In 1773, all the fuss about tea in Boston had come to a boil.
Three ships loaded with tea sat anchored in Boston harbor. The Patriots were determined to prevent the tea on these ships from being landed on American soil, because if it were, a tax would be due upon it. Parliament had passed a new law, the Tea Act of 1773, which kept a small tax of three pence on all English tea brought into the American colonies. This shipment of tea was from the East India Company, and it would be consigned, or sold, only to seven Boston merchants selected by the East India Company. They were all loyal to the British government.
Monday November 28, 1773: The "Body of the People" gathers at Old South Meeting House
On Sunday, November 28, 1773, the Dartmouth was the first of the Tea Party ships to arrive at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston. The tax on the tea had to be paid within twenty days, an absolute deadline of December 17.
Colonial Boston had become a hotbed of dissent and radicalism and thousands of people gathered from Boston and surrounding towns to discuss the "tea crisis". On Monday November 29 a meeting was called at Faneuil Hall, the usual meeting place for town meetings. But so many people showed up - nearly 4,000 - that the meeting was moved to Old South Meeting House, the largest building in all of colonial Boston and the site of the town's largest revolutionary protests.
Samuel Adams described the meeting in a letter to a friend:
"…the people met in Faneuil hall, without observing the rules prescribed by law for calling them together…they were soon obliged for the want of room to adjourn to the Old South Meeting House; where were assembled upon this important occasion 5000, some say 6000 men, consisting of the respectable inhabitants of this and the adjacent towns. The business of the meeting was conducted with decency, unanimity, and spirit."
The resolves from the meeting were signed “The People” and the meeting became known as “The Body of the People.” The customary age and property requirements for regular town meetings were dropped at this and the following meetings about the tea. The massive crowd at Old South Meeting House included those not normally allowed at official town meetings, such as men from surrounding towns and those without voting privileges. No other political meeting in Boston had been attended by such a mix of social classes. Merchants, professionals and master artisans were joined by journeymen, seamen laborers and apprentices. (For more information on the Meetings of "The Body of the People," please see Revolution 1773.)
Royal Governor Hutchinson described these meetings as including “the lower ranks of the people…and the rabble were not excluded.” These meetings were truly unprecedented. Unlike any other meetings held in neighboring communities, these meetings at Old South Meeting House were the most inclusive and democratic meetings that the colony had seen. The resolves from the meetings were signed, simply, “The People.”
The meeting voted to put a guard of 25 men on the tea ship Dartmouth to ensure that the tea would not be landed. The meeting adjourned until the following day to allow the tea consignees time to make a proposal.
Tuesday, November 30, 1773: The meetings continue at Old South Meeting House
On Tuesday, November 30, thousands of colonists again crowded into Old South Meeting House. Famed painter John Singleton Copley, married to one of the tea consignee’s daughters, tried to help reach an agreement with the tea consignees on behalf of the meeting. He delivered their response: the consignees offered to store the tea subject to inspection until they received further instructions from London. But this was not acceptable to the meeting since it meant that the tea would be landed.
Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf interrupted the meeting with a proclamation from Governor Hutchinson demanding the assembly “to disperse and to surcease all further unlawful proceedings at your utmost peril.” The meeting resoundingly refused to comply.
"It was solemnly voted by the body of the people of this and the neighboring towns assembled at the Old South meeting-house on Tuesday, the 30th day of November that the said tea never should be landed in this province … [Signed] The people."
Mounting Tensions over Tea
The second tea ship, the Eleanor, arrived in Boston on December 2 and the last tea ship, the Beaver, arrived December 7. Resistance to the tea was mounting in Boston. On December 8 Governor Hutchinson ordered Admiral Montagu not to let any vessel leave the harbor without a pass.
For almost three weeks, "The Body of the People" met at Old South Meeting House to try to find a way to prevent the tea from being unloaded. Francis Rotch, a Quaker who owned the Dartmouth, was under great pressure by both the Patriots and Governor Hutchinson. The Patriots wanted Rotch to turn his ship around and sail it back to England with the tea still on board. Hutchinson, on the other hand, wanted that tea unloaded and the tax paid. The deadline was fast approaching.
December 14, 1773: The deadline approaches
On the morning of December 14 a handbill was plastered throughout Boston:
"Friends! Brethren! Countrymen! The perfidious act of your reckless enemies to render ineffectual the late resolves of the body of the people, demands your assembling at the Old South Meeting House, precisely at ten o’clock this day, at which time the bells will ring."
Samuel Savage, a former Boston selectman now living in Weston, was chosen as moderator of this mass meeting at the Old South Meeting House, perhaps to show that those in the countryside were in agreement with the colonists in town. Samuel Adams called on the Committees of Correspondence from surrounding towns to “be in readiness in the most resolute manner to assist this Town in their efforts for saving this oppressed country.” All neighboring towns sent resolutions of support to Boston.
Rotch feared that without governmental permission his ship would most be fired upon from Castle William, the armed fort at the entrance to Boston Harbor, if it left for England. He could not risk his ship becoming damaged, or even destroyed. So the Dartmouth sat, anchored at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston Harbor.
December 16, 1773: The Boston Tea Party
At 10 o’clock in the morning on December 16, 1773, thousands of colonists gathered at the Old South Meeting House for a final meeting. Over 5,000 people, more than a third of Boston’s entire population, crowded into the meeting house filling every pew, gallery and aisle. Participants came from all over the colony, as Samuel Adams noted, “inhabitants of this and the adjacent towns,” some from “at a distance of twenty miles.” It was the largest political meeting Boston had ever seen.
The Patriot leaders asked Francis Rotch, owner of The Dartmouth, to make a final, personal plea to the Governor for permission to leave the harbor without unloading the tea. Rotch made the long trip to where the Governor was staying in Milton, Massachusetts. He asked again for a pass to sail the Dartmouth out of Boston harbor, safely past Castle William. It was near evening when Rotch returned to Old South Meeting House. He reported that the Governor had refused his request, and that he would not attempt to leave the harbor without the Governor’s permission.
As with previous meetings, all attempts at diplomatic negotiations with government officials had failed. The Patriots had exhausted all legal means to keep the tea from being unloaded. Hearing the news, Samuel Adams is said to have declared: “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!” as a pre-arranged signal to the Sons of Liberty to put a surprising plan into action.
Cries of “Hurrah for Griffin’s Wharf!” and “Boston Harbor - a Teapot Tonight!” were heard. Some members of the Sons of Liberty left the Old South Meeting House, met with others at the doors, and made their way down to the harbor. Joined en route by others who had been getting ready in taverns and homes along the way, these participants wore rudimentary disguises - faces blacked with lamp soot and shielded with heavy coats.
Back at the Old South Meeting House, to stall for time, Adams asked Dr. Thomas Young to speak on “the ill Effects of Tea on the Constitution.” Still, the crowd could not be contained and the meeting was dissolved. Hundreds of people rushed to the docks to see what had transpired. About fifty men remained at Old South Meeting House, among them Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Joseph Warren. Leaders of the Patriot movement, these men could not risk being accused of participating in the illegal destruction of the tea. Meanwhile, it took 150 men nearly three hours to dump 340 chests of tea into Boston Harbor.
The day after the Tea Party, John Adams wrote:
“This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, so intrepid and so inflexible, and it must have so important consequences and so lasting that I can’t but consider it an epocha in history.”
And so it was. At the meetings at Old South Meeting House, the spark of revolution was first ignited. The Boston Tea Party became the catalyst to the American Revolution, and a turning point in the history of a colony poised to become an independent nation.
Dire Consequences: Old South Meeting House becomes a riding school for the British
Old South’s reputation as a patriot meeting place had dire consequences for the building during the American Revolution. When war broke out in April of 1775 with the battles of Lexington and Concord, the British retreated to Boston and occupied the town. The Continental Army besieged Boston for nearly a year. While patriots fled the city, British troops destroyed and vandalized visible symbols of the patriotic cause. One of the worst cases was the fate of Old South Meeting House.
The “Redcoats” gutted the vast interior of the Old South Meeting House. They tore down the pews, the pulpit, and the galleries and burned them for fuel. Hundreds of loads of dirt and gravel were spread on the floor, and a bar was erected so the men could practice jumping their horses. In the east galleries, the officers enjoyed drinks while they watched the feats of horsemanship below. The British left the building unfit for occupancy. When General George Washington surveyed the damage after driving the British from Boston in 1776, he observed that it was
"Strange that the British, who so venerated their own churches, should thus have desecrated ours."
It took nearly 8 years for the congregation to restore the building.