The Road to Revolution: The Boston Tea Party and the Intolerable Acts


By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Read how American resentment against the actions of the British redcoats and British taxes culminated in the Boston Tea Party, and the punitive Intolerable Acts.

The Boston Tea Party depicted on a stamp
Detail of a stamp depicting the Boston Tea Party, issued in commemoration of the Bicentennial of the American Revolution. (Image: Bureau of Engraving and Printing for United States Post Office Department/Public domain)

Redcoats in Boston

The Massachusetts legislature adopted a letter written by Samuel Adams protesting the new taxes, and sent it out to the other colonial legislatures for agreement. Despite being ordered to do so, the legislature refused to rescind the letter, leading to Governor Francis Bernard dissolving the legislature.

In September of 1768, two British infantry regiments, the 14th and 29th Regiments of Foot, were landed in Boston to keep order.

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But those redcoats only managed to, unintentionally, antagonize Bostonians. In deeply Puritan Boston, they held band concerts on Sundays. They took jobs that bumped Bostonians out of work. Bostonians, proud of their liberty, were even challenged by redcoats on guard in the streets.

The ‘Boston Massacre’ and the Suspension of Townshend Taxes

Though the redcoats were under orders to not retaliate, the taunts had their effect. On March 5, 1770, a street fight involving a soldier brought the watch of the 29th Regiment out into King Street in Boston, where a crowd had gathered.

In the scuffle one of the soldiers was hit by a club. He raised his musket, which went off. The other soldiers promptly began firing into the crowd, and soon, three were dead and two others would die later of wounds.

It was billed as the Boston Massacre, and the outcry was so great that the 29th Regiment had to be withdrawn from Boston. In the wake of the shootings, a new British government headed by the Earl of Gifford suspended almost all the Townshend taxes.

Detail form Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre.
An engraving representing the Boston Massacre. The act led to the withdrawal of the 29th Regiment from Boston. (Image: Engrav’d Printed & Sold by Paul Revere Boston/Public domain)

This brought quiet, but not peace. Americans relaxed their vigilance, but not their anxieties. Committees of Correspondence were organized, connecting the colonial legislatures and monitoring British activities. American merchants tried to apply economic leverage on Parliament by boycotting English imports.

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The East India Company and the Tea Act of 1773

What blew the lid off this uneasy peace was the Tea Act of 1773, which is odd, because the Tea Act did not involve new taxes, but offered Americans a luxury item at bargain prices. But the origin of the trouble was halfway across the world in India, where the East India Company was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

Lord North’s government, unwilling to be saddled with the government of India, proposed a bailout of the East India Company. All taxes on 17 million pounds of Indian tea, except the Townshend tax on colonial imports of tea, would be lifted. That would reduce the price and help the East India Company sell its stockpile.

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However, the Americans were suspicious. They saw this as a trick to induce Americans to pay the Townshend tax on tea. This, the Americans felt, would legitimize Parliament’s claim to levying taxing in America. Therefore, in Philadelphia and New York, East India Company ships were forced to turn around and sail back to England.

The Boston Tea Party

In Boston, however, Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson, still smarting from the destruction of his home in the Stamp Act riots, flatly ordered the three tea ships in his harbor unloaded.

But, on the night of December 16, 1773, Boston’s Sons of Liberty boarded the ships and tossed 90,000 pounds of tea into the waters of Boston Harbor. In nearly 10 years of political turmoil, the Americans had protested against, insulted, and harassed soldiers and representatives of the crown, but they had never openly taken direct destructive action before this.

This Boston ‘Tea Party’, as it became known, broke that last line of restraint. “We must master them,” King George III remarked grimly, “or totally leave them to themselves.”

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The ‘Intolerable Acts’ and the Continental Congress

Parliament passed a series of punitive bills commonly called the ‘Intolerable Acts’ in America. The Intolerable Acts, among other things, closed the port of Boston until compensation had been paid for the tea. Martial law was imposed under the British army’s commander-in-chief in North America, Major General Thomas Gage.

This only bred more anger in America. A convention in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, adopted a series of resolves attacking the Intolerable Acts, and sent those resolves on to the other colonies.

Eventually, 12 of the 13 North American colonies sent representatives to a Continental Congress in Philadelphia in September of 1774. The Congress endorsed the ‘Suffolk Resolves’ and passed resolutions denying Parliament any power to directly tax the colonies.

By this time, General Gage dissolved the Massachusetts legislature when he found he could not control it. But the legislature reassembled in western Massachusetts, calling themselves the Provincial Convention of Massachusetts.

The Battles of Lexington and Concord

Detail from a book illustration showing the Battle of Lexington.
The Battle of Lexington was the first military engagement between the American Colonists and the British Army. (Image: Scan by New York Public Library/Public domain)

In April of 1775, General Gage learned that Americans were stockpiling arms and ammunition in the town of Concord, and that two of the leaders of the Sons of Liberty—John Hancock and Samuel Adams—were hiding in nearby Lexington.

Gage ordered a select force from the Boston garrison to strike Lexington and Concord at dawn on April 19. But the local militia in Lexington was tipped off in advance by a member of the Boston Committee of Correspondence, a silversmith named Paul Revere.

So, when the British troops marched into Lexington, the militia was ready. There was an exchange of fire, and the militia scattered, but Hancock and Adams were nowhere to be found in Lexington.

When the British marched further up the road to Concord, there they found a much larger force waiting for them. Forced to fall back, the British retreat turned into a rout, almost all the way back to Boston. The time for patience, the time for politics, had ended. A revolution was about to begin.

Common Questions About the Boston Tea Party and the Intolerable Acts

Q. What was the ‘Boston Massacre’?

The Boston Massacre was an incident in which a scuffle between redcoats and Bostonians led to the death of two Bostonians, and three others were injured.

Q. What was the Boston Tea Party?

The Boston Tea Party was an incident in which a group of Americans called the Sons of Liberty boarded three tea ships in Boston Harbor, and threw all the tea overboard, as a protest against the Tea Act.

Q. What were the ‘Intolerable Acts’?

The Intolerable Acts were a set of punitive acts that were enforced in America as a retaliation against the Boston Tea Party. Among other things, martial law was declared and the civil government dissolved.

Q. Why did the British attack Lexington and Concord?

The British Commander in Chief, General Gage, ordered the attack on Lexington to capture two of the Sons of Liberty. The attack on Concord was because the Americans were stockpiling arms and ammunition there.

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