250 years later, what is the Boston Tea Party's Legacy?

On December 16, Boston celebrated the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, dubbed by John Adams as the “most magnificent movement of all.” The Boston Tea Party is one of the nation’s most iconic events, and one that propelled America down the road to revolution. It is also an example of the effective use of protest.

After the "Tea Act" was passed by British Parliament in April 1773 and received the royal assent in May, the British East India Company was allowed to sell tea from China in American colonies without paying taxes apart from those imposed by the Townshend Acts. Colonists considered this an egregious act of taxation without representation. Between late November and early December, three ships arrived from England with tea. In the meantime, rebels started hosting community meetings, including a gathering in Lexington Massachusetts on December 12 where the citizens “had unanimously resolved against the use of Bohea tea of all sorts, Dutch or English importation." They gathered all the tea they could and burned it in public. On December 13, Marshfield residents set fire to their tea as well. Momentum grew.

On December 16 1773, 5,000 people gathered at the Old South Meeting House to attend a meeting debating whether or not the ships should unload the tea and pay the duty, or turn around and go back to England without paying the duty. When word was delivered that Governor Hutchison refused to allow the ships to leave (effectively insisting that the tea be sold in America), people poured out of the meeting house and headed for the Wharf. A group of 30 to 130 men, some dressed in Mohawk warrior disguises, boarded the three vessels and, over the course of three hours, dumped all 342 chests of tea into the water. The property damage amounted to the destruction of 92,000 pounds or 340 chests of tea, reported by the British East India Company worth £9,659 (equivalent to roughly $1,700,000 in today's money).

The next day, John Adams wrote in his diary: "This is the most magnificent Movement of all. There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity, in this last Effort of the Patriots, that I greatly admire. The People should never rise, without doing omething to be remembered—something notable And striking. This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences, and so lasting, that I cant but consider it as an Epocha in History."

Our nation exists as it is today because of courageous actions that rebelled against people in power and demanded better. Today, the most urgent issue is no longer about political liberty or taxation, but about climate justice and environmental protection. The climate movement is the current rebellion. This isn't a new rhetoric, but it can be a way to connect our work to historic context for friends and family who struggle to understand. Just as the 1773 patriots disrupted the status quo by pouring tea into the wharf, we slow-march in traffic and dance through banks in drag. Sometimes our neighbors don't have tea to drink or they find themselves running late to work, and surely some of the men hurling tea crates from the ship decks had to answer uncomfortable conversations at holiday gatherings afterwards, but this is how change is made.

How did XR Boston Celebrate the Anniversary?

Flash forward to December 16 2023, when crowds of people gathered at the Old South Meeting house near Downtown Crossing for a reenactment of the historic protest. A team of XR Rebels attended to hand out flyers and engage attendees in conversation about non-violent direct action. "You're interested in iconic protests? Do you know about the climate movement?" "You're interested in Non Violent Direct Action? I'm with Extinction Rebellion!"

A celebratory procession continued through city, with reenactors dressed in blue coats and red coats, until the crowd gathered again at the wharf near the Tea Party Museum. XR Rebels spoke with dozens of people in high spirits, helping them to connect the anniversary of the Tea Party to present day events. One organizer said, "The most important reason for this action/experiment was flyering and talking to people, promoting awareness about climate advocacy, and making connections between the past and the present."

250 years from now, what will the stories say about us? If we successfully pressure governments to immediately address the climate crisis, people will still exist to tell stories. Rebels like Samuel Adams are known because of events like the Tea Party, and each of us could be his successor. Join XR Boston for an upcoming non-violent direct action training to prepare for action!

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