The legacy of the Boston Tea Party

Posted on January 25, 2019. Filed under: Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , , |

Part the last of our series on the Boston Tea Party considers its legacy in U.S. history, memory, and mind. With the rise of the Tea Party political party after the 2008 presidential election, this question of the meaning of the original act of protest is particularly important.

We’ve seen in this series that the original Tea Party (which was not called by that name, incidentally, until decades after the fact) sprang from a complicated and not very appealing tradition of using physical violence to achieve political goals. The governor of Massachusetts himself, Thomas Hutchinson, was forced to flee for his life with his wife and children in 1765 when a mob destroyed his home—literally ripping it to pieces—in protest of the Stamp Act.  The men of Boston who supported the Body of the People carried out many attacks on tea commissioner’s homes, families, and persons in the months before the  night of the Tea Party, attacks which we cannot approve of today. Using violence to get people to do what you want, especially in the name of justice, is the polar opposite of democracy, the representative democracy the U.S. is founded on. None of us would want to see mobs of people burning down the homes and businesses of people whose policies they didn’t approve of.

But we also see that patriot leaders in Boston realized that mob violence was not a long-term solution to Americans’ problems with British rule, and that it would not work as a political tool. Men like Samuel Adams and John Hancock knew that their goal—democratic self-rule—had to be based on civil political debate, freedom of conscience and speech, and rule of law. A war would have to be fought, perhaps, to gain independence, but after that rule of law must win the day.

That’s why the men who rallied the common people to protest were not the ones who ended up drafting the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. John Adams, not Samuel Adams; Thomas Jefferson, not Paul Revere: the men who enshrined rule of law through representative democracy were ones untainted by association with violence (except for John Hancock, an exception which proves the rule). So we can think of the Tea Party as the last act of colonial mob violence before the inauguration of the era of American democracy.

Today the Tea Party has become a synonym for “no taxes”, but we have seen that the protest against the tea was not a protest against the principle of taxation. It was a protest against a) taxation without representation, and b) taxes levied simply to fund government, with no benefits accruing to the people being taxed. No one wants to pay taxes that go only to fund the office of tax collection. Taxes are meant to better society, to provide services to those who can’t afford them on their own, not to entrench the government’s power to tax. The men who organized the Tea Party, the men who carried out the destruction of the tea, the women who boycotted tea even when they considered it vital to their families’ health all did so to establish the ideal of taxation for the general welfare. Warping that democratic goal by saying that all of those people actually wanted no taxation, that they didn’t want their money going to anyone else no matter what, is a cynical and unacceptable lie.

Let’s remember the Tea Party as it was: a gauntlet thrown down to set in motion the necessary violence of a war for independence that would, if successful, create a society where violence had no part in politics, and taxation represented a bit of freedom and justice for all.

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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?

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The myths are coming! The myths are coming! Adam Ruins Everything gets it wrong about Revere

Posted on May 12, 2018. Filed under: Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Part 6 of our series on Adam Ruins Everything‘s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” episode wraps up the close-read of one pretty miserable half-hour of fake history.

The show takes on the myth of Paul Revere… except there isn’t really much harmful myth here to be tackled. The two things most Americans remember learning about Revere’s ride are that two lanterns in the Old North Church signaled the British army setting out by sea (see our post “What did ‘one if by land, two if by sea’ mean?”); and that Revere cried out “The British are coming! The British are coming!” as he rode.

ARE tells us that Revere himself never saw the lanterns, which is true. He was alerted to British troop movements by the network of Patriot spies active that night of April 18, 1775. From where Revere waited in Charlestown—where the British would come ashore if they took the sea route (which they did)—he could not see the signals.

The show tells us Revere didn’t say “The British are coming!”  but “The Regulars are coming!”, but of course gets the reason why wrong. It incompletely cites “Jennie Cohen, History, 16 April 2013,” and once again we had to do our own research to find the article, “Eleven things you may not know about Paul Revere,” which says this:

Paul Revere never shouted the legendary phrase later attributed to him (“The British are coming!”) as he passed from town to town. The operation was meant to be conducted as discreetly as possible since scores of British troops were hiding out in the Massachusetts countryside. Furthermore, colonial Americans at that time still considered themselves British; if anything, Revere may have told other rebels that the “Regulars”—a term used to designate British soldiers—were on the move.

Unfortunately, all wrong. First, Revere didn’t use the term “Regulars” instead of “British” because most Americans still considered themselves to be British, he did so because British soldiers were called Regulars (because they were in the regular army). Revere most likely shouted “The Regulars are coming out” to let people on the road from Boston to Concord know that the army was “coming out” of Boston to attack the Massachusetts Provincial Congress meeting illegally in Concord.

As for the statement that Revere did not actually shout anything, renowned historian of the Revolution in Boston and eastern Massachusetts J. L. Bell references the thrilling story of Revere making so much noise, in fact, as he reached the house of the Rev. Jonas Clark in Lexington, where John Hancock and Samuel Adams were staying, that William Munroe, who headed the guard of eight men watching over Hancock and Adams, felt obliged to rebuke Revere:

About midnight, Col. Paul Revere rode up and requested admittance. I told him the family had just retired, and had requested, that they might not be disturbed by any noise about the house. “Noise!” said he, “you’ll have noise enough before long. The regulars are coming out.” We then permitted him to pass.

More importantly, Cohen is wrong about Revere keeping quiet because most Americans were Loyalists who would have turned him in. Earlier in the episode ARE (incorrectly) referenced an article in the online Journal of the American Revolution. If the show’s researchers had revisited this site, they would have found an article by J.L. Bell that would have done two things: told them that most Americans on that road from Boston to Concord were indeed Patriots, and that there is a bigger, actually important, myth to bust about Paul Revere’s ride than what he shouted.

In “Did Paul Revere’s Ride Really Matter?” Bell tells us this:

The biggest myth of Paul Revere’s ride may not be that Revere watched for the lantern signal from the North Church spire, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem described. Nor that he was a lone rider carrying Dr. Joseph Warren’s warning all the way from Boston to Concord. Nor even that Revere yelled, “The British are coming!”

Instead, the biggest myth might be that Paul Revere’s ride was crucial to how the Battle of Lexington and Concord of 19 April 1775 turned out. Rural Massachusetts Patriots were already on alert, especially after they spotted British officers riding west through their towns. Other riders were spreading the same news. Hours passed between the first alarms and when the opposing forces actually engaged, giving Patriots time—more than enough time in some cases—to assemble in militia companies. The broad militia mobilization did not actually stop the British from returning to Boston. Thus, Revere’s warning might not have been necessary to how things worked out at the end of the day.

…Indeed, some militiamen were already active. “Early in the evening” Sgt. William Munroe had mustered an eight-man guard at the parsonage where Hancock and Adams were staying, having heard from a young local named Solomon Brown that there were “nine British officers on the road,” carrying arms.

Furthermore, there were at least four hours between Dawes’s arrival and dawn. The Lexington militia and the people at the parsonage discussed the news from Boston at length. They sent messengers out to other communities. Brown and two other riders headed west to Concord (British officers stopped them). Other men rode east to confirm whether troops were coming along the road from Boston. Capt. John Parker had more than enough time to assemble his men. In fact, at some point between three and four o’clock he dismissed them to catch some sleep nearby.

Concord was already on alert. Revere had brought militia colonel James Barrett a general warning from Boston a couple of days before. The Barretts were already moving the cannon, gunpowder, and other military supplies from their farm to more remote hiding-places.

To be sure, the whole Concord militia didn’t assemble until Dr. Prescott rode into town around two o’clock in the morning. However, as at Lexington, there was a significant stretch of time between the first alert at Concord and when its militia company had to face the British troops. In fact, when those regulars arrived between eight and nine o’clock in the morning, the Concord militia companies pulled back to Punkatasset Hill, a mile north of the town center, before moving to a field above the North Bridge.

Paul Revere didn’t have to keep quiet to avoid being arrested by Loyalists. Bell’s point is that the countryside was already on the lookout for a British attack on Concord, making preparations for an armed confrontation with the Regulars, and in many cases well ahead of Revere.

This fact is so much more important than whether Revere said “the British are coming.” If ART wants to bust myths, why not bust the myth that most Americans did not support the Revolution? Why not use Bell’s article to teach Americans today that hundreds of families in eastern Massachusetts had already fully committed themselves to an armed defense of their traditional liberties by the time the first battle of the American Revolution took place?

The show can’t do that because it is at such pains to debunk the Revolution as a scam and a sham. “Every story we tell about the Revolution is useless,” mourns the fake narrator in  the episode. “Not useless,” says Adam; “just not history.” If ever the pot called the kettle black this has got to be it, coming from a show devoted to presenting myths as real history.

Let’s wrap up next time with what the Puritans would call the “application”—why does it matter if this show gets so much so wrong?

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