7 December 1773: Plymouth Patriots Lend Support Prior to the Boston Tea Party

W.D. Cooper. “Boston Tea Party.”, The History of North America. London: E. Newberry, 1789.Engraving. Plate opposite p. 58. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons.

The Boston Tea Party occured on the evening of December 16, 1773. But the actions of the Boston patriots that evening were not a guarantee in the lead up to that event.

The American ship Dartmouth arrived in Boston Harbor in late November 1773 and legally had twenty days to pay the custom and unload the cargo (until December 16th) of 114 chests of tea. The next day, on 29 November 1773, Samuel Adams led a meeting which thousands of Bostonians attended, and it was voted urge Capt. James Hall and Nantucket owner Francis Rotch to send Dartmouth back without paying the import duty, a continuation of protest of the 1773 Tea Act . An armed security detail was assigned to prevent the tea from being unloaded at Griffin’s Wharf in the meanwhile as the deal was under negotiation. However, Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson, whose sons were consignees for the tea shipment, took a hardline stance and refused to allow Dartmouth to leave without paying the duty. The Boston Committee of Correspondence quickly sent word of what was happening in Boston to other towns in Massachusetts, hoping to rally support.

Samuel Adams saw the metaphorical significance of support for his cause coming from the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts in particular, considering its location as the foundation of the British colony of Plymouth. Earlier Adams wrote to James Warren of Plymouth: “I wish mother Plymouth would see her way clear by appointing a committee of communication and correspondence.” Adams had argued to Warren in 1771, “Too many are afraid to appear for the public liberty…They preach the people into paltry ideas of moderation. But in perilous times like these, I cannot conceive of prudence without fortitude; and the man who is not resolved to encounter and overcome difficulties when the liberty of his country is threatened, no more deserves the character of patriot than another does that of soldier who flies from his standard.”

A town meeting was held in Plymouth on December 7th – members of Plymouth’s Committee of Correspondence hinted that perhaps intervention of Tory Plymouth selectmen had prevented a speedier meeting from being authorized to respond to Adams’ letter. At the meeting, Plymouth citizens voted to appoint Deacon John Torrey (1717-1776), James Warren Esq. (1726-1808), and William Watson (1730-1815) as a committee to draft a response to Boston’s dilemma of how best to respond to the Dartmouth tea problem. They sent copies of their resolutions to Boston’s Committee of Correspondence and to Boston newspapers.

TUESDAY, December 14. BOSTON.

A few days ago the Committee of Correspondence for this town received the following letter from their worthy friends the Committee of Correspondence for the ancient town of PLYMOUTH, viz.

GENTLEMEN, We have the pleasure herewith to inclose you the proceedings of the town of Plymouth at their meetings yesterday. A meeting of a great number of resolute, determined, worthy assertors of the liberties of their country, men who will never voluntarily give up their birthrights for any consideration whatever (unless it is demanded by a mandate from heaven, and that too, well authenticated) men ready to all times to exert themselves in oppugnation to any authority, that shall dare attempt to deprive them of what they esteem more valuable than their lives or fortunes – their liberty – men who think it will give them great consolation to reflect on their having down all in their power to ward off the evils which now threaten us, though we should after all, by superior force, be involved in them:- Men who have a firm dependence on the all-wise and almighty disposer of all events, that he will in proper time deliver us from the evils we now labor under, as well as preserve from those which now threaten us, and will restore our liberties and privileges inviolate, and will give us such men to rule over us, as fear God and hate covetousness.

We congratulate you Gentlemen on the spirit, resolution, and good order which appeared in the several late public and respectable meetings held in your town for the purpose of checking that torrent of tyranny which has for several years threatened us and our posterity with ruin and destruction; and esteem it a happy circumstance that no menaces of any usurped authority were able to deter them from prosecuting their righteous designs, we heartily rejoice with you on account of the great zeal in the cause of liberty, which has possessed the minds of all good men, through this wide extended continent, and we for ourselves do assure you that we are ready at all times, to countenance, assist, and support you in all laudable exertions for the public good, and that we will upon the shortest notice hasten to protect our worthy friends of Boston, from the insults of any power whatever. We have only to lament that we have not been able to transmit to you the sentiments of this town earlier than this transaction of theirs admits of, and to assure you that the same sentiments and spirit would have appeared before now, if a meeting some time before applied for by us, and accordingly called by the selectmen, had not miscarried by an accident, or perhaps by design of those who are bribed to serve the purposes of the administration.

We are, Gentlemen, with great respect, Your obliged humble servants,

JOHN TORREY, per order, Plymouth December 8th, 1773.

P.S. We have just received yours of November and December, with that pleasure which virtue and sentiment have a tendency to inspire, and while we admire both, in the Committee of Boston, we shall endeavor to imitate their zeal and resolution in the cause of their country, and have the satisfaction to be able to assure you, that neither one or the other seem at present to be wanting here. I. [sic] T. [John Torrey]

The RESOLVES are as follows, viz.

At a meeting of the town of Plymouth, on Tuesday the 7th day of December, Anno Domini, 1773, the town

Voted, To choose a committee to take into consideration the circumstances of our public affairs, and in particular the East India Company’s importing tea into America, subject to a duty payable here, for raising a revenue against our consent, and to report what they think proper for the town to do respecting said matters, and accordingly made their choice of Deacon John Torrey, James Warren Esq., and William Watson Esq. the committee for that purpose; they to report to the town as soon as may be: They accordingly withdrew from the meeting, and after considering said affair, reported as follows.

“The inhabitants of this town ever attentive to the rights and interest of their country, having been repeatedly alarmed with the measures of late years adopted; and pursued by the British administration, under various forms, evidently repugnant to every principle of our constitution, and after flattering ourselves from time to time, with hopes that from a change of men, or some other happy circumstance, such new measures might be adopted, as would put an end to the unhappy contest between Britain and the colonies, and leave us in the full enjoyment of those rights, which no power on earth can reasonably dispute, much less pretend to deprive us of, have yet the misfortune to find the British Ministry so far from relaxing, that they are still pursuing with assiduity the same destructive measures; a recent instance of which we see in their attempt, by virtue of an act of the last session of Parliament, to enable the East Indian company in London to export their teas to America, in such quantities as the Lords of the Treasury shall think proper, subject to the same unconstitutional tax, or tribute, which we have upon other occasions, and under different appearances, with firmness and resolution opposed, as dangerous to that liberty which our fathers claimed and enjoyed, which we have a right to enjoy, and which our posterity may expect we transmit to them inviolate, do think it our duty on this, as on several other similar occasions, to express our firm resolution not only to oppose this step as dangerous to the liberty and commerce of this country, but also to aid and support our brethren in their opposition to this, and every other violation of our rights, and therefore RESOLVE,

  1. That the dangerous nature and tendency of importing teas here, by any person, or persons, especially by the India company, as proposed, subject to a tax upon us without our consent, and the steps incumbent on every one concerned for the true interest of America, to take on the occasion, as well as the sentiments and conduct they should observe, with regard to all aiders and abettors of that measure, are extremely well expressed, by the late judicious resolves of the worthy citizens of Philadelphia.
  2. That the persons to whom the said India company have consigned the tea they propose to send to Boston, have by their wickedness and obstinancy, in endeavouring to accept of, and execute their commission, contrary to the almost universal sense and desire of the whole province, and in still continuing to refuse to gratify the reasonable requests of their countrymen, forfeited that protection every good citizen is entitled to, and exposed themselves and their abettors to the indignation and resentment of all good men.
  3. That it is an affront to the common sense and understanding of mankind, and to the majesty of the people, who are, under God, the source from whence is derived all power and magistracy in every community, to assert, that any meeting of the people, to consult meatures for their common security and happiness, on very extraordinary and alarming occasions, is either unlawful or irregular, since no legislature could be supposed to establish rules of conduct in such cases, as no man could ever suppose would take place in a free and good government.
  4. That the late meeting of a very large and respectable body of the inhabitants of Boston, and the adjacent towns, and their conduct and determinations at said meeting, relative to the importation and reshiping any teas, that have or may be sent here subject to a duty on importation, was both necessary and laudable, and highly deserving the gratitude of all who are interested in, or wish the prosperity of America, and that whoever have attempted, (by any means whatever) to interrupt their proceedings, and prevent the full operation of their determinations, have in that instance shewn themselves inimical, to the freedom and interest of the country.
  5. That we are in duty and gratitude bound, not only to acknowledge our obligations, to the body who composed that meeting, for their noble, generous, and spirited conduct in the the common cause, but also to aid and support them in carrying their votes and resolves into execution, and that we will not only aid and support them in executing the said votes and resolves, but at the hazard of our own lives and fortunes will exert our whole force to defend them, against the violence and wickedness of our common enemies.
  6. That the Town Clerk immediately record these votes and resolutions, and deliver a fair copy of them to the committee of correspondence of this town, to be by the transmitted to the committee of correspondence for the town of Boston.

Then a vote was called to know if the town would accept said report, it passed in the affirmative unanimously.

A true copy of record. Attest. EPHRAIM SPOONER, Town Clerk.

The Massachusetts Spy, or Thomas’s Boston Journal (Boston, Mass.) Thursday, December 16, 1773, p. 2.
Boston newspapers at the time typically published once a week, so there was often a delay in reporting. So while Plymouth’s decision to support Boston was made on 7 December 1773, it was not published in The Massachusetts Spy until two weeks later, on the morning of December 16, 1773. Although the message sent to Boston by Plymouth’s Committee of Correspondence painted a picture of Patriotic sympathy, Plymouth Loyalists who attended the town meeting on December 7th were outraged by the Patriot’s actions and held another town meeting the following week, on December 13th, to protest. Patriot sympathies won the day, however, and Plymouth’s Loyalists were barred from publically airing their grievances at the meeting. Edward Winslow Jr., the author of the protest, determined to use the power of the press to print his concerns instead. He was able to gather forty signatures of Plymouth Tories to commit their signatures to his protest, and thought it would be a good move politically to have Boston papers print their disagreement with Plymouth’s Committee of Correspondence, and allow the British authorities in Boston and beyond to know where their sympathies truly laid.

But time was of the essence, and the timing could not have been worse for 26 year old Edward Winslow Jr. The message of support from Plymouth patriots hit Boston newspapers on the morning of 16 December and throughout the rest of that week. Winslow’s message was a week delayed. And tensions rose even higher in Boston overnight on the evening of 16 December 1773. What had been worded complaints against the British became real action that night. Warren’s message of support from Plymouth was read by hundreds of Boston residents the morning of what would become the Boston Tea Party. Winslow’s message of complaint, although mailed before the event, would be published a week after the Tea Party – and it had a convenient list of forty men who suddenly had very publically identified themselves as Loyalists.

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