The Boston Tea Party and the Coercive Acts

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the colonial responses to the Tea Act of 1773
  • Describe the purpose of the Coercive Acts and the colonial responses

Tensions between the colonies and England eased for a time after the Boston Massacre. The colonial economy improved as the postwar recession receded. The Sons of Liberty in some colonies sought to continue non-importation even after the repeal of the Townshend Acts, but in New York, a door-to-door poll of the population revealed that the majority wanted to end non-importation.[1] Yet Britain’s desire and need to reform imperial administration remained.

The Tea Act of 1773

In April 1773, Parliament passed two acts to aid the failing East India Company, which had fallen behind in the annual payments it owed Britain. But the company was not only drowning in debt; it was also drowning in tea, with almost fifteen million pounds of it in stored in warehouses from India to England. In 1773, Parliament passed the Regulating Act, which effectively put the troubled company under government control. It then passed the Tea Act, which would allow the company to sell its tea in the colonies directly and without the usual import duties. The act would allow the East India Company to sell its tea at lower prices than the smuggled Dutch tea, thus undercutting the smuggling trade and, theoretically, raising revenue for the company so they could pay back Britain. The act backfired spectacularly because, while the cost of British tea dropped for colonists, it was the one remaining consumer good subject to the hated Townshend duties. Colonists continued to avoid British tea, drinking smuggled Dutch tea as a sign of patriotism.

By granting the East India Company a monopoly in the colonies, the Tea Act not only cut out colonial merchants who would otherwise sell the tea themselves but also reduced their profits from smuggling foreign tea. These merchants were among the most powerful and influential people in the colonies, so their dissatisfaction carried some weight. Moreover, because the tea tax that the Townshend Acts imposed remained in place, tea had intense power to symbolize the idea of “no taxation without representation.”

Merchants resisted the Tea Act because they resented the East India Company’s monopoly. But like the Sugar Act, the Tea Act affected only a small, specific group of people. The widespread support for resisting the Tea Act had more to do with principles. By buying British tea, even though it was cheaper, colonists would be paying the duty and thereby implicitly acknowledging Parliament’s right to tax them. According to the Pennsylvania Chronicle, Prime Minister North was a “great schemer” who sought “to out wit us, and to effectually establish that Act, which will forever after be pleaded as a precedent for every imposition the Parliament of Great-Britain shall think proper to saddle us with.”[2]

The Boston Tea Party

Figure 1. In the Revolutionary Era, tea was formed into bricks by grinding the leaves into a fine powder, then pressing the wet powder into a mold and allowing it to dry. The tea bricks would be shipped in crates and then a small knife would be used to scrape small amounts of the powder off the brick and into a teapot.

The Tea Act stipulated that the duty had to be paid when the ship unloaded in the harbor. Newspaper essays and letters throughout the summer of 1773 in the major port cities debated what to do when the ships carrying the tea arrived. In November, the Boston Sons of Liberty, led by Samuel Adams and John Hancock, resolved to “prevent the landing and sale of the [tea], and the payment of any duty thereon” and to do so “at the risk of their lives and property.”[3] The Sons of Liberty appointed men to guard the wharves and prevent workers from unloading the tea until the merchants decided to return to London.

Thomas Hutchinson, now the royal governor of Massachusetts, vowed that radicals like Samuel Adams would not keep the ships from unloading their cargo. He urged the merchants who would have accepted the tea from the ships to stand their ground and receive the tea once it had been unloaded. When the Dartmouth sailed into Boston Harbor in November 1773, it had twenty days to unload its cargo of tea and pay the duty before it had to return to Great Britain. Two more ships, the Eleanor and the Beaver, followed soon after. Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty tried to keep the captains of the ships from paying the duties and posted men around the ships to make sure the tea would not be unloaded.

On December 16, just as the Dartmouth’s deadline approached, townspeople gathered at the Old South Meeting House determined to take action. From this gathering, a group of the Sons of Liberty and their followers approached the three ships. Sarah Fulton, the leader of the Boston Daughters of Liberty, is credited with the idea of disguising the men in Mohawk tribal apparel in order to conceal their identities. The Boston Gazette reported what happened next:

But, behold what followed! A number of brave & resolute men, determined to do all in their power to save their country from the ruin which their enemies had plotted, in less than four hours, emptied every chest of tea on board the three ships . . . amounting to 342 chests, into the sea ! ! without the least damage done to the ships or any other property.[4]

Protected by a crowd of spectators, the colonists systematically dumped all the tea into the harbor, destroying goods worth almost $1 million in today’s dollars, a very significant loss. This act soon inspired further acts of resistance up and down the East Coast. However, not all colonists, supported the dumping of the tea. The wholesale destruction of property shocked people on both sides of the Atlantic.

As word spread throughout the colonies, patriots were emboldened to do the same to the tea sitting in their harbors. Tea was either dumped or seized in Charleston, Philadelphia, and New York, with numerous other smaller “tea parties” taking place throughout 1774.

Popular protest spread across the continent and down through all levels of colonial society. Fifty-one women in Edenton, North Carolina, for example, signed an agreement—published in numerous newspapers—in which they promised “to do every Thing as far as lies in our Power” to support the boycotts.[5] The ladies of Edenton were not alone in their desire to support the war effort by what means they could. Women across the thirteen colonies could most readily express their political sentiments as consumers and producers. Because women often made decisions regarding household purchases, their participation in consumer boycotts held particular weight. Some women also took to the streets as part of more unruly mob actions, participating in grain riots, raids on the offices of royal officials, and demonstrations against the impressment of men into naval service. The agitation of so many helped elicit responses from both Britain and the colonial elites.

Try It

Parliament Responds: The Coercive Acts

A painting of Lord North.

Figure 2. Lord North, seen here in Portrait of Frederick North, Lord North (1773–1774), painted by Nathaniel Dance, was prime minister at the time of the destruction of the tea and insisted that Massachusetts make good on the loss.

In London, the response to the destruction of the tea was swift and strong. The violent destruction of property infuriated King George III and the prime minister, Lord North, who insisted the loss be repaid. Though some American merchants put forward a proposal for restitution, the Massachusetts Assembly refused to make payments. Massachusetts’s resistance to British authority united different factions in Great Britain against the colonies. North had lost patience with the unruly British subjects in Boston. He declared: “The Americans have tarred and feathered your subjects, plundered your merchants, burnt your ships, denied all obedience to your laws and authority; yet so clement and so long forbearing has our conduct been that it is incumbent on us now to take a different course. Whatever may be the consequences, we must risk something; if we do not, all is over.” Both Parliament and the king agreed that Massachusetts should be forced to pay for the tea and to yield to British authority.

In early 1774, leaders in Parliament responded with a set of four measures designed to punish Massachusetts, formally known as the Coercive Acts, but referred to as the “Intolerable Acts” by the American colonists. First, the Boston Port Bill shut down Boston Harbor until the East India Company was repaid for the destruction of the tea. Second, the Massachusetts Government Act placed the colonial government under the direct control of crown officials and made traditional town meetings subject to the governor’s approval. Third, the Administration of Justice Act allowed the royal governor to unilaterally move any trial of a crown officer out of Massachusetts, a change designed to prevent hostile Massachusetts juries from deciding these cases. This act was especially infuriating to John Adams and others who emphasized the time-honored rule of law. They saw this part of the Coercive Acts as striking at the heart of fair and equitable justice. Finally, the Quartering Act encompassed all the colonies and allowed British troops to be housed in public or unoccupied buildings, such as inns, barns, or warehouses if the colonies refused to provide adequate barracks for them, as required by the 1765 Quartering Act. Although many believe that soldiers were housed in private homes, historians have found that this is a myth.[6]

At the same time, Parliament also passed the Quebec Act, which expanded the boundaries of Quebec westward and extended religious tolerance to Roman Catholics in the province. For many Protestant colonists, especially Congregationalists in New England, this forced tolerance of Catholicism was the most objectionable provision of the act. Additionally, expanding the boundaries of Quebec into the Ohio Valley, including parts of modern-day Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio, angered American colonists who had hoped to claim land in those areas and resented the expansion of Catholicism into what they saw as Protestant territory. The Quebec Act appeared gratuitous, a slap in the face to colonists already angered by the Coercive Acts.

Some in London also thought the Coercive Acts went too far; see the below cartoon “The Able Doctor, or America Swallowing the Bitter Draught” for one British view of what Parliament was doing to the colonies. Meanwhile, punishments designed to hurt only one colony (Massachusetts, in this case) had the effect of mobilizing all the colonies to its side. The Committees of Correspondence had already been active in coordinating an approach to the Tea Act. Now the committees’ discussions would turn to these new, intolerable assaults on the colonists’ rights as British subjects.

A cartoon shows Lord North, with a paper labeled “Boston Port Bill” in his pocket, forcibly pouring tea from a teapot into the mouth of a half-nude woman. One man holds the woman’s arms behind her back, while another holds her feet and looks beneath her skirt. Mother Britannia stands behind the woman, covering her face and weeping. On the ground, a puddle is labeled “Boston Petition.”

Figure 3. The artist of “The Able Doctor, or America Swallowing the Bitter Draught” (London Magazine, May 1, 1774) targets select members of Parliament as the perpetrators of a devilish scheme to overturn the constitution; this is why Mother Britannia weeps. Note that this cartoon came from a British publication; Great Britain was not united in support of Parliament’s policies toward the American colonies.

Why didn’t Britain just give the Colonies representation?

This might be the most important question of the lead-up to the American Revolution. The colonists were not opposed to simply being taxed and the British were not taxing them without reason. The colonists only asked for “taxation with representation,” so why didn’t Britain just give it to them?

Think about what you have learned about the way the British government operated and how they maintained the Empire, then answer the practice question below to test your critical thinking skills.


In the decades running up to the Revolutionary War, the British Parliament was dominated by men like Lord North and other land-owning aristocrats, who formed a coalition with King George III and the Anglican Church to protect their own interests. Their opposition lay in reformers who pushed for a more open democracy which represented the urban areas where more commoners lived and worked. These reformers supported the colonial bid for representation and independence because they felt it would strengthen their own position in pushing for reforms within Britain. The balance of power would have shifted if American colonists had been included in British Parliament, and leaders like Lord North felt that it was worth it to possibly lose a few colonies in a war than to allow them to be represented in government.[7]


Coercive Acts: four acts (Administration of Justice Act, Massachusetts Government Act, Port Bill, Quartering Act) that Lord North passed to punish Massachusetts for destroying the tea and refusing to pay for the damage. The direct assault on Massachusetts served to rally the rest of the colonies together. Called the Intolerable Acts by American colonists.

East India Company: an English joint-stock company founded in 1600. The company was created to trade in India, Southeast Asia, and China, but soon was a colonizing force that actually exercised administrative powers over British colonial holdings in India, maintained their own Army and Navy, and fought the Opium Wars on behalf of the Empire.

The Quebec Act: a Parliamentary act passed at the same time as the Coercive Acts which expanded the borders of the province of Quebec into the Ohio Valley, established English common law for all public matters, and required the toleration of Catholicism within the province.

  1. New York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy, June 18, July 9, 16, 1770.
  2. Pennsylvania Chronicle, September 27, 1773. For an example of how fast news and propaganda was spreading throughout the colonies, this piece was reprinted in Massachusetts Gazette, October 4, 1773; New-Hampshire Gazette, and Historical Chronicle, October 15, 1773; and Virginia Gazette, October 21, 1773.
  3. Massachusetts Gazette, and Boston Post-Boy, November 29, 1773.
  4. Boston Gazette, December 20, 1773.
  5. Virginia Gazette, November 3, 1774; Cynthia A. Kierner, “The Edenton Ladies: Women, Tea, and Politics in Revolutionary North Carolina,” in North Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times, ed. Michele Gillespie and Sally G. McMillen (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014), 12–33.
  6. Rogers, J. Alan. "Colonial Opposition to the Quartering of Troops During the French and Indian War." Military Affairs 34, no. 1 (1970): 7-11. Accessed May 10, 2021. doi:10.2307/1984545.
  7. Sebastian Galiani and Gustavo Torrens. Why Not Taxation and Representation? A Note on the American Revolution. NBER Working Paper No. 22724 October 2016, Revised January 2018 JEL No. D74,N41