FEW HISTORICAL events have been obscured more by the mists of memory than the Boston Tea Party. The bare facts are that on the night of Dec. 16, 1773, hundreds of colonists sneaked aboard three ships in Boston Harbor and chucked 340 crates of British tea into the harbor.

Only many years later, with the American Revolution safely won, would the event be called a "party." Today, the event comes up most often as the inspiration for a conservative political movement. For many years before that, re-enactors had reduced it to a colonial costume show — a pageant of disguises, tricorn hats, and patriotic pluck. All too often, the event has come across as a colorful prank. In fact, the tea had been sitting in the harbor for weeks, and destroying it was a considered political risk.


The reopening on Tuesday of the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum on Fort Point Channel, almost 11 years after a fire destroyed the old exhibit, will return the site to tourist itineraries. It will also be an opportunity to add nuance to today's caricatures of the tea party.

The colonists weren't just bemoaning British tax policies; they were putting themselves in jeopardy. The tea was worth $1.7 million, at today's prices, and when news of its destruction reached England, Parliament's response was to close off the port of Boston and put the city under military occupation. Such harsh punishment helped turn public opinion in the rest of the colonies against Britain.

Of course, many factors contributed to the Revolution. But in the path to independence, the decision by Boston's patriots to destroy the tea deserves recognition — not as a symbolic act, but as the turning point that it was.