An Action They Never Committed

On June 15, 1774, Boston citizens held a meeting in Faneuil Hall to debate how the townsmen should respond to the blockade that the British had just imposed on the port of Boston.  At issue was whether the citizens should pay for the tea that some radicals had dumped in the harbor back in December. There was no resolution, but the meeting amplified the polarization. Some local merchants favored paying for the tea, but those who made such a formal proposal drew weak support.

It was not a trivial sum.  The fab for the 340 chests of tea belonging to the British East India Company was £9,659, which, a few years ago, translated to $1.7 million in U.S. dollars. In today’s Biden-inflated dollars, who knows?  Perhaps twice that amount.

In any case, many regular citizens of Boston opposed the idea of paying for the spoiled brew, especially since Parliament didn’t ask very nicely. Shutting down the whole port and imposing harsh penalties on anyone caught disobeying the orders rubbed the colonists the wrong way. The Faneuil Hall debate reached no conclusion other than, as reported, “Altercations.”

Those altercations continued in the local press. Joseph Warren, the physician who was a principal figure in the Patriot movement in Boston—and who was later killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill—led the opposition to pay for the tea.  One of his opponents, Harrison Gray accused Warren of terrifying the crowd so that they turned away from what Gray considered the “prudent” approach.  A patriot who styled himself “Cincinnatus” described the faction that favored paying the teamail as a “little host of unthinking merchants, unprincipled traders, eager dependents, and riotous spoilers.”

Cincinnatus asked why Bostonians who had not participated in the Tea Party should have to pay damages for “an action they never committed?”  The question echoes today when the Biden administration “forgives” student loans, effectively passing along the cost of those loans to the many Americans who did not borrow the money or even attend college.  To borrow a word that is popular these days, the repayment—or the loan forgiveness—raised an “equity” issue.[1]

These days, Faneuil Hall is the granite block pedestrian mall where tourists can treat themselves to seafood lunches served by surly waiters and indulge in ice cream and sweets, and perhaps tea as well, taxed at whatever exorbitant rate the government of Massachusetts imposes on the successors of Joseph Warren and his fellow patriots.

Public debates may fail to produce a decisive winner in the eyes of those immediately involved, but the apparent failure can disguise the actual outcome.  By rejecting a hard and fast proposal to appease those who demand a particular result, the participants may be saying, in effect, “we are in no hurry,” and that leaves the door open to those who reject appeasement.

[1] I have followed Mary Beth Norton’s account in 1774: The Long Year of Revolution. Alfred A. Knopf, 2020.  Pp. 112-114.

Art by Beck & Stone


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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One thought on “An Action They Never Committed”

  1. “These days, Faneuil Hall is the granite block pedestrian mall where tourists can treat themselves to seafood lunches served by surly waiters and indulge in ice cream and sweets, and perhaps tea as well.”

    No, it is not! Facts matter!


    Dr. Wood is referring to the Quincy Market, the complex of three long rectangular buildings in the center, although the “tourist” definition of “Quincy Market” consists only of the Center Market building (the one with the dome) and the granite-paved areas on both sides of it. (Yes, the tourist brochures call it the “Faneuil Hall Marketplace” — they also neglect to mention that the Bunker Hill Monument is actually on Breed’s Hill…)

    Faneuil Hall is the smaller brick building with the gold cupola located to the left of the Center Market. Boston City Hall is beyond, and if slaves were sold in Boston, they likely were sold in Haymarket Square, which is above the marketplace buildings — and to this day has an open-air market of vendors selling fruits & vegetables from pushcarts on Fridays and Saturdays.

    In 1773, Faneuil Hall was on the waterfront (i.e. at the high tide line) and all the rest of this was a fetid tidal mudflat that bred hordes of mosquitoes that spread Malaria. They didn’t know this back then, but the odor of the mudflats at low tide, combined with the need for more buildable land served as an ongoing incentive to remove the glacial till from Boston’s three hills and use it to fill in much of the harbor.

    A half century later (1824-1826), Mayor Josiah Quincy sought to deal with his most odoriferous mudflats by filling it in and building the first of what would become three marketplace buildings — then serving wholesale distributors of meat and produce to the numerous independent small stores of the era. But in 1773, it was the city dump, where offal from butchered animals rotted in the hot sun.

    As I understand it, while the meeting was originally scheduled for Faneuil Hall, the building was too small to accommodate the crowd so the meeting was moved to the Old South Church, aka the Old South Meeting House. The three ships carrying tea were tied up to Griffin’s Wharf and while we aren’t exactly sure where Griffin’s Wharf was, it wasn’t here.

    And as to the surly waitresses, the Durgin-Park Restaurant, which had been there since 1827 (arguably 1742) is no more — a victim of the Interstate Highway System. The restaurant served the men working in the warehouses and along the waterfront — in an era before forklifts and containerized cargoes. Big men engaged in manual labor, men looking for large servings of simple food at affordable prices, and men who probably would have thought that Emily Post was a horse racing at Suffolk Downs.

    The New England Produce Market was built in the adjacent city of Chelsea in 1968 (easier truck access), meat started being shipped directly to stores in cryovacked packages, and the Soviet factory ships decimated the local fisheries. The Quincy Market (not Faneuil Hall) was almost bulldozed in the early 1970s. But it wasn’t there in the 1770s…

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