The Tea Party

If you find the contemporary Tea Party to be obnoxious, there’s a reason to be found in history. The Sons of Liberty, the perpetrators of the original Boston Tea Party, although enshrined in patriotic memory, were themselves obnoxious.

They were not, I was sad to learn, the clean and well-mannered men who sang “The Liberty Tree” in Walt Disney’s Johnny Tremain. I was probably ten years old the first time I saw that movie, and it made a lasting impression. A chorus of manly men and saintly women, placing lanterns in a tree, uniting in song to cast off tyranny.

Alas, the light in the Liberty Tree was more often provided by straw men burnt in effigy and the soundtrack was primarily the jeering of the crowd and the screams of real men stripped, coated in hot tar and then perhaps, as in the image above, choked with hot tea poured down their throats.

Philip_Dawe The_Bostonians_Paying_the_Excise-man,_or_Tarring_and_Feathering_(1774)

Why tea? The Tea Act, passed by Parliament on May 10, 1773, imposed no new taxes but rather enabled the British East India Company to sell tea directly to the American colonists. Prior to this, colonial merchants prospered by buying and selling tea bought from the Dutch and smuggled into the colonies, tax-free. With the Tea Act, the British tea would cost less than the smuggled tea.

The new choice was dreadful: People could pay more for tea obtained by smuggling, or pay less and acknowledge the British right to tax colonists. The smugglers knew that American merchants and tea-drinkers would go for lower prices every time. And they couldn’t let the people or the free market decide. Their solution: Before the tea could be put up for sale, dump it into Boston Harbor.

And who would do that? The Sons of Liberty. They were funded by smugglers; John Hancock in particular made a fortune by evading government regulation and taxation, and he wished to continue to do so. He’d already been dragged into court and fined by the British and had lost a ship. By inciting rebellion, he could eliminate British laws, and thus his past and future liability. So he invested heavily in a “grass roots” rebellion, from the top down.

Boston, like other port cities in the colonies, was an excellent recruiting ground; sailors between voyages haunted the waterfront taverns, and were happy to do a bit of dirty work in exchange for money up front and the license to steal. Hence the more elevated members of the Sons of Liberty were able to keep their hands clean.

To intimidate those who stood in their way – such as those who collected taxes, enforced laws, preferred government to anarchy, those who wrote or spoke well of the British, or even those whose hatred for the British was deemed to be insufficient – the Sons of Liberty used mob violence, home invasions, beatings, arson, and death threats. They vandalized and looted houses, terrorized the occupants, carried off the silver, drank up the wine cellars and ripped up the gardens for good measure.

Founding Father and future President John Adams, in a letter to his wife Abigail, wrote, “The poor people themselves, who, by secret manoeuvres, are excited to insurrection, are seldom aware of the purposes for which they are set in motion or of consequences which may happen to themselves; and when once heated and in full career, they can neither manage themselves nor be managed by others.”

The Boston Tea Party came early, and was one of the more polite affronts to authority. The Sons of Liberty boarded three American ships in Boston harbor and destroyed £10,000 worth of private property – 342 chests of tea – owned by the East India Company. But they did not damage the ships or harm the crews.

The British Parliament, from a distance of 3,000 miles, felt that order was breaking down and sent more troops. The arrival of more British soldiers gave those inclined to rebellion someone to shoot at, leading to the battles at Lexington and Concord, and the Revolutionary War, which left 25,000 Americans dead and drove an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 Americans, colonists who remained loyal to the British, out of their homeland.

Lots of suffering to be sure, but the men behind the Sons of Liberty got what they wanted – the ability to make lots of money without tiresome government regulations. And thus the destruction of private property and a triumph of violence over the free market came to be enshrined in conservative memory.

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The picture above is “The Bostonians Paying the Excise-man, or Tarring and Feathering” (1774) by Philip Dawe.

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