One of the many great things about working on exhibitions at the National Constitution Center is the amazing artifacts we get to display. Since we are not primarily a collecting institution, we rely heavily on partnerships with other museums, libraries and archives to help tell our stories. This means that we are constantly bringing in new artifacts on loan to show our visitors – national treasures that otherwise would never be seen in one place.
For the last two years, one of the treasures on display at the Center has been the Robinson Tea Chest, a rare memento of the Boston Tea Party. It was 237 years ago this month that a crowd of some 7,000 American colonists gathered to watch men dressed as Mohawk Indians chop open 342 tea chests and dump them and their contents into Boston Harbor. This act of protest is one of the most famous in American history and helped spark a revolution against Britain.
The reason for the party, however, is often misremembered. Colonists were protesting the British tax on imported tea not because it was too high, but because it was too low. Britain was trying to create a monopoly for the East India Company, an English trading corporation. By lowering the duty for tea imported to the colonies by the East India Company, Britain hoped to undercut the prices of the smuggled, untaxed tea market in America.
But colonists cared less about buying their tea cheaper than they did about the principle of not accepting any tax from Parliament without representation. (The price cut also didn’t help those colonists involved in the illegal tea-smuggling business.) In response to the events of December 16, 1773, the British ministry closed the port of Boston, altered the colony’s charter and ordered British troops to occupy the town. With neither side willing to back down, the stage was set for the final acts leading to the American Revolution.
So back to the chest itself – the Robinson Tea Chest is one of only two known chests that survive from the Boston Tea Party. Passed down for generations as a prized, family heirloom, the chest was retrieved from the bay the morning after by 15-year-old John Robinson. Its history is documented in family records, and studies have shown that the chest was immersed in seawater and suggest that the lid was chopped open.
On loan from Historic Tours of America, Inc., in Boston, the Tea Chest will only be at the Constitution Center for a short while longer. It will be returning to Boston before the end of the month where it will become a centerpiece at the newly renovated Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum in 2011.
Photo Credit: Image Courtesy of Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, Historic Tours of America, Inc.