teach the rebellious Bostonians a lesson. Parliament passed a series of acts in the spring of 1774 to squelch defiance.

Consequences of Protesting Against the Tax on Tea

Known as the Coercive Acts, the orders closed the port of Boston, cutting off trade until restitution was made for the lost tea. Town meetings were restricted. And the authority of the royal governor was increased at the expense of colonial assemblies. The Coercive Acts also clamped down on press freedoms that Samuel Adams had used to inflame political passions.

Illustration of Bostonians throwing chests of tea into the water
The British reaction to Bostonians throwing tea into the water eventually led to the production of the Declaration of Rights. (Image: Nathaniel Currier/Public domain)

Another retributive law, the Quartering Act, allowed British troops to use colonists’ buildings and homes as barracks without the owners’ permission. Yet another provision allowed those accused of capital crimes to be returned to England for trial. This seemed to promise the representatives of the crown immunity from colonial justice.

The British hoped that their harsh actions would cower the colonists and discourage future acts of rebellion. However, the opposite occurred. British repression hardened American public opinion and brought about colonial solidarity. Adams wrote that “The cursed design of intimidating and subduing the spirits of all America, will, by the joint efforts of all, be frustrated.”

The Continental Congress

Adams proposed the convocation of an intercolonial congress as an expression of this colonial solidarity. Fifty-six delegates from all 13 colonies, except for Georgia, answered his call and arrived in Philadelphia in September 1774 for the First Continental Congress. And Samuel Adams was one of five representatives from Massachusetts along with his cousin, John Adams.

The Continental Congress straight away produced a Declaration of Rights that invoked the laws of nature, the British constitution, and the colonial charters in articulating its statement that Parliament could not unilaterally tax or legislate the colonies.

Common Questions about Samuel Adams, Tea Tax, and the Declaration of Rights

Q: Why did the press have impressive reach in Boston?

At the time of protests against the tax on tea, around 85% of adult males in Boston were literate. Also, newspaper circulation was in the thousands, which led to many Bostonians reading and learning about Samuel Adams’s ideas.

Q: What was the outcome of the First Continental Congress?

As a consequence of the back and forth between the British and the colonists over the tax on tea, and as an expression of colonial solidarity, Samuel Adams called for an intercolonial congress and his call was answered by all but one state. The Continental Congress produced the Declaration of Rights which stated that Parliament could not unilaterally legislate or tax any of the colonies.

Q: What were the Coercive Acts?

In December 1773, as a protest to the tax on tea, Bostonians dumped 342 chests of tea into the water. As retaliation, the British passed the Coercive Acts which closed Boston’s port until restitution was made for the lost tea. It also led to the increasing authority of the governor and the colonial assemblies having less power since town meetings were restricted.

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