Boston Harbor – Historic Landmarks

IT was Sunday, the 28th day of November, 1773, when there sailed into Boston Harbour the English merchant ship Dartmouth, laden with chests of tea belonging to the East India Company. The Act of Parliament which allowed the Treasury to license vessels to export the teas of the Company to the American colonies free of duty was the signal for popular gatherings in Boston. Samuel Adams, in the Boston Gazette, roused again that feeling of resistance which had partially subsided. The Governor of Massachusetts, in October, wrote to Lord Dartmouth, who had succeeded Lord Hillsborough as Colonial Secretary, that Samuel Adams, ” who was the first person that openly, and in any public assembly, declared for a total independence,” had ” obtained such an ascendency as to direct the town of Boston and the House of Representatives, and consequently the Council, just as he pleases.” The East India Company had appointed its consignees in Boston. On the night of the 2d of November, summonses were left at the houses of each of these persons, requiring them to appear on a certain day at Liberty Tree, to resign their commissions; and notices were issued desiring the freemen of Boston and of the neighbouring towns to assemble at the same place. The consignees did not appear; but a committee of the Assembly traced them to a warehouse, where they were met to consult. They were required not to sell the teas; but to return them to London by the vessels which might bring them. They refused to comply, and were denounced as enemies to their country. Philadelphia had previously compelled the agents of the Company to resign their appointments. Town meetings were held at Boston, when strong resolutions were adopted.

In this state of things, on that Sunday, the 28th of November, the first tea-ship arrived. The New England colonists preserved that strict observance of the Sabbath which their Puritan fathers felt the highest of duties. But it was a work of necessity to impede the landing of the tea; and a committee met twice on that Sunday to concert measures. They obtained a promise from Rotch, the commander of the ship Dartmouth, that his vessel should not be entered till the following Tuesday. On Monday, the Committee of all the neighbouring towns assembled at Boston; and five thou-sand persons agreed that the tea should be sent back to the place whence it came. ” Throw it overboard,” cried one. The consignees, alarmed at this demonstration, declared that they would not send back the teas, but that they would store them. This proposal was received with scorn,—and then the consignees agreed that the teas should not be landed. But there was a legal difficulty. If the rest of the cargo were landed, and the tea not landed, the vessel could not be cleared in Boston, and after twenty days was liable to seizure. Two more ships arrived, and anchored by the side of the Dartmouth. The people kept watch night and day to prevent any attempt at landing the teas. Thirteen days after the arrival of the Dartmouth, the owner was summoned before the Boston Committee, and told that his vessel and his tea must be taken back to London. It was out of his power to do so, he said. He certainly had not the power; for the passages out of the harbour were guarded by two King’s ships, to prevent any vessel going to sea without a license. On the 16th, the revenue officers would have legal authority to take possession of the Dartmouth. For three days previous there had been meetings of the Boston Committee; but their journal had only this entry: ” No business transacted matter of record.”

On the 16th of December, there was a meeting in Boston of seven thousand persons, who resolved that the tea should not be landed. The master of the Dartmouth was ordered to apply to the Governor for a pass for his vessel to proceed on her return voyage to London. The Governor was at his country house. Many of the leaders had adjourned to a church, to wait his answer. The night had come on when Rotch returned, and announced that the Governor had refused him a pass, because his ship had not cleared. There was no more hesitation. Forty or fifty men, disguised as Mohawks, raised the war-whoop at the porch of the church; went onto the wharf where the three ships lay alongside; took possession of them; and deliberately emptied three hundred and forty chests of tea into the waters of the bay. It was the work of three hours. Not a sound was heard but that of breaking open the chests. The people of Boston went to their rest as if no extraordinary event had occurred.

On the 27th of January, 1774, the news of this decisive act reached the English Government. On the 29th there was a great meeting of the Lords of the Council to consider a petition of Massachusetts for the dismissal of Hutchinson, the Governor, and Oliver, the Lieutenant-Governor. Dr. Franklin appeared before the Council as agent for Massachusetts. He had obtained possession of some private letters written confidentially several years before, in which Hutchinson and Oliver avowed sentiments opposed to what they considered the licentiousness of the colonists. These letters Franklin transmitted to the Assembly at Boston, who voted, by a large majority, that the opinions expressed contemplated the establishment of arbitrary power; and they accordingly petitioned for the removal of the Governor and Lieutenant-Governor. The intelligence from Boston of the destruction of the teas was not likely to propitiate the Council. Franklin was treated with little respect; and Wedderburn, the Solicitor-General, assailed him with a torrent of invectives, at which the Lords cheered and laughed. Franklin bore the assaults with perfect equanimity; but from that hour he ceased to be a mediator between Great Britain and the Colonists. The Council reported that the petition from Massachusetts was ” groundless, vexatious and scandalous.” Two days after, Franklin was dismissed from his office of Deputy Postmaster-General. He said to Priestley, who was present at the Council, that he considered the thing for which he had been so insulted as one of the best actions of his life.

The Parliament had met on the 13th of January. It was the 7th of March when Lord North delivered the King’s message relating to ” the violent and outrageous proceedings at the town and port of Boston, in the province of Massachusetts Bay, with a view to obstructing the commerce of this Kingdom, and upon grounds and pretences immediately subversive of the constitution thereof.” There was a debate, of which the most remarkable part was, that when Lord North stated that the proper papers should be ready on the following Friday, Thurlow, the Attorney-General, said, loud enough to reach the ear of the minister, ” I never heard of anything so impudent; he has no plan yet ready.” The one plan which first presented itself—the most unfortunate of all plans—is exhibited in a note of the King to Lord North, dated the 4th of February: “Gen. Gage, though just returned from Boston, expresses his willingness to go back at a day’s notice if convenient measures are adopted. He says, ` They will be lions while we are lambs; but if we take the resolute part, they will undoubtedly prove very weak.’ Four regiments sent to Boston, will, he thinks, be sufficient to prevent any disturbance. All men now feel that the fatal compliance of 1766 has increased the pretensions of the Americans to thorough independence.” On the 14th of March, Lord North brought in a Bill for removing the Custom House from Boston, and declaring it unlawful, after the 1st of June, to lade or unlade, ship or unship, any goods from any lading-place within the harbour of Boston.

There was little opposition to this measure, which was passed in a fortnight, and when sent to the Lords was quickly adopted. Chatham suggested, in a letter to Shelburne, that reparation ought first to be demanded and re-fused before such a bill could be called just. The letter of Chatham, in which he makes this suggestion, is that of a great statesman, exhibiting the sound qualities of his mind perhaps even more clearly than his impassioned oratory:

” The whole of this unhappy business is beset with dangers of the most complicated and lasting nature; and the point of true wisdom for the mother country seems to be in such nice and exact limits (accurately distinguished, and embraced, with a large and generous moderation of spirit), as narrow, short-sighted counsels of state, or overheated popular debates, are not likely to hit. Perhaps a fatal desire to take advantage of this guilty tumult of the Bostonians, in order to crush the spirit of liberty among the Americans in general, has taken possession of the heart of government.”