The Boston Tea Party: What happened?

Posted on January 17, 2019. Filed under: Economics, Politics, Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , |

Part 4 of our series on the Boston Tea Party examines the protest itself. We looked last time at the tradition of violence in Boston, which would lead us—and people at the time—to believe that the final protest against the tea waiting in Boston Harbor to be unloaded according to the terms of the Tea Act would be bloody. The people of Boston were exasperated by their battles with the British government over tea, and, as Thomas Jefferson said, “An exasperated people, who feel that they possess power, are not easily restrained within limits strictly regular.”

But the Tea Party itself was not violent. Here’s how it played out. Like our earlier posts, this one is deeply endebted to Benjamin Carp’s fantastic book Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (from which the Jefferson quote comes).

Patriot protesters had developed the habit of gathering at the Old South Meeting House in Boston, where they heard speeches by patriot leaders like Samuel Adams and John Hancock. They called themselves “the Body of the People”, and while they had no official power over the colonial legislature, they had become the real power in town. Their meetings were important for two reasons: first, they presented a powerful threat to the Loyalist governor, tax officials, and tea commissioners. Because the Body was not elected, the governor could not control it by dismissing its members. Second, the leaders of the Body realized that, if talk and diplomacy failed, the Body could continue to make public statements of diplomacy and non-violence while authorizing certain of its members to take bolder action on the side.

So the Body passed a resolution saying that “the use of Tea is improper and pernicious,” a relatively mild and impotent statement that they hoped official town meetings would honor and turn into law, thus putting pressure on Boston and the governor… while certain of its members cried out “informally” that they would haul the tea ships up from the Harbor to Boston Common and burn them right there [Carp 120]. Members of the Body cheered, but its prudent leaders did not record this sentiment in the official minutes.

Thus when the last political effort to get the tea sent back to England failed, the Body officially dropped the matter. The hundreds of men gathered in Old South heard the leaders officially abandon the attempt to turn back the tea. And then they began to melt away, slipping out the back exits into the night. Fifteen minutes later, the room was surprised by troops of Mohawks with axes.

Of course, these men had met amongst themselves beforehand to decide what course of action to take if the tea ships could not be turned away and sent out of the harbor. Since we cannot name many men with certainty as perpetrators of the Tea Party, it’s hard to get a lot of data on how they decided on throwing the tea into the harbor (since, as we saw, other protests were suggested, including burning the tea). But once the plan of boarding the ships and destroying the tea was hatched, things moved quickly. “They determined that it would take a few dozen men with knowledge of how to unload a ship, and so the men who signed on for the task included a mix of traders and craftsmen. Each man would disguise himself as an Indian and swear an oath of secrecy… Everyone agreed on the ground rules: no one would steal or vandalize any property except the tea itself, and not one would commit any violence or mayhem. If the destroyers worked quickly and efficiently, the job would only take two or three hours” [Carp 117].

As these men now gathered back at Old South, the Body tacitly approved what it knew was going to happen. One man remembered that the last thing he heard before heading for the wharf was  John Hancock shouting  “Let every man do what is right in his own eyes!”

Once at the ships, the men worked like professionals. The commissioners occupying each ship were identified and told to leave on peril of death. They did so. One Captain Bruce asked what the men were going to do. He was told the plan and ordered below decks with his men, and told they would not be harmed. They did so. [Carp 127] Then the “Mohawks” expertly hauled the tea out of the holds, working very quickly considering the huge weight of the tea chests. They knocked off the bindings, smashed the chests, and threw them overboard. Despite the allure of the tea, and the price it would bring in the morning, only two men attempted to steal any. They were instantly stripped of their clothes and beaten, and sent on their way.

The men made as little noise as possible. This was not the raucous rioting of Pope’s Day or the attacks on the tea commissioners’ homes. This was business, and it had to be done and done quickly before any soldiers discovered the men. It was imperative that the tea be destroyed, because if it was not it would be unloaded the next morning and it would be impossible to stop its distribution, and then Boston would be the town that let the Patriot cause down after the successful rejections and boycotts in New York and Philadelphia.

By 8:00 or 9:00 PM, the party was over. Everyone went home quietly and followed orders to turn out their pants cuffs and socks and shoes and sweep any tea leaves gathered there into the fireplace. In all, about 92,000 pounds of tea—over 46 tons—had been destroyed [Carp 139].

Reaction was swift. The Tea Party was a complete rejection of British rule. Anything less than a severe punishment would be condoning rebellion. That punishment came in the form of the Coercive Acts: the port of Boston was closed to commercial shipping, ruining its economy; Boston was to recompense the East India Company for the total value of the lost tea; the Massachusetts Government Act set in motion the destruction of the popularly elected General Court (all positions in the colonial government would now be appointed by the king); the Administration of Justice act moved trials of government officials to other colonies or to England; and the Quartering Act made housing British soldiers mandatory for all citizens.

Boston had been acting in concert with New York and Philadelphia, but it bore the brunt of the King’s wrath all on its own. It’s no surprise, then, that the Revolution was kindled in the hearth of Massachusetts. Next time, we’ll wrap the series up with reflections on the meaning and impact of the Tea Party today.

Next time: What does the Tea Party mean today?

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

The lonely Third Amendment and its defense against quartering of troops in private homes

Posted on June 4, 2015. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Quartering Act, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part four of our series on the Bill of Rights. Here we shine a rare spotlight on the Third Amendment, the lonely wallflower of the Bill. Here is its unanimously undisputed text:

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

When we read it, we are immediately taken back to the tumultuous lead-up to the Revolutionary War. After the Boston Tea Party, one of the Coercive Acts issued by Parliament stated that British soldiers were to be quartered wherever housing existed—including people’s private homes. This only really had an effect on the Boston area, because the Coercive Acts were accompanied by a surge of soldiers to enforce them. Suddenly there were many times more British soldiers in the Boston area, and there really were not enough barracks or official military housing for them. And so the Quartering Act of 1774 read thusly:

WHEREAS doubts have been entertained, whether troops can be quartered otherwise than in barracks [within] any town, township, city, district, or place, within his Majesty’s dominions in North America: And whereas it may frequently happen, from the situation of such barracks, that, if troops should be quartered therein, they would not be stationed where their presence may be necessary and required: be it therefore enacted [that] it shall and may be lawful for the persons who now are, or may be hereafter, authorized by law, in any of the provinces within his Majesty’s dominions in North America, [at the request] of the officer who, for the time being, has the command of his Majesty’s forces in North America, to cause any officers or soldiers in his Majesty’s service to be quartered and billeted in such manner as is now directed by law, where no barracks are provided by the colonies.

And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That if it shall happen at any time that any officers or soldiers in his Majesty’s service shall remain within any of the said colonies without quarters, for the space of 24 hours after such quarters shall have been demanded, it shall and may be lawful for the governor of the province to order and direct such and so many uninhabited houses, out-houses, barns, or other buildings, as he shall think necessary to be taken, (making a reasonable allowance for the same), and make fit for the reception of such officers and soldiers, and to put and quarter such officers and soldiers therein, for such time as he shall think proper.

So ominous. That Quartering Act was a long way of saying “Britain now considers the people of America to be an enemy population which will not only be placed under martial law, but will be forced to give up its own property to the soldiers commanding them.” Did they really station soldiers in “out-houses”? Luckily, or unluckily, depending on your viewpoint, “out-houses” here does not mean privy pits (outdoor bathrooms) but buildings in the yard of a house (stables, smokehouses, etc.).

During the Revolutionary War, General Washington won the hearts of many of his compatriots by refusing to let his men take anything from local people when they passed through an area—no food, firewood, clothes, or any other much-needed supplies. And he never forced people to house his soldiers anywhere on their property. Thus when the American people came to enumerate the rights they felt were most important to their life and liberty, they wanted Washington’s voluntary example to become mandatory law. And so the Third Amendment was written.

It’s interesting that it does not really completely preclude quartering. It just makes quartering a legal matter. “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law”—that is, the government/Army is free to ask any property owner if soldiers can stay in their houses during peacetime, but during wartime there might be a law passed allowing quartering. This would be a temporary law, one feels, but it could happen. Quartering is not ruled out, it is taken out of the realm of official whim and placed within the realm of democratic law.

There has never been a major Supreme Court case predicated on the Third Amendment. That’s because the amendment immediately takes us back to the Revolutionary era, and that’s because, aside from the War of 1812, we haven’t had a war fought in our country since the Revolution. (The Pearl Harbor attack did not involve foreign soldiers landing on our soil.) During the War of 1812, our army was too small and too much on the run to trouble anyone with quartering. And so the problem that was so fresh and real in 1789 when the Third Amendment was written has become a museum piece (so far).

There have been a handful of court cases that referenced this amendment. As recently as February 2015, the District Court in Nevada rejected an argument that police officers cannot enter people’s homes without their permission because that would be a kind of quartering by saying that the police are not soldiers. (The case was sparked by police entering a home to help a victim of domestic abuse when the owner of the home [and the accused abuser] was not there.)

One colorful attempt to invoke the Third Amendment was in United States v. Valenzuela in 1951, when the defendant stated that rent control law was “the incubator and hatchery of swarms of bureaucrats to be quartered as storm troopers upon the people in violation of Amendment III of the United States Constitution.” This plea was not heard by the Court.

Let’s all hope that the Third Amendment continues to be a moot point as we move forward in our history.

Next time: the all-too-relevant Fourth Amendment

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

Liked it here?
Why not try sites on the blogroll...