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Do we have any record of the reaction of the average British person to the Boston Tea Party? Would the proverbial man on the street have been aware of the event? If so, what was their perception of it immediately following news of the event reaching Britain? I have found a lot of material about the state's reaction to the event, but not much about the average person.

T.E.D. says in a comment:

As it was more of an affront to Parliament rather than Britain, Parliament is probably the better place to look for relevant reactions anyway. Its likely your typical farmer/factory worker didn't even hear about it.

I arrived at this type of conjecture myself, but I'm interested in evidence, if there is any.

In response to further comments questioning the newsworthiness of the Boston Tea Party at the time, here is a piece from the "London Magazine" in 1774:

The able Doctor or America Swallowing the Bitter Draught, a political illustration

The Able Doctor or America swallowing the Bitter Draught, 1774. BM sat 5226

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/

Obtained from http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1452655&partId=1

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    As it was more of an affront to Parliament rather than Britain, Parliament is probably the better place to look for relevant reactions anyway. Its likely your typical farmer/factory worker didn't even hear about it. – T.E.D. Apr 23 '18 at 13:53
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    @T.E.D. That's exactly the type of theorizing that I'm looking for more concrete evidence for/against. – called2voyage Apr 23 '18 at 13:53
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    If your question is "why is this interesting", then here's why I'm looking into this. In today's world, we would hear about such an event in the news and form our own opinion about it, even if such an event wasn't really relevant to us. I do realize that the average person throughout history has not had this level of access to information, but I'm curious what the history of the word on the street of international politics is. I'm using this event as a baseline. I could have picked a different time or different piece of news, but I found this one interesting. – called2voyage Apr 23 '18 at 14:02
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    Well, I did a bit of searching, and while the London Times had not yet been founded, there were newspapers at the time (even ones not controlled by the Crown), so its likely there is some info on this. However, I'd be surprised to find this one little protest was considered big news by anyone on that side of the pond not in Parliament. We Americans like to make a bid deal of it today. – T.E.D. Apr 23 '18 at 14:06
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    @called2voyage "Yep, I wasn't really aiming for a headline news story" ... why not, isn't that how the average man on the street would have heard about it, if at all? – CGCampbell Apr 23 '18 at 17:32
10
+100

On the events of the 16th of December 1773 in Boston Harbor, the Boston Tea Party Historical Society article British View vs. American View, states that the incident was

Scarcely noted in the British press at first

when the news reached London on the 20th of January 1774. Thus, the ‘average British person’ would probably not even have known about it when it was first reported. A copy of an article from the December 20th 1773 issue of the Boston Gazette was copied by the London Chronicle dated January 22nd 1774. In part, it reads:

A number of brave & resolute men, determined to do all in their power to save their country from the ruin which their enemies had plotted, in less than four hours, emptied every chest of tea on board the three ships commanded by the captains Hall, Bruce, and Coffin, amounting to 342 chests, into the sea!! without the least damage done to the ships or any other property. The matters and owners are well pleas'd that their ships are thus clear'd; and the people are almost universally congratulating each other on this happy event.

Even if the 'average British person' did see or hear about this report, the significance of the Boston Tea Party would not have been immediately evident to most people and would not have appeared to be as serious as the 1770 Boston Massacre which involved loss of life, or perhaps even the Gaspee Affair of 1772 when a Royal Navy ship was looted and burned.

This, as already noted by the OP, was not the case with Parliament, where the majority of MPs’ reaction was to support stern measures against the Bostonians. Parliament, though, was concerned with protecting its own authority and was not elected by a representative cross-section of the British population, voters being males over 21 who met minimum property requirements. In the election of October – November 1774, even this limited electorate (unlike those they elected) had other priorities:

The problem of colonial policy played little part in the elections (it was an issue in only ten of the 314 constituencies)

Source: B. Knollenberg, Growth of the American Revolution

There was, however, another group who were aware of the Boston Tea Party – merchants. Their concern was, of course, self-interest; any disruption to trade would cost them dearly, but it is difficult to separate reactions to the Boston Tea Party from other events (such as the Intolerable Acts) in the wake of December 1773. Nonetheless, in British Supporters of the American Revolution, 1775 - 1783, Sheldon A. Cohen notes that,

After the Boston Tea Party in 1773, several London merchants held out the vain hope that some form of reconciliation could be reached with the North American colonists.

London merchants were not the only ones who were both aware and concerned. Cohen again:

Portsmouth was not oblivious to the crucial developments in the North American settlements. The town regularly received London newspapers and other publications featuring stories about American unrest. In addition, since it was a seaport, Portsmouth’s merchants were well aware of colonial boycotts of British goods and of the destruction of East India tea in Boston Harbor in 1773.

Among the cartoons and prints relating to the Boston Tea party is this British one Published by Sayer & Bennett (London, October 31, 1774) (Robert Sayer and John Bennett were Fleet St. publishers):

enter image description here

“A British view in 1774 of how authority was being challenged in Massachusetts. Before a “liberty tree” on which the Stamp Act placard is tacked upside down, a tarred-and-feathered Tory is being forced to drink taxed tea while in the harbour the Boston Tea Party goes on. A gibbet hangs from the liberty tree.” Source: Stanley Weintraub, Iron Tears

The above image also illustrates how the Boston Tea Party was commented on along with other issues happening around the time, rather than in isolation. The tarring refers to the aftermath of an altercation involving a British customs officer, John Malcolm, in January 1774.

This next British print makes no direct mention of the Tea Party but is clearly a result of it:

enter image description here

Print shows Bostonians held captive in a cage suspended from the "Liberty Tree." Three British sailors standing in a boat feed them fish from a basket labeled "To -- from the Committee of --" in return for a bundle of papers labeled "Promises"; around the tree and in the background are cannons and British troops. The paper in the hand of one jailed Bostonian says "They tried with the Lord in their Troubl & he saved them out of their Distress. CVIL 13." London : Printed for R. Sayer and J. Bennett, Map & Printsellers, No. 53 Fleet Street, as the Act directs, 1774 Novr. 19.

Notable individuals outside of Parliament also had something to say on the general situation in America:

In Taxation No Tyranny, published in 1774, Samuel Johnson, the compiler of the first modern English dictionary and an influential British writer, set the tone, asking readers how it was “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes.”

Finally, it should not be forgotten that not all Americans approved of what happened in Boston. Benjamin Franklin, who was in London at the time, and George Washington both condemned the destruction of property and wrote that all the destroyed tea should be paid for.


Note on the term 'Boston Tea Party'

The event wasn’t even labeled as the Boston Tea Party until 1826, and at this time the term “party” was used to refer to the men involved, not the event itself (they were “of the Tea Party,” not “at the Tea Party”).

Other sources:

The Electoral System and Parliamentary Reform (PowerPoint)

How Did the British Press Cover the American Revolution?

Lewis Namier, John Brooke, The House of Commons 1754-1790

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Question: What was the perception of the average British Person of the Boston Tea Party.

General Answer

The Boston Tea party was a reaction against Royal Monopoly supported by the Tea Act of 1773, not new taxes. The Tea Act of 1773 reduced the cost of tea below the price colonial tea smugglers could compete with. The British were trying to re-assert their long standing Tea Monopoly for the East India Company which was nearly bankrupt due to all the smuggling both in the British Colonies and domestically in Britain itself. By reforming their tax policy, making their disbursement more efficient, and undercutting the price of the dominant black market tea which controlled 90% of the colonial market, the British Parliament hoped to increase it's control over the colonies. Further the Tea Act shifted the use of the existing Tea Tax, which now was substantially reduced, to fund expenses in the Colonies which the British thought was both reasonable and would not draw down the protests which defined the earlier Stamp Act of 1765. The Tea act both halved the existing tax and transferred that revenue to pay for Royal appointed colonial governmental officials like the governors. These governors salaries were traditionally paid for by the colonial legislatures. By paying these appointed local officials directly from the crown, although still with colonial money, the Sons of Liberty believed the local legislatures were weakened as now their governorships were more loyal to London than their Colonies.

The response from the Son's of Liberty, funded by tea smugglers, was to threaten and physically intimidate colonial merchants not to accept the cheap tea. This was very effective and no colonial merchants would risk taking delivery of this legal very inexpensive tea. The tea could not even be offloaded from the ships which brought it to the colonies. This lead to the British tea being consolidated in ships in Boston Harbor for weeks unable to be offloaded. Being thus consolidated it was a target for the Son's of Liberty and resulted in the Boston Tea Party. If the East India Company's legal tea was permitted to reach the Colonies market, it would undercut the lucrative black market enterprise of the Son's of Liberty's primary benefactor, John Hancock. John Hancock made his fortune selling smuggled goods, especially tea, would become the first and most prominent signer of the Declaration of Independence just under 3 years removed from the Boston Tea Party. It would have also strengthened the crown's control over the Colonies at the expense of Colonial legislatures and Colonial merchants.

In Boston itself the reaction to the Tea Party was pretty reserved. The ships which were targeted by the Son's of Liberty were proximal to Royal Navy ships moored in the harbor and the harbor was patrolled by Royal Soldiers, yet neither had any reaction to the night time raid. Now you can say this is because it was in the middle of the night. However, the day after the Boston Tea Party the Son's of liberty discovered that much of the tea thrown into Boston Harbor was still floating on the surface of the water in it's water tight containers; this prompted the Son's of Liberty to return in broad daylight, with the crews of the Royal Navy ships watching... and sink the containers in broad daylight. Still no reaction from the British military which was all over the Boston Harbor and it's docks.

When news from Boston of the destruction of private property arrived back in Britain, it was not covered by the British Press, and thus the average Britain would have been unaware of the event. Britain was the larger market for smuggled Dutch tea, much larger than were the colonies so the average Britain's sympathies might have been mixed. However since the Tea Act only reduced the costs of tea in the Colonies and did not effect the price in Britain, such a Britain might have been unaware of the Tea Act altogether and its role in inspiring the Boston Tea Party.

However, the average Britain who was taxed at a higher rate than his colonial brothers was generally unsympathetic to the Colonial demonstrations over taxation from the Stamp Act which occurred almost 8 years before the Tea Act. The Stamp Act was passed to modestly contribute to the expense of the Seven Years War or French and Indian War. A war started in the Colonies by future American President George Washington. A war which protected the Colonies and severely impacted the British purse.

The more pertinent reaction was not from the average Britain but from the British Parliament. The reaction from Parliament would transform the Boston Tea Party into the historical event most Americans remember. Parliament in reaction would reconsider their long policy of appeasement to the Colonies mob eruptions, and respond with the Coercive Acts(Dec 1773). The Colonies would call them the "Intolerable Acts".

  • Closed Boston Harbor until the Boston Tea Party destroyed goods were paid for
  • Modified Massachusetts charter of 1691 to end local participation in government. Put Massachusetts under Military rule, and outlawed town meetings.
  • Administration of Justice Act, Allowed British Official charged with capital crimes in the Colonies to be tried for these crimes back in Britain and not answerable to Colonial Courts.
  • Quartering Act, Allowed the British Military confiscate occupied buildings in the colonies for their use.
  • The Quebec Act, removed all the territory and fur trade between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers from possible colonial jurisdiction and awarded it to the province of Quebec.

The reaction to these acts would magnify the Boston Tea Party into the spark for the Colonies to organize their own underground government (Continental Congress first conviened 1774), The Declaration of Independence(July 4th, 1776) and ultimately the Revolutionary War.

Detailed Answer

Important Dates.

1763                    Seven Years War(French and Indian War) ends
1765                    British Parliament Passes the Stamp Act Tax
1766                    British Parliament repeals the Stamp Act.
1767                    Parliament passes Indemnity Act, 
Mar 5th, 1770           Boston Massacre
1773                    British Parliament passes the Tea Act 
Dec 16th, 1773          Boston Tea Party
1774                    Parliament passes the Intolerable Acts, 
                           a series of acts designed to punish Boston
                           and the Colonies for the Boston Tea Party.
Sept 1774               The Continental Congress's first meeting, 
                           calls upon the British Parliament to
                           repeal the Intolerable Acts.

Important Facts.

  • The Stamp Act(1765 - 1766) was the first direct, internal tax that Parliament had ever levied on the colonists. It was repealed after British officials trying to enforce it were subject to physical intimidation and mob violence, making it's enforcement impossible.
  • The Indemnity Act was the first attempt by Parliament to save the British East India Company which was one of England's largest companies, but was on the verge of collapse due to much cheaper smuggled Dutch tea. Part of the purpose of the entire series of Townshend Acts was to save the company from imploding.
  • The biggest market for illicit tea was England—by the 1760s the East India Company was losing £400,000 per year to smugglers in Great Britain[
  • At the time of the Boston Tea Party American colonists consumed, on average, 2 to 3 cups of tea each day. This equaled approximately two million pounds of tea among 3 million colonists each year.
  • It was estimated that approximately 90% of the tea being drank by American colonists was smuggled.
  • The Tea Act(1773) eight years after the failed Stamp Act, was not a tax. Tea sold in the colonies prior to the Tea Act was required to travel to Britain first for export, where it was taxed. Then shipped to the colonies were it was taxed again. The Tea Act allowed the tea most of which came from China or India to be shipped directly to the US, thus cutting the effective tax in half and lowering overall the consumer cost significantly.
  • Shipping companies who purchased tea from the East Company for distribution to Colonial Merchants had tons of rotting tea in colonial warehouses which they could not sell due to colonial hostilities over taxes. The Tea act allowed the East India Company to dump this tea onto the market at rock bottom prices, undercutting all illegal competition.
  • The Tea Act so reduced the cost of British tea within the colonial marketplace that it made British tea cheaper than smuggled tea.
  • The Boston Tea Party(Dec 16th, 1773) was in reaction to The Tea Act(1773)
  • The Son's of Liberties Leader who organized the Boston Tea Party was Samuel Adams cousin of John Adams the second President of the United States.
  • Samuel Adams was strongly associated with the another founding father and tea smuggler, John Hancock. A joke at the time was the two were so close that when Samuel Adams wrote a letter, John Hancock licked the stamps.
  • John Hancock was a wealthy shipping magnate, who made the bulk of his money illegally by smuggling tea, and almost single handedly financed all of the early protests against Britain in Boston.

When news of the Boston Tea Party arrived back in London, the event was barely mentioned in the British Press. The people on the streets of Britain were were not initially overly concerned with the destruction of property which occurred in Boston Harbor. What magnified the event was the perception of Parliament. From Parliament's perspective they had originally mishandled the colonies and that is what resulted in this further dispute. Parliament had originally asked the Colonies to contribute modestly for the war Britain undertook on their behalf with the Stamp Act. Parliament had reacted to the Colonies negative and volatile response by repealing the Stamp Act in it's first year. This time Parliament decided to take a different tact. This time Parliament's reaction would come to be known in the Colonies as the Intolerable Acts. The Colonists reaction to these series of five acts designed to punish the colonies, lead directly to the meeting of the first Continental Congress in 1774, and ultimately the Revolutionary War.

News Reaches London of the Boston Tea Party
The news of the Boston Tea Party reached London, England on January 20, 1774, and as a result the British shut down Boston Harbor until all of the 340 chests of British East India Company tea were paid for. This was implemented under the 1774 Intolerable Acts and known as the Boston Port Act. In addition to the Boston Port Act, the Intolerable Acts also implemented the Massachusetts Government Act, the Administration of Justice Act, the Quartering Act, and the Quebec Act. American colonists responded with protests and coordinated resistance by convening the First Continental Congress in September and October of 1774 to petition Britain to repeal the Intolerable Acts.

Sources:

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    While informative and interesting, this answer doesn't seem to answer the question except in passing, and does so without adding much if anything to Lars' answer. (Digging into it I was hoping for... yet more caricatures and possibly newspaper clips?) – Denis de Bernardy Apr 29 '18 at 20:31
  • Thanks for taking the time to dig up this information and answer! – called2voyage Apr 30 '18 at 13:10

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