Eighteenth Century accounts claim over 5,000 people crowded into Old South Meeting House for the meetings that sparked the Boston Tea Party in 1773.
In this article, historian Alfred F. Young, Professor Emeritus of History at Northern Illinois University and author of The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution, explores the meaning and significance of what are believed to be the largest political meetings ever held in Colonial Boston. The following text is courtesy Professor Young.
By any historical measure, the 1773 event known as the Boston Tea Party was of central importance to the American Revolution; it was the culmination of a near decade of resistance to British rule and catalyst of the movement that led to independence in 1776. A relatively small number of men - estimated at 100 to 150 - boarded three ships on December 16, 1773 and destroyed the tea. But before this bold action, thousands of men gathered for a series of massive meetings at Old South Meeting House to determine the fate of the tea. Participation at these often overlooked meetings of “the body of the people” was unprecedented. Seen in the context of nearly a decade of resistance to British measures, these meetings were the coming of age of the popular side of the Revolution in Boston.
In the years before the Revolution, the highest turnout at Boston town meetings was for the annual election of delegates to the Massachusetts Assembly, which attracted 500 to 550 voters. In contrast, the meetings at Old South Meeting House in 1773 were estimated at over 5,000 participants – ten times larger than the vote at the biggest official town meetings.
The common source for the figure of 5,000 is Samuel Adams’ letter to Arthur Lee, Massachusetts colony’s agent in London. Adams, the prime mover in the North End Caucus and the Committee of Correspondence that organized the meetings, was present at all of them. On November 29, 1773, a meeting of “the body of the people”, at which leaders dropped the customary property and age requirements for voting in town meetings, assembled I at first in Faneuil Hall. The site for official town meetings, Faneuil Hall was then less than half the size of the present building, holding 1300 people at most. As the crowd grew, it was quickly decided to adjourn the meeting to the much larger Old South Meeting House a few blocks away, where Adams wrote there were “5000, some say 6000 men.” The Meeting House was mid-way between the populous North end of town and the sprawling South end.
Meetings of the “body of the people” to determine the fate of the tea were held at Old South Meeting House on November 29, 30, December 14 and for the last time on December 16, the night the tea was destroyed. On each of these dates a morning meeting adjourned and reassembled in the afternoon. Attendance ebbed and flowed as most of the attendees were working people who could not afford to be absent from work the whole day. At the final meeting on December 16, Adams wrote there were “at least 5000 men” who were “inhabitants of this and the adjacent towns,” some from a “distance of twenty miles.” Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson, usually skeptical of patriot claims, seems to have accepted the number 5,000, which he and others reported to officials in London. The near consensus on attendance at these meetings was broken only by John Rowe, a cautious merchant of shifting political loyalties, who recorded in his diary that attendance at the November 29 meeting was “about 2500, as near as I could guess.”
The size of audiences at Old South Meeting House for other 18th Century gatherings make Adams’s claim of “at least 5000” at the December 16 meeting more than plausible. For years the Meeting House had been used for increasingly large gatherings that challenged British actions. On March 6, 1770, the morning after the Boston Massacre, an angry protest demanding withdrawal of British troops drew 3,000 to 4,000 men to Old South. The annual commemoration of the Massacre held every March from 1772 to 1775 jammed the Meeting House with women as well as men, a first for an indoor patriot meeting. When Joseph Warren delivered the Massacre oration in 1772, Rowe noted in his diary “’tis said upwards of 4000” were present “in spite of A terable N.E snow storm.” Two years later Rowe wrote that the 1774 oration by John Hancock, the wealthiest merchant in Boston who had pledged his fortune to the cause, was attended by “the greatest number of people that ever assembled on the occasion,” clearly implying that attendance was even more than in 1772. In John Adams’ vivid description of this gathering, Old South “was filled and crowded in every Pew, seat, alley and gallery by an audience of several thousands of people of all ages and characters of both sexes.”
Religious meetings drew even larger crowds to Old South Meeting House in the years before the Tea Party. From 1740 to 1770, when charismatic British evangelist George Whitfield preached at Old South on each of his five tours of the colonies, attendance soared. Boston, he said, was his favorite American town and when offered a choice of churches, Whitfield selected Old South and New North, because “they were the most capacious at each end of the Town, holding near six Thousand People when fill’d as they continually were, 30 crowding into some single pews.” In 1740 he recorded that the first time he spoke at the Meeting House it was to “about six thousand hearers”; the second time the building “was so exceedingly thronged that I was obliged to get in at one of the windows.”
The massive meetings of “the body of the people” in 1773 could only be held at Old South Meeting House, the largest building in Colonial Boston, measuring a vast 90 x 50 feet inside. In 1773 the Meeting House had far more seating and standing room than today. There were over a hundred box pews on the first floor, filling every foot of space up to the walls. The lower balcony was filled with another level of box pews, providing seating for more people. The uncommon narrow upper galleries that line two sides of the interior today were more than twice as large in 1773, extending out as far as the lower balcony, and held many rows of benches. Three large entryways opened directly onto the interior, each with an open vestibule similar to the space at today’s entrance on Washington Street. If one can imagine men - and there were only men at the tea party meetings – squeezed into box pews and benches, and standing in every available space in the aisles, on the interior stairways, against the walls and in the entrances, as well as cascading into the streets, the claim for so many thousands seems not at all far fetched.
The meetings held at Old South were declared to be meetings of the “whole body of the people” because they included people who previously had not been able to vote. The results were unprecedented. When leaders dropped the property and age requirements for voting, attendance increased dramatically. In 1773, Boston had a population of about 16,000, of whom roughly 600 were African Americans, all but a handful enslaved. There were between 2,500 and 3,000 men over 21, the legal age for voting in town meetings, and the property requirement, while relatively small, kept large numbers of them from voting. Arguably, most of the adult men of legal age in Boston were at the tea meetings, joined by hundreds of Bostonians under 21 and many hundreds more farmers and their sons from five nearby towns. The only men who were not there were a small circle of about 125 men known as “the friends of the governor” – Royal Governor Hutchinson.
No previous indoor political meeting in Boston had been attended by the same mix of social classes. In March 1770, thousands of people of all walks of life were in the funeral processions for the victims of the Boston Massacre. But at official town meetings, the voters were merchants, shopkeepers, professionals, and master artisans of the “middling sort”, the latter employers of journeymen and apprentices. The very class-conscious Governor Hutchinson wrote that the first “body” meeting consisted “principally of the lower ranks of people and even journeymen tradesmen were brought to increase the number and the rabble were not excluded, yet there were divers Gentlemen of Good Fortune among them.” A few years later, he still conveyed a sense of class shock about these meetings: it was not only that the meetings were“composed of the lowest as well, and probably in as great proportion, as of the superior ranks and orders” but “all had an equal voice.” In his lexicon, the “lowest ranks” included journeymen, poorer master artisans and petty shopkeepers, and the “rabble” was made up of apprentices, seamen, common laborers, and sometimes “Negroes and boys.” The men who actually boarded the tea ships were even more plebeian. In his recent book “Defiance of the Patriots”, historian Benjamin Carp finds that two thirds of the men who destroyed the tea were “artisans in various stages of their careers”.
The working men resolutely returning to the debates at the Meeting House day after day were more than spectators. They voted on motions and responded to speakers, applauding, hissing, and shouting words of approval or disapproval. The issue was clear and stark. The law required that customs on cargo be paid within twenty days of a ship’s arrival in port; the deadline for the first ship, the Dartmouth, was midnight, December 16. By then two other ships bearing tea were also moored at Griffin’s Wharf. There was a near consensus among patriots at the meetings on November 29 and 30 that the ships should return to Britain with the tea without paying the duty. The owner of the Dartmouth, the captain, representatives of the consignees of the cargo and customs officials were all called before the meetings and asked if they would consent to such an illegal action, but not one would. A hidebound Governor Hutchinson, the last resort, insisted on sticking to the letter of a law he could easily have bent as had other royal governors, and refused clearance for the ship to depart without unloading the tea in Boston.
At these extraordinary meetings, ordinary people were being asked, in effect, to participate in judgment of their betters, very much aware that their very presence made them indispensable. When the political straddler John Rowe, after apologizing for being part owner of a tea ship, asked “whether Salt Water would make as good Tea as fresh,” the crowd roared its approval, and a conservative overheard a few men brag that “now they had brought a good Tory over to their side.” For those men among the lowest ranks who had never set foot in a town meeting - much less voted - these gatherings where “all had an equal voice” were empowering. Hutchinson said the protest meeting at Old South the morning after the Massacre “has given the lower sort of people a sense of their importance that a Gentleman does not meet what used to be called civility.” He was right. Civility was another word for deference.
In 1773, the ‘lower ranks” were refusing to take their hats off to their so-called “superiors” whose policies they were rejecting. They were part of a coalition that included a wing of patriot merchants typified by John Hancock and the “middling sort” of artisans led by Paul Revere. By the spring of 1774, patriot leader Dr. Thomas Young reported that while the merchants as a whole were unreliable politically, the patriots depended on “those worthy members of society, the tradesmen,” who were “carrying all before them.” And by the spring of 1775 Revere could say about the origins of his famous ride: “I was one of thirty, chiefly mechanics, who formed ourselves into a Committee for the purpose of watching the movements of the British soldiers.” In the Revolutionary era, “mechanics” was the term proudly adopted by “tradesmen” as a group.
Why were the tea meetings opened to “the body of the people?’ The tea act aroused such a wave of fury in Boston that leaders, high and low, feared anything might happen. From 1765 to 1773 crowd actions in the streets gave many ordinary Bostonians a sense of their potential: rampaging through a rich official’s house, tarring and feathering a customs informer, hanging an unauthorized effigy on the boughs of the Liberty Tree. But such acts were disowned by patriot leaders whose slogans were “No violence or you will hurt the cause” and “No mobs, no confusions, no tumults.” Late in 1773 leaders had every reason to fear that people would again take violent action. From their vantage point, by opening meetings to “the body of the people” they were bringing the “people out of doors” - the common phrase for everyone who was not part of the formal body politic - literally indoors where they could be won over to the Patriots’ carefully planned actions. But, the “lower sort” had every reason to believe that as a result of their militancy they had pushed their way into a restrictive political system they were enlarging by their presence. All joined together to participate in the meetings at Old South Meeting House, considering the fate of the tea and taking collective action vote by vote. This is the little appreciated democratic heritage of the Boston Tea Party.
The tea meetings also had a larger significance for the political philosophy of the Revolution. Bostonians were acting on the principles implicit in meeting as “the body of the people,” a key phrase from John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, the tract that justified the English Revolution of 1688. Samuel Adams spoke of “the reasoning of the immortal John Locke, and earlier in 1773 a Boston printer brought out what he called Locke’s “noble essay”. Locke assumed a contract between the ruler and the people. In a section entitled “Dissolution of Government,” he asked if “on a thing of great consequence” the actions of the ruler were “contrary to or beyond the Trust the people had placed in him… who so proper to judge as the Body of the People” whether the contract was broken? If the ruler—to Bostonians the King—opposed the judgment of this ultimate body, “the Appeal then lies nowhere but to Heaven.” In the spring of 1775 New Englanders would carry into battle at Bunker Hill a flag emblazoned with the slogan “Appeal to Heaven” indicating they had made their judgment. The King had broken the contract and they were justified in taking up arms against him. This is the way popular movements from below authorized the action their leaders would explain in the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, when they justified “the Right of the People to alter or to abolish” their “Form of Government.”