Saturday, December 16, 2023

This Day in Colonial History (Patriots Vent Fury in Boston Tea Party)

Dec. 16, 1773—Agitation against imperial tax-collection efforts took an angrier turn as a mob disguised as Indians boarded three ships and dumped 342 heavy chests of tea into the harbor in what came to be called more than a half century later the ironically named Boston Tea Party.

For nearly a decade, London had sought to impose taxes on its colonies across the ocean, only to back down in the face of protests against the Stamp Act and Townshend Act. 

But it felt compelled to retain a tax on tea, partly as a reassertion of control, partly to prop up a company with a powerful lobby in Parliament--and with recent staggering losses that required unfettered access to the American colonies.

The reaction of colonists was accurately encapsulated in how it was known for years"The Destruction of the Tea"reflecting that the protest took place in several American ports.

But the name by which we know the incident now reflects how London had come to see Boston as a particular hotbed of unrest, much the same way that Charleston, SC, was seen in the North in the years before the Civil War. 

And the British also focused on the city because of the presence of a local patriot they had correctly identified as the leader of the burgeoning, cross-colony dissension: Samuel Adams.

One of Adams' most influential 20th-century biographers, John C. Miller, correctly subtitled his book "Pioneer in Propaganda." 

A ne'er-do-well who, ironically, had failed in a prior job as a tax collector, Adams was careless in dress but extremely careful in how he communicated. 

In the case of the Boston Tea Party, both supporters and enemies agreed in later years that he had been instrumental behind the scenes in bringing out the more than seven thousand crowded into the Old South Meeting House, Boston’s largest building, on December 16. But, demonstrating how much he covered his tracks, scant documentary evidence has come to light detailing it.

What we do know is that early in the evening, when Adams dramatically announced to the throng that nothing more could be done to save their country, dozens of colonists dressed as Indians (the better to hide their identities from the authorities) rushed into the building letting out war whoops. 

When the wealthy merchant and patriot John Hancock followed with the equally startling "Let every man do what is right in his own eyes,” the crowd ran toward the trio of ships laden with tea, and watched as the "Indians" went about their business.

Facing an act not only brazen defiant but so costly to the East India Company (ninety thousand pounds of tea worth £10,000, or millions of dollars today), British Prime Minister Lord North thought that Boston needed to be taught a lesson. 

The Boston Port Art, part of a series of what the colonists came to call "the Intolerable Act," singled out the city for punishment, closing it to all commerce and requiring residents to compensate for the destroyed tea. All that did was make matters worse.

Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times article today wondered how Americans should view this “most famous act of politically motivated property destruction” in our history, in light of events like Black Lives Matter and the January 6, 2021 insurrection.

Nowhere, however, did this piece mention a more direct, even brazen invocation of this legendary event: the Tea Party movement that began in 2009 as a conservative protest against the Obama administration’s mortgage relief plan before morphing into a right-wing coalition that has served as the shock troops for Trumpism.

If the Times piece had also considered the rise of the “Patriot” and “Middlemen” movements, it might also have analyzed why these “populist” groups had usurped the symbolism of the American Revolution—and the inappropriateness of this.

Superficially, the original Tea Party might be seen as a harbinger of the anti-tax grievances that came to the fore more than a decade ago, in the same way that the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 could be so interpreted.

But facts long forgotten or little taught have produced a far more complex picture of our formative revolutionary agitation.

First, while taxation has been a concern in American history across the centuries, it’s important to recall that the James Otis argument that quickly spread across the 13 colonies was not “Taxation is tyranny,” but “taxation without representation is tyranny.”

Or, as the Massachusetts lawyer put it less succinctly: “The very act of taxing, exercised over those who are not represented, appears to me to be depriving them of one of their most essential rights, as freemen; and if continued, seems to be in effect an entire disfranchisement of every civil right.”


*The British tax on tea was meant to prop up the East India Company’s monopoly—a state of affairs that interfered with a brisk colonial smuggling business.

*Collecting the tea tax amounted to a case of blatant special interest, with the six appointees consisting of two sons of Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson, two other relatives of his, and two friends, according to Stacy Schiff’s acclaimed biography of the mastermind behind the Tea Party, Samuel Adams, The Revolutionary.

*The Tea Party was not only careful not to commit violence against any businessmen, but even avoided destroying any non-tea merchandise.

For fascinating sidelights on this event, you might want to read Bruce Richardson’s blog post on the types of tea destroyed that night, as well as the National Constitution Center’s on the background.

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