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"It Was Done by Fire and Water" - The Tea Burnings of Newburyport

In 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act in an attempt to refinance the shaky economic base of the British East India Company. Established in 1709, the East India Company derived over ninety-percent of its profits from the sale of tea. However, by 1772, due to severe mismanagement, the company was in desperate need of a bailout. The company directors looked to Parliament for relief. Parliament’s response was the Tea Act, through which the East India Company was given exclusive rights to ship tea to America without paying import duties and to sell it through their agents to American retailers. American merchants who had for years purchased tea from non-British sources (Dutch tea was a particular favorite of New Englanders) faced the prospect of financial ruin.

Massachusetts immediately opposed the act and began to organize resistance. On November 29, 1773, the tea ship Dartmouth arrived at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston. Three days later, the Beaver and the Eleanor arrived at the same wharf. Bostonians demanded that Governor Hutchinson order the three ships back to England. On December 16, 1773, the owner of the Dartmouth apparently agreed and went to Hutchinson to beg him to let the ships return to England. Hutchinson refused, and at approximately six o’clock that evening, some 150 men and boys disguised as Indians marched to the three ships, boarded them and dumped 340 chests of tea into Boston Harbor.

Meanwhile, as tempers boiled over in Boston, the citizens of Lexington assembled three days prior to the Boston Tea Party to discuss the unfolding events. The matter was referred to the town’s committee of correspondence, which quickly drafted an emotional and stinging condemnation of the Tea Act.

"[It] appears that the Enemies of the Rights & Liberties of Americans, greatly disappointed in the Success of the Revenue Act, are seeking to Avail themselves of New, & if possible, Yet more detestable Measures to distress, Enslave & destroy us. Not enough that a Tax was laid Upon Teas, which should be Imported by Us, for the Sole Purpose of Raising a revenue to support Taskmasters, Pensioners, &c., in Idleness and Luxury; But by a late Act of Parliament, to Appease the wrath of the East India Company, whose Trade to America had been greatly clogged by the operation of the Revenue Acts, Provision is made for said Company to export their teas to America free and discharged from all Duties and Customs in England, but liable to all the same Rules, Regulations, Penalties & Forfeitures in America, as are Provided by the Revenue Act . . . Not to say anything of the Gross Partiality herein discovered in favour of the East India Company, and to the Injury & oppression of Americans; . . . we are most especially alarmed, as by these Crafty Measures of the Revenue Act is to be Established, and the Rights and Liberties of Americans forever Sapped & destroyed. These appear to Us to be Sacrifices we must make, and these the costly Pledges that must be given Up into the hands of the Oppressor. The moment we receive this detested Article, the Tribute will be established upon Us . . . Once admit this subtle, wicked Ministerial Plan to take place, once permit this Tea . . . to be landed, received and vended . . . the Badge of our slavery is fixed, the Foundation of ruin is surely laid."

The committee also issued six resolves pledging to preserve and protect the constitutional rights that Parliament had put into jeopardy, to boycott any teas “sent out by the East India Company, or that shall be imported subject to a duty imposed by Act of Parliament,” to treat as enemies anyone found aiding in the landing, selling or using of tea from the East India Company, and to treat the merchants of the East India Company with contempt. Finally, the town expressed its gratitude to Boston for its undertaking in the name of liberty, and pledged "We are ready and resolved to concur with them in every rationale Measure that may be Necessary for the Preservation or Recovery of our Rights and Liberties as Englishmen and Christians; and we trust in God That, should the State of Our Affairs require it, We shall be ready to Sacrifice our Estates and everything dear in Life, Yea and Life itself, in support of the common Cause."

Upon completion, the Town of Lexington with a unanimous vote adopted the resolves. Immediately afterwards, an additional resolve was passed, warning the residents "That if any Head of a Family in this Town, or any Person, shall from this time forward; & until the Duty taken off, purchase any Tea, Use or consume any Tea in their Famelies [sic], such person shall be looked upon as an Enemy to this town & to this Country, and shall by this Town be treated with Neglect & Contempt."

That evening, the residents of Lexington gathered all tea supplies and burned them. According to the December 16, 1773 edition of the Massachusetts Spy “We are positively informed that the patriotic inhabitants of Lexington unanimously resolved against against the use of Bohea tea of all sorts, Dutch or English importation; and to manifest the sincerity of their resolution, they brought together every ounce contained in the town, and committed it to one common bonfire.”

Lexington was not the only Massachusetts town to protest via tea burning. Evidence suggests Newburyport also undertook a similar demonstration. However, this seaport’s method of protest was far more reserved and somewhat unusual in comparison to Lexington.

According to the December 4, 1773 edition of the Essex Packet and Merrimack Journal, notifications were posted up in all parts of the town” detailing a proposal to block the landing of tea in Newburyport with “a united and forceful resistance.” However, no attempt to unload tea in Newburyport was ever made.

On December 9th, the citizens of the town “selected a committee of prominent citizens” to craft the town’s position of support for the growing protests in Boston. According to town records, the committee ultimately pledged “[we] are Determined to give them all the Assistance in our power even at the Risque of our Lives & Fortunes.” The next week, a town meeting was held “to consider the serious condition of public affairs.” After some debate the citizens voted to assist the residents in Boston “with utmost Endeavors.” .

When word reached Newburyport of the destruction of tea in Boston, yet another town meeting was convened. Ultimately the town “voted unanimously to address the Boston committee in its strongest language yet.”

However, Newburyport did not move to destroy its own stock of tea until approximately January 17, 1774. According to a report printed in the January 26, 1774 edition of the Essex Journal “A large quantity of the forementioned pernicious stuff was consumed here last week; in order to imitate at the same time both Boston and Charlestown. It was done by Fire and Water; and so general was the spirit, that all ranks and degrees of people, high and low, rich and poor, Whig and Tory, agreed in the affair.”

If the above statement was the entirety of the account one would conclude the residents of Newburyport gathered most of the tea in town and collectively destroyed it in a massive bonfire. However, this was not the case. It appears Newburyport’s tea protests were actually private in nature. According to the same newspaper account the protest “was done not in in the manner of some others, on the wharves and the public streets, but by each one under own roof, and, as if by a general agreement about the same time.”

Why was Newburyport’s tea burning private while Lexington’s was out in the open? Honestly….we don’t know. However, we suspect Newburyport residents may have believed the act of publicly destroying tea may have been too offensive and radical for their liking.

Update 11/14/17: We were contacted this morning by Newburyport historian Jack Santos. After reading our blog post, he had a very interesting (and probably correct) take on the January 26, 1774 article. Jack suggests that the article was actually a satirical piece mocking Newburyport for its inaction during the tea crisis. The statements of everyone participating in the "protest", the event taking place "at the same time" and destruction of the tea "by fire and water" were actually references to the traditional "tea time" and the making and consumption of the drink.

Naturally this raises a question destined for research... did Newburyport even have its own tea protest??

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