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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Revolutionary Myth #3: the Revolution happened quickly

Posted on June 4, 2009. Filed under: Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , , , |

We look back and tend to see a constant boil of activity in the 1770s that led to revolution. But here in part 3 of my series of 5 Myths about the Revolutionary War, we will see this is not really so.

When you study colonial town or precinct records, you see that towns, villages, and precincts met once a year (“town meeting”) to set policy, settle debates, take actions, and elect officers. Reading the record books, it seems like discussions took years–meet in April 1737 to debate the town border, meet in April 1738 to debate the town border, April 1739, etc.  While discussions must have taken place between meetings, official actions, committees, and decisions took place only at town meeting. Sometimes an emergency meeting was called to expedite things, but not always.

So with the Revolution. While history books and narratives compress events, leading you to feel like the timespan between the first punitive Act (the Sugar Act) and Lexington and Concord was about 1-2 years, it all unfolded much more slowly. The Sugar Act was imposed in April 1764. The Stamp Act was imposed in March 1765. Patrick Henry gave his famous “if this be treason” speech about the Stamp Act that same year. The Townshend Act came two years later, in 1767. The Boston Massacre was three years later, in 1770.

Usually the Boston Massacre is presented as the tipping point, after which Revolution happened with lightning speed. Many people, if quizzed, think the Boston Massacre must have been in 1775. But it was a good five years before the fighting began. Between the Massacre and Lexington and Concord was the Boston Tea Party, in December 1773. The “Intolerable Acts” were put in place the next year, 1774.  The first Continental Congress met in fall 1774, issuing a declaration of principles…

…but still it was not until April 1775 that the war began. Why did things move so slowly?

First, of course, was communications. It took weeks to months for the Sugar Act or Townshend Acts to take full effect throughout the colonies. Thus it took that long for indignation to build amongst Americans. South Carolina would have heard about the March 1770 Boston Massacre in the spring of 1771. And they only heard about it through the determined letter writing of men like Samuel Adams; newspapers from Boston that published the story would have had it picked up by newspapers in neighboring colonies, like Connecticut and New York, and from there it might have been picked up in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, but beyond that point the story as a newspaper story would have died. It had to be disseminated by individuals’ letters, whether private or public.

There was also the winter. Winter made travel much more slow—sometimes impossible—and this meant not only that newspapers and letters traveled far more slowly, but also that all actions were on hold until the spring. Just as armies made winter camp in December and did not fight at all until April or May, so protests and meetings were on hiatus over the snowy months.

Finally, of course, there was peoples’ reluctance to go to war. Each event—Act, riot, shooting, speech—was endured or taken in and then made sense of in a way that would allow people to avoid the terror of war. Each time something happened, Americans hoped it was the last time something dangerous would happen, and that the troubles would die down and life could go back to normal. No people want to endure a war. So there was a great deal of effort expended on diplomacy and peaceful efforts to turn things around.

So really, there was no sustained fever of revolutionary activity in the 1770s, not even in Boston. Events hit people in the spring and summer, went into hibernation through the winter, and were superseded by less inflammatory, daily events the next spring—for which people were understandably grateful. It was really not until March 1774, when the Port Act went into effect against Boston, that events hit rapidly, and even then the winter of 1774-5 was quiet, with Paul Revere’s ride coming the following April 1775.

It is only when we look back and compress events from the Sugar Act to the North Bridge that it seems like a frenzy of revolution. In reality, it took 11 years, from the 1764 Sugar Act to the 1775 shootouts in Lexington, Concord, and especially Menotomy, for the Revolution to begin.

Next: Myth 4: All was well before the war

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The French and Indian War and the American Revolution

Posted on May 18, 2008. Filed under: Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , |

I had finished taking some friends from England through a historical house in my town that saw action on the first day of the Revolutionary War (April 19, 1775) when one of them asked, in all sincerity, “What started that war? I mean, what really was the cause?”

Immediate answers came to mind, sort of starting with the last straws and moving backward: the “Intolerable Acts” (see a fantastic post on why we could stop using this term at Boston 1775), the refusal of Parliament to seat American members, Stamp Tax, Sugar Act—all the tax acts—the tireless activism of Samuel Adams and his mechanics… all the way back to the English Civil War itself and its effects on American-English relations (as covered in What caused the Revolutionary War?). But rather than go into all that back story with my friends, who wanted to hear something about history on American soil, I pulled out the French and Indian War.

All those tensions between England and America described in “What caused the Revolutionary War?” created a constant atmosphere of difference and distance between America and England.  But if I had to set a date for when that tension Americans felt shifted to demands for outright separation from England, I’d say the aftermath of the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

Americans had supported the war. In fact, they had basically demanded that England remove the perceived French threat to the western frontier. So long as they didn’t have to pay for it, Americans wanted the war to be fought, and took part on a strictly voluntary basis. 

With each shared victory, Americans celebrated heartily. And at the practical end of the war—the capture of Montreal—the Pennsylvania Gazette put it this way on September 11, 1760: “We now have the Pleasure to congratulate our Countrymen upon the most important Event, as we apprehend, that has ever happened in Favour of the British Nation . . . the War in Canada is at an End: The Governor, has surrendered the Country to the British General Amherst without Bloodshed. The Subjects of France are to be sent Home, all that remain of the French are to swear Allegiance to His Majesty, and retain their Possessions.”

“Our Countrymen.” We still felt that way about the British in 1760. But when the war was officially over, and Britain’s taxpayers were reeling under the expense, the British moved that Americans should share the burden of that expensive war fought for their benefit at their request. And that’s when all hell broke loose.

A lot of maybes come into play at that point. Maybe if the British had invited American representatives to discuss the taxes there would have been no protests in America. Maybe if the British had required the Americans to share the burden of expenses during the war (even just feeding and quartering soldiers) there would have been no heavy taxes after the war.

As it is, the taxes went through without American input and the people of Boston in particular were hit hard. The people of Boston protested most forcibly and, in the end, led the charge to revolution.

It was a little awkward for me to privately think, as I spoke to those English friends, that in 1775 the people of Boston were just about the only ones ready to fight.  That it would take a long time to get other Americans on board. That the other colonies were very content to watch and wait and let Massachusetts fight.

So I just answered their question with my on-the-spot response: It was the French and Indian War that pulled the trigger on the Revolutionary War. All the little irritations of being in a colonial relationship were enlarged and rendered insufferable by the taxes that came due to pay for that war. All the statues of King George III that Massachusetts colonists had erected in 1763 to celebrate the victory over the French were pulled down by the same colonists and melted into bullets in 1775.

After that point, it was just a matter of framing the arguments for war, which took many years. But the ball was rolling, and the French and Indian War was what sent it downhill.

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