January 4, 2011 1:15:00 PM
Everyone knows about the current Tea Party and its influence on our politics. Whether it will still be in play 20 years from now will have to be seen, but far more certain is that the original Boston Tea Party of 1773 will continue to be influential. After all, the current Tea Party borrowed the name, and the symbolism of the event in Boston almost 250 years ago has inspired many other popular social and political efforts (and far from all of them conservative). The idea that there was a spontaneous uprising against unfair taxation by the British is an attractive one, but as shown in "Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & the Making of America" (Yale University Press) by historian Benjamin L. Carp, it was a measured and careful, if dramatic, response to pressures of the moment. It was a popular uprising, but it was also simple vandalism; these patriots blatantly took someone else's property (not the King's) and destroyed it, and did so under the cloak of secrecy that still prevents a full understanding of who took part and what took place. They turned out to be on the winning side, so we rightly admire their pluck and initiative from our historic vantage point. It is a good idea to look at the event within its context, and to look at its immediate reputation, and Carp has produced an exciting and thickly referenced volume that allows us, if we are going to celebrate this historic event, to do so with the fuller understanding that Carp has offered.
Carp begins with the history of the tea trade, and the roles played by the British government and the British East India Tea Company. Tea had become the fashion in the eighteenth century among all the British. The 1773 Tea Act allowed the East India Company to bring tea directly to the colonies without stopping in Britain with duty fees there. It would have meant that even with the new tax, the colonists would have paid a lower price for tea, although most of the tea coming in was being smuggled out of ships from other lands like Holland. The British would have seen this as regulating and boosting the East India Company and providing service to the American consumers of tea. The colonists saw the tax as a blatant attempt to soak them for money without seeking their consent to do so. They also resented that the tax would pay for the unloved civil officials appointed to rule over them and to enforce the tax laws. They feared as well that if Britain could hand a monopoly on tea trade to the British East India company, it could do so for any other product and crush the colonial economies.
That Boston should have been the site of a tax rebellion might not have been predicted before the Tea Party. The imposition of taxes on tea affected the larger ports of New York City and Philadelphia, of course, and both cities had citizens who were further in the forefront of advocating rebellion. By chance, Boston was the first of the ports to receive the ships that bore the tea with the new tax. Boston also had more than its share of economic problems during the years before the tax; fires, storms, smallpox, and bankruptcies all crippled the city. Government had little control over such disasters, but they increased public grievances and resentment. The Sons of Liberty harnessed such resentments as they tore down houses of government officials, scared the women and children in their homes, and assaulted customs officers; it is no wonder that the British thought them lawless bullies.
With the arrival of three ships on Nov. 28, 1773, the clock started on a 20-day window when the tea was not officially landed but had not been signed for by the governmentally authorized merchants. The merchants, ship owners, and ship captains had been warned of consequences upon anyone who tried to unload the tea, and the detested governor would not be able to get his council's authority to have troops seize it. On Dec. 17, the customs service, with the help of the navy, could have seized the ships, and that would have been an end of the issue. So the Sons of Liberty had a deadline to meet, but they also had almost three weeks to organize, propagandize, and threaten. The tea agents had had dealings with them before, and some of them went with their families to an island outside Boston's harbor to be protected by the navy. The colonists met during the period and passed various resolutions, none of the originals being about the tea's destruction. They negotiated with the shipowner. Under guise of protecting the tea from the Boston populace, they set up guards on the water and on the harbor; they were, in fact, simply preventing the tea from slipping to the appointed merchants who were to sell it.
The boarding of the ships and destruction of the tea was hardly spontaneous. The organizers planned the activity for 16 December, the day before customs could have legally seized the ships' cargo. The leaders of the action, including Samuel Adams and John Hancock, stayed away from the wharfs; not only could no one accuse them of taking part in the tea's destruction, but they were eager to dissociate the many planning meetings that had gone on beforehand from the action itself. The planning was essential; unloading a ship required not just muscle, but skill in using equipment. The job was huge; by the time it was done, more than 45 tons of tea had been thrown over the side. A blacksmith's apprentice said afterward, "I never labored harder in my life." Carp explains that the tea was worth 45 times the price Paul Revere had recently paid for his house. The planning sessions had included that the participants would go in disguise, and Carp has a full chapter on why an Indian masquerade was chosen (including not just facial paint, feathers, and blankets, but war whoops and mock Indian jargon). It was not so that the participants could remain anonymous; Boston was small enough and the number of participants large enough that neighbors would have known the partiers even dressed up like Mohawks. There was a tradition of blaming Indians for raids and other bad occurrences, but no one was going to believe that Mohawks had traveled far from their settlements to arrange for tea dumping. The Indians were associated with lawlessness, but they were also portrayed by some as noble savages, and the destroyers of the tea took advantage of both interpretations. They may also have been playing Indian against the East Indian Company. Certainly they got a bit of a thrill simply from acting out in disguise.
The attack was well organized, and it was an attack on the tea only; none of the on-board personnel were harmed, and no other goods were tossed over. One Mohawk could not resist, and stuffed his pockets with the valuable tea, but he was caught by members of his own band, stripped, coated with mud, and kicked and cuffed out of the action. His identity is known for sure, but although Carp has an appendix listing about 100 participants, he admits that no stories about participation can be verified with any certainty. The secrecy of the operation was well kept, and generally taken by the participants to their graves. This seems extraordinary, for the operation went successfully and was a harbinger of the success that would come in the revolution. The attitude seems to have been, as one woman wrote of the revelation that her grandfather had participated, that the Tea Party was "something disgraceful and to be kept hidden from all but the family as if it was some riot and those who engaged in it were liable to suffer from it. So it was kept as secret as possible." It was not known as the Tea Party for fifty years; that is a name that was bestowed upon it by those who did not participate looking back on an action that turned out to be a tactical success. Boston was not proud of the tea's destruction until long after there were no more taxes for His Majesty.
Carp makes plain that the Tea Party was a blow for liberty, but that all those patriots w
Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]