Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

The REAL reason for the Boston Tea Party

April 26, 2011 by Sarah Winski


Last Tuesday, April 19th, the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum broke ground along Fort Point Channel. This project, a decade in the making after the previous museum burned in a 2001 lightening strike, will bring to life one of the most famous protests in American history.

Image Courtesy of Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, Historic Tours of America, Inc.

From 2008 to 2010, the Constitution Center was lucky enough to host what will be one of the treasures of the new museum: the Robinson Tea Chest. This rare memento is a direct link to that cold December night in 1773. On this occasion, a crowd of some 7,000 American colonists gathered to watch men dressed as Mohawk Indians chop open 342 tea chests and dump them and their contents into Boston Harbor.

The reason for the party, however, is often misremembered. Colonists were protesting the British tax on imported tea not because it was too high, but because it was too low. Britain was trying to create a monopoly for the East India Company, an English trading corporation. By lowering the duty for tea imported to the colonies by the East India Company, Britain hoped to undercut the prices of the smuggled, untaxed tea market in America.

But colonists cared less about buying their tea cheaper than they did about the principle of not accepting any tax from Parliament without representation. (The price cut also didn’t help those colonists involved in the illegal tea-smuggling business.) In response to the events of December 16, 1773, the British ministry closed the port of Boston, altered the colony’s charter and ordered British troops to occupy the town. With neither side willing to back down, the stage was set for the final acts leading to the American Revolution.

Image Courtesy of Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, Historic Tours of America, Inc.

So back to the chest itself – the Robinson Tea Chest is one of only two known chests that survive from the Boston Tea Party. Passed down for generations as a prized, family heirloom, the chest was retrieved from the bay the morning after by 15-year-old John Robinson. Its history is documented in family records, and studies have shown that the chest was immersed in seawater and suggest that the lid was chopped open.

Though no longer on display at the Center, you can go visit the Robinson Tea Chest at its new home in Boston starting in 2012. Just don’t forget to throw some tea into the harbor while you’re at it.


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