Was the Boston Tea Party an act of terrorism?

Dec. 16, 1773, as protest against the British tea tax retained after the repeal of the Townshend Acts, angry colonists disguised as Native Americans boarded three tea ships and threw (a lot of expensive) tea into Boston harbor.

Was one of the most celebrated acts leading up to our declaration of independence an “act of terrorism” (under today’s standards, of course)?

I know nobody was killed during the BTP (not that I know of, anyway), but surely we can all agree that nobody need be killed for an act to be considered “terrorism.”

My dictionary says terrorism = The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons. (emphasis added)

Surely their goal was to coerce the British Government into repealing the overbearing tea tax.

According to the dictionary, it seems pretty clear that the BTP was an act of terrorism against the Queen (using today’s definition/application of the word “terrorism” of course).

Are we, as Americans, somewhat hypocritical (or maybe it is just ironic, I’m not sure) when we speak proudly of the Boston Tea Party? I know we don’t have a celebratory “Boston Tea Party Day” - but when I learned about it in school, it was considered a bold, brave act - standing up for what you believe in, standing up against an opressive government, etc. I mean, I didn’t learn that it was a low point in American history - when our colonists resorted to terrorism against the British. We still refer to it as a “Party” (and always did as far as I know). Did the British ever call it the “tea terrorism of 16/12”? (they do their dates backwards hehe)

I have no answer to this… I was just thinking about it and was wondering what other people thought. Just to be clear, I’m not trying to imply that we should sympathize with the terrorists who committed the horrible acts on 9/11.

That dictionary definition would cause one to believe that “revolutionaries” do not exist. I disagree.

I am quite sure that the BTP was not an act of terrorism against the queen. The king, perhaps.

Ack! Further proof of one of my favourite definitions – “Dictionary: Opinion presented as fact in alphabetical order.” (John Ralston Saul).

My own definition of terrorism involves a sneak attack that results in casualties, generally, but not always, against civilian targets. There may have been some acts committed during the War for Independence that qualified, but the Boston Tea Party? Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t the tea the only casualty at that event? Sounds like plain old civil disobedience to me.

Not necessarily. A government has the right to punish people who break its laws. If a bunch of revolutionaries signed a declaration of independence and said “we are now our own government, so leave us alone” … as long as the to-be-ousted government makes the first violent move, there is no terrorism on the part of the revolutionaries (or so I would say).

Matt_mcl: doh, it was the king, not queen. mea culpa

Hamish: terrorism doesn’t need human casualties. If a bunch of malcontents went around blowing up bridges while nobody was on them in the name of their cause, surely that would be terrorism. Right? Civil disobedience is incompatible with the descruction of property.

It was the earliest recorded instance of environmental terrorism in US history. :slight_smile:

They would have been terrorists if the Americans had lost the war.

Winners earn the right to write the history books to their liking.

I’m sure a more accurate statement is “winners earn the right to write their history books to their liking.” I’m curious as to what they teach the elementary school children over in London about the BTP?

So, is there no such thing as “objective terrorism”? Is terrorism a completely subjective thing? Is it (morally) true that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter? Is a person who hates America for whatever reason(s) justified in his/her belief that the people who did ‘that stuff’ on 9/11 are not terrorists?

If the answer is “well, they killed people so that automatically makes it terrorism” … then what about John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Many abolitionists thought he was a hero, even though several (five I think) “innocent” slave-holders were killed. Was that terrorism? I would surely say it was.

As I see it, was the principal aim of the Boston Tea Party to create fear in the minds of Parliament and the British East India Company?
It’s hard to say. Communications were much slower in those days and it took a while for London to find out about the Boston Tea Party.

However, Parliament was seriously pissed off by the Boston Tea Party, but the response to it was economic: closure of Boston Harbor primarily.

You definitely could say that the Americans, in today’s parlance, made good use of “asymmetrical” attacks against the British.

Ahh, grasshopper, but what is “property”?
Joe Developer plans to develop a stretch of wetlands into a golf course, stomping out a population of Cute Little Critters (cuteus critterius) in the process. An environmental group protests by forming a human chain around the wetlands. The environmental group have destroyed no property, but they have denied Joe Developer of all the economic benefits of his ownership of his property. The environmental group has done more damage to Joe Developer than if they had simply snuck onto the property and blown up a bulldozer.

Terrorists or not?


Dunno if the BTP qualifies, since the object of that exercise was not to create terror. (My own common-sense definition of terrorism.)

On the other hand, I think tarring and feathering revenue agents, another expression of colonial unrest, definitely did constitute terrorism.

I have a hard time with calling the Boston Tea Party terrorism. I guess terrorism is much like pornography - I know it when I see it.
First of all, the problem was not a high tea tax, but rather that Parliament had passed a law giving the ailing East India Company a monopoly on tea sales in the colonies. The Company was able to therefore dump stocks of tea for very cheap prices (far lower than other merchants or smugglers). From Parliament’s point of view everyone wins (East India Company stays afloat, colonists get cheap tea, Parliament’s authority is upheld, smugglers go out of business (or smuggle other things)). Unfortunately, the colonists disliked being dictated to, and the other merchants/smugglers (poh-tay-toe/poh-tah-toe) were fairly influential.

There were certainly commercial/economic motives in the mix as well as the political/ideological. Yes, the principle that Parliament had no right to impose its will on the colonies without the colonies’ consent was there, but in particular, its undercutting of local shippers/merchants/smugglers by dumping tea on the market and granting the East India Company a monopoly were the matters being dealt with. (dang, I can’t get around the violence angle)

Was the purpose of the party to protest Parliament’s actions or to make it unprofitable for the East India Company (and any who would do tea business with them) to operate in the colonies?

Does it make a difference if the goal of the action is not to create generic terror but rather specific terror? The actions were not random, but directed at those acting as agents of Parliament, whether in the form of East India Company merchants (boycotts and the tea party), or officials processing stamps under the stamp act (boycotts, tarring and feathering, riding the rail). As often as not the coercion was directed at agents rather than Parliament (though certainly directed

I seem to be getting nowhere with this - I can say that the partyers had good reasons for doing what they did, but it comes back to violence against people and property to coerce government and other sections of society to obey the will of the partyers.

The word terrorism seems to become meaningless here though. Aren’t all of the actions of the British Army in Boston or the rest of the colonies terrorism then, using intimidation and force where necessary to impose Parliaments will on society? Certainly closing the Port of Boston constitutes terrorism in the same sense as the tea party does, (we, the organization known as the British government, will use force to prevent economic activity, we will destroy your ship (property) if required). Or is this gross extortion (holding up the city until the miscreants are turned over and the tea paid for) rather than terrorism.

I guess that I feel that the definition in the OP sucks. Probably most or all terrorist acts fall within the definition, but not all actions that fall within the definition constitute terrorism

I’m just babbling now so I will go back to work.

Here’s a copy of the Tea Act, btw, so we know what we’re talking about.


To me, terrorism, y’know, causes terror. Destroying crates of tea isn’t terrifying, ergo it wasn’t terrorism.

Here’s the modern-day equivalent of the Boston Tea Party. A couple of years ago, a French farmer knocked over a McDonalds with a bulldozer. (I forget whether he was protesting genetically altered foods or the cuisine…) Is he a terrorist?

This has some intriguing potential, thread-wise. Would it fall under the category of “hijack” to expand the question a bit?

To my mind it is clear that the BTP is an act of civil disobedience, as noted, but heading in the direction of out and out rebellion. What is especially interesting about it as that it seems to represent a rebellion of the propertied class in America, which may well be unique, the propertied tending to be conservative in thier stance.

Were the Founding Fathers terrorists? Well, in a notedly genteel fashion, and to a very limited degree, yes. From my view of history, the common man in America was not particularly interested in the conflict, as he had little enough to be taxed and wasn’t going to be “represented” in any case.

I would recommend “The March of Folly” by B. Tuchman on this. If the British had at any time shown any sense of compromise, she notes, the whole thing very well might never have happened, it was the ham-handed determination of the Crown to assert unquestioned obedience upon the Colonists that was the driving force. Moreover, there was little enough support for a political disunion in America. The “radicals” such as Tom Paine were unable to sway such as Franklin and Hamilton until the Crown made revolution the only feasible course.

The “Sons of Liberty” did in fact intimidate “Tories” into compliance with thier goals, but mostly by threat of economic boycott. Crude, “homespun” clothes became popular as a refusal to purchase British goods, all manner of outlandish concoctions were substituted for tea. But the assertion that the Rebels represented the majority of the Colonists should be met with skepticism.

I realise this all comes dangerously close to a “hi-jack”, so, though I have more thoughts on this subject, I’ll just let this go for now. If it develops, fine, if not, 'nuff sed.

They don’t. Just FYI, but I was never taught any American history at all in all the ten or so years before I finally gave up the subject. And yes, I know it was part of British history too but (hard as you may find it to believe) it doesn’t even register on the radar of importance over here.

We have more than enough history of our own to teach our children, thanks all the same.


I hesitate to disagree with my esteemed compatriot, but when I was at school, we covered the American Revolution in, well, enough detail that I can still remember it. (The Boston Tea Party was, as I recall, referred to as “the Boston Tea Party”). It was part of middle school history (um, about 5th - 6th grade? I’m not sure of ex-colonial terminology here - I was about ten when we got onto it), and those who went on to higher things (O Levels and the like) would at least have had the option to study it in more detail.

Perhaps kabbes and I just went to different schools. (Actually, it’s a racing certainty that kabbes and I went to different schools.) Perhaps it’s just that I’m older, and we had better schools in my day. Perhaps it’s that I’m very much older, and the War of Independence was Current Affairs when I was a boy…

Absolutely not. They have not destroyed the property, they have merely temporarily blocked access to it. Surely the owner of said property can call the cops and have the protesters removed for trespassing. Joe Developer has not been harmed, he has only been inconvenienced. They can’t stay there forever. Even Julia “Butterfly” Hill had to come down from the tree ventually.

ventually = eventually, of course :slight_smile:

FWIW I asked one of my friends, who has a BA in History, whether the BTP was an act of terrorism or not… and he immediately answered, “yes, of course it was.”

Would it be terrorism if a bunch of Muslims burnt down a Church while nobody was inside (i.e. no casualties) to protest something about christianity? I’m sure it would.

I realize tossing bags of tea into the harbor doesn’t involve explosions, fire, crashing things, gunshots, etc - but the end result (destroyed property) is the same.

Proving that a degree in history does not give one a lock on understanding either history or language.

I’d go with “No” on terrorism because, as has been pointed out, there was no terror. (I seem to recall that at least one of the ship captains was fully complicit in the act, no life was threatened, and no threats were issued against the Crown or Parliament.)

(Tarring and feathering would certainly terrify me, but watching (or reading about) the destruction of property I proposed to sell for profit would simply anger me.)