Episode 002

Boston Massacre Fallout, Gaspee Affair and the Boston Tea Party

After the events labelled as the Boston Massacre, we see an American population growing weary of taxation without representation. The burning of the Gaspee and the Boston Tea Party are two examples of physical protest against British taxation of the colonies.


The events of March 5, 1770 by the British soldiers who had been deployed outside of the Boston Common House were not without repercussion. Immediately after dispersing the crowd back to their homes, Hutchinson began his investigation of the incident and by morning Preston and the eight soldiers had been arrested.

In a governor’s council meeting held late in the morning on March 6th, Hutchinson was asked to order the British troops currently deployed in the city to Castle William on Castle Island. Castle Island is located in Boston Harbor and during the 1760s was home to a fortification known as Castle William, today known as Fort Independence. In 1928 it was connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land making it no longer an island. Castle William, as we’ll learn, would serve as a primary stronghold for British forces in the Boston area and also as a refuge for British officials in the area.

At first Hutchinson’s council was opposed to ordering the troops to withdrawal, with Hutchinson claiming that he did not have the authority to order those troops withdrawn to Castle Island. Lieutenant Colonel William Dalrymple commander of the troops did not openly volunteer to move his troops to the island. When the townspeople heard of this, they became uneasy and in order to help quell what could be future violence, the council voted unanimously, but “under duress” according to Hutchinson, to request that the troops be moved out to Castle Island. The 14th regiment was moved to the island about a week later, and the 29th regiment shortly after that. Andrew Oliver, the Secretary of State, commented that had the troops not been removed “that they would probably be destroyed by the people — should it be called rebellion, should it incur the loss of our charter, or be the consequence what it would.”

The trail for the soldiers involved in the incident was, at the time, the longest trail in the history of the Colonies and was a historic precedent for the American court systems as it was the first time “reasonable doubt” was used by a judge. Thomas Hutchinson was chief justice of the Superior Court, but declined the seat for the trials. One of the more interesting facts about the case is that Patriot John Adams actually served as the defense for the British soldiers involved in the incident. But why did John Adams agree to take on the defense of men who had killed five Boston residents? This was an unpopular assignment, one that could have adversely affected his reputation and future career. The reasons for Adam’s acceptance of the case are difficult to assume. While he strongly believed that all men were entitled to a fair trial and that they deserved equal justice, he knew of the dangers to his practice and of the violence that the mob was capable therefore endangering his wife and young children. On the other hand, in the long term, he might be remembered as a man who put law above his personal beliefs. According to historian Hiller B. Zobel, Adams must have been encouraged to take the case in exchange for a seat in Boston’s legislature as he was the town’s first choice when a seat became available three months later. The trail of the eight soldiers involved opened on November 27, 1770, John Adams argued that the men had the legal right to fight back, and at most they were guilty of manslaughter. The jury saw Adams’ point and acquitted six of the eight soldiers after deliberating for two and a half hours. Kilroy and Montgomery were found guilty of mans laughter as there was overwhelming evidence that they had fired directly into the crowd.

The British soldiers Kilroy and Montgomery faced the death penalty at the sentencing on December 14, 1770. To escape execution they “prayed the benefit of clergy,” a Medieval remnant of the time when clergymen were excepted from the secular courts, essentially they had to prove that they were clergymen and above secular law.. To receive the benefit they had only to prove they could read Psalm 51, verse 1, the “neck verse,” which says “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.” at a time when most people were illiterate. Although illiterate himself, Kilroy was able to obtain the benefit because the reading requirement was abolished in 1705, thus requiring Kilroy to only recite the verse.

County Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf branded Kilroy and Montgomery on the right thumb with an “M” for murder. The brand was to prevent them from ever being able to invoke the benefit of clergy again.

After his acquittal, Captain Preston removed himself from Boston to Castle William in Boston Harbor, and eventually returned to England. The Massacre trials ended rather quietly. Samuel Adams wrote several articles in the Boston Gazette during December, 1770, under the pseudonym “Vindex,” that accused the soldiers of escaping with blood on their hands. But the mood had changed in Boston since the Massacre. He turned his attentions to keeping the memory of the Massacre alive, organizing annual commemorations on March 5, a tradition that lasted until 1783.

The Gaspee Affair

After the Seven Years war, the British Admiralty purchased six sloops and scoopers: the St. John, St. Lawrence, Chaleur, Hope, Magdalen, and Gaspee. These ships were to be used as an increase military and naval defensive presence in the colonies. They were also to be used to combat illegal, untaxed trade, which was hurting Great Britain’s ability to generate income from the colonial properties. In February 1772, Lieutenant William Dudingston sailed the Gaspee into Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, with a mission to add in the enforcement of customs collection and inspection of all cargo. Dudingston had taken command of the Gaspee in America in September of 1768, taking over command of the ship from Lieutenant Thomas Allen. During the change in command, the Gaspee was refitted from a single masted sloop to a twin masted schooner

During the war, Rhode Island had developed a reputation for smuggling and trading with the enemy. With part of the pay for customs officials (which Dudingston had been deputized as) was a share of the cargo that they seized, Dudingston and his officers antagonized merchant interests in the small colony. According to Blue Water Partriots: The American Revolution Afloat by James M. Volo, Dudingston was able to supplement his meager 110 pound annual salary with extra earned commissioner of 88 pounds, almost effectively doubling his annual salary.

When Dudingston and his men entered Narragansett Bay in February they carried out trade law enforcement with an air of arrogance and deliberateness, and that soon got Dudingston in trouble. He seized a ship owned by the powerful Greene family of East Greenwich and he and his crew proceeded to beat up Rufus Greene (the ships commander), condemned the boat and her cargo as a prize of customs enforcement and sent the boat to be auctioned off in Boston. The population of Rhode Island was appalled at this event and Governor Wanton questioned whether Dudingston even had the authority to act against Greene and his vessel.

On June 9 of 1772, the Gaspee ran aground in shallow water in the northwestern part of the bay, while chasing after a smaller boat Hannah. The captain of the Hannah deliberately lured the Gaspee into shallower water as a tactic to escape. The crew was unable to free the ship immediately, but felt that the rising tide would allow the ship to ultimately free itself. Seeing their opportunity to act, a band of the Providence members of the Sons of Liberty rowed out to confront the ship’s crew before the tide rose.

At 12:45am on June 10, the Sons of Liberty had quietly surrounded the Gaspee and when they were around 60-100 yards out (to close for the ships long guns) they were spotted by the lookout and by Dudingston. When Dudingston challenged the boats and ordered them away, someone claimed to be the sheriff of Kent County with a warrant for Dudingston’s arrest. Dudingston ordered his crew to take up their small arms and fire at anyone who tried to come on deck. Shouting and cursing, the Rhode Islanders stormed on board the Gaspee. One of the attackers, still in a boat, took aim and fired at Dudingston. The bullet passed through the Lieutenant’s left arm, breaking it, and lodged in his left groin. Dudingston fell, badly wounded and bleeding, but not dead. The groin wound would haunt him for the remainder of his days, claiming that he was made “lame” by wounds suffered during the attack. It is theorized that the musket ball wasn’t fully removed from the groin area and shrapnel made it’s way down towards his knee. Dudingston was the only member of the Gaspee crew hurt and after he, his men, and their personal effects were removed from the ship the Sons of Liberty burnt the ship to the waterline, the fire then ignited the ships powder magazine and she exploded in the harbor.

The next day, everyone in Providence, Newport, Bristol and other towns on the bay knew what had happened. They had seen the smoke, and many were aware of the fire and explosions during the night. But, from June 10, 1772 until a year later, when the investigation of the Gaspee incident was closed, not one person in Providence admitted to knowing about it in advance, or knowing either before or after the fact, the name of any person involved. It wasn’t until after the war that the facts about the Gaspee came out to be told and written.

The Boston Tea Party

In May of 1773 Great Britian passed the Tea Act, as a last ditch effort to help save the struggling British East India Tea Company as well as combating and undercutting the price of illegal tea in the Americas. The act pushed a vast majority of the tea inventory of the Tea Company into the American colonies, however, the colonist were required to pay taxes on that tea due to the previously passed Townshend acts. By purchasing this tea, the colonists felt that they were supporting the fact that they were being taxed without representation.

The colonists who did not support these taxes on tea began to harass and and delay the distribution and delivery of the tea. The culmination of this harassment, perpetrated by the Sons of Liberty, occurred on December 16, 1773 in Boston, and is commonly referred to as the “Boston Tea Party”.

Seven ships left Great Britain in September and October of 1773, four ships were bound for Boston, one for New York, one for Philadelphia and one for Charleston. While these ships were traveling to the American colonists, the colonists found out the details of the Tea Act and began to mount their opposition and protest. They focused their attention on tea consignees who were local officials responsible for receiving and selling the tea in the colonies. The colonists were able to force every tea consignee in every colony to resign, except in Massachusetts, this was primarily due to Governor Hutchinson holding his ground and not allowing his tea consignees to resign. It did help that 2 of them were the Governor’s sons.

The tea ship Dartmouth arrived in Boston Harbor in late November, Samuel Adams organized a large public meeting at Faneuil Hall on November 29. The meeting was marketed by a handbill stating:

“Friends! Brethren! Countrymen! — That worst of plagues, the destested tea, shipped for this port by the East India Company, is now arrived in the harbor; the hour of destruction, or manly opposition to the machinations of tyranny, stares you in the face. Every friend to his country, to himself and to posterity, is now called upon to meet at Faneuil Hall, at nine o’clock THIS DAY (at which time the bells will ring) to make united and successful resistance to this last, worst, and most destructive measure of administration.”

So many people arrived, some estimates indicate it was in the thousands, that the meeting was moved to the larger Old South Meeting House. Adams proposed and subsequently passed a resolution to this assembly that would turn the Dartmouth around and send it back to England without paying the import duty. British law stated that the Dartmouth was required to unload and pay duties within 20 days or customs officials could confiscate the cargo.

As part of this resolution Adams selected twenty-five men to watch the ship and to prevent the tea from being unloaded. This original plan was a non-violent plan. All the men had to do was wait out the Dartmouth and force it to return to England with a full cargo hold. However, Governor Hutchinson would not grant permission for the ship to leave without paying the duty. He ordered Admiral Montagu to place two armed ships at the entrance to Boston harbor to keep the ships from leaving and he also advised that some of the leaders of the Boston Sons of Liberty should be tried for high crimes and misdemeanors. Two more tea ships the Eleanor and the Beaver also arrived in Boston Harbor while the Dartmouth was docked there. December 16, 1773 was the last day for the Dartmouth to pay her duties. After hearing of Governor Hutchinson’s plan to refuse to let the ships leave, even after the deadline, almost 7,000 people gathered at the Old South Meeting House. In this meeting, they were waitng for news from the governor’s office. It had been asked that the Dartmouth be given permission to leave. While waiting for news, the question was posed to the crowd: “In case the governor shall refuse his permission, will you abide by your former resolutions with respect to not suffering the tea to be landed?” Young Josiah Quincy, a young lawyer, responded with:

“It is not, the spirit that reposes within these walls that must stand us in stead. The exertions of this day will call forth events which will make a very different spirit necessary for our salvation. Let us consider the issue. Let us look to the end. Let us weigh and consider, before we advance to those measures which must bring on the most trying and terrible struggle this country ever saw.”

Around sunset, Quincy finished his oration and news from the governor’s office came. The Dartmouth would NOT be allowed to leave Boston harbor without unloading her cargo. Adams, in front of the crowd announced that “This meeting can do nothing further to save the country.”

It’s a popular belief that this was secret signal by Adams and the Sons of Liberty to immediately jump into a violent counter action. While this sounds like a much more intriguing story, it’s not so. This claim didn’t appear until almost a century later from a biography of Adams by his great-grandson, who had misinterpreted the evidence around this. The truth of the matter is the meeting kept going after Adams announced there was nothing more that could be done. People didn’t begin to leave until 10-15 minutes later after he said it, and he even tried to keep people at the meeting; stating to the deserters that the meeting was not yet over.

Later that evening, a group ranging in size of anywhere from 30 to 130 men, with most dressed in Mohawk costumes prepared to board the three vessels: Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver. Why Mohawk costumes? First, costumes were needed due to the fact that protesting wasn’t necessary illegal, but the violent protest that the men had planned was definitely illegal, so the costumes served to protect their identity. Secondly, the Mohawk costume was symbolic. It showed not that the men wanted to blame the Native Americans for their actions, but that the Sons of Liberty identified with their status as Americans more than their official status as subjects of Great Britain.

As many as 60 men, not all in costume, boarded the three ships moored at Griffin’s Wharf and over the course of 3 hours they emptied three hundred and forty-two chests of tea in the water of the harbor. The events occurred during the early hours of a bright, cold, moonlight evening, around the harbor there were many witnesses and spectators to the events. The men who dumped the tea into the harbor behaved not as an unruly mob, but as sober, well-behaved citizens.

When the men had finished, they all departed and went to their homes and the streets of the town became quiet. John Adams writing to James Warren said “All things were conducted with great order, decency, and perfect submission to government”

The next morning, Samuel Adams drew up a statement of the events that occurred with the tea and sent it to the Sons of Liberty chapters in New York and Philadelphia. The messenger was Paul Revere. The events of what later became known as the Boston Tea Party would be a major catalyst for violent action and the outbreak of the war.

Like This Episode?

What are your thoughts? Discuss below...

Free Updates by Email

Get show updates and notes directly in your email inbox!