Neil Rolde’s blog on The Boston Tea Party and how the extreme “Tea Party” is usurping history
HISTORY IN TODAY'S POLITICS
April 26th, 2011
At dusk, on a cold mid-December day in the year 1773, a group of Bostonian men assembled near the Massachusetts city’s waterfront as the evening’s shadows fell. They might well have been going to a party, for they were all costumed, Native American style, wearing fringed buckskins, moccasins, and head feathers, their faces and exposed hands blackened by coal dust. One of them, a George Hewes, was later to write that he and his fellows carried little hatchets they agreed to call “tomahawks.” There might have been as many as 200 of these “Mohawks” and they were soon divided into three sections under three squad leaders. Hewes knew that his commander’s name was Leonard Pitt, but the other two remained strangers to him. Then off they all went to Griffin’s Wharf, where they boarded three English merchant ships — the Dartmouth, the Eleanor and the Beaver — tied up along the dock.
Thus began the immortal Boston Tea Party. During the next three hours, the hatches of the three vessels were unlocked, the 342 chests of tea inside removed, “tomahawked” open and their contents dumped into the dark waters of the harbor. The next morning, Hewes reported, there was so much tea floating on the surface that fears were raised it could be collected and used for beverages so the “Mohawks” piled into small boats and smashed away at the clumps with their oars until the leaves were so drenched they sank.
This whole event has rightfully been characterized as an opening shot of the American Revolution. In our own day and age, it has even been seized upon by a political faction that has used it in pun form for its title of Tea Party, while considerably distorting its original intent. The Boston affair, some Americans have been urged to forget, was not a protest against taxes. It was a full scale attack on British insistence upon TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION.
There are many historical complexities at work here. The full story of the night of December 16, 1773, cannot be told without going back in time and delving into political conditions within the mother country across the Atlantic. Using a modern frame in which to view the issue, one writer has likened the Boston outburst to what happens when a government (like that of King George III) gives massive tax breaks to a favored corporation — in this case the powerful East India Company — and also provides it with a guaranteed monopoly. The English high muck-a-mucks, incidentally, could not fathom the colonists’ adverse reaction, since the tea they were pushing on them would be cheaper for the Americans and the duty was a mere three pennies a pound. So why such a fuss, which has reverberations still in that that United States ever afterward has been essentially a coffee-drinking nation?
If we remember our grammar-school history classes, some names get tossed around in this drama that mostly remain a mystery to us. Sam Adams, we seemingly know, if only for the popular beer we now drink. But who were Lord North and Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend and Lord Hillsborough and Prime Minister George Grenville, as well as the entire apparatus of the oligarchy that ruled Great Britain in the 18th century, plus its toadies like Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor (and eventually governor) Thomas Hutchinson and his sidekick Andrew Oliver?
We need to go back at least eight years from 1773 to the spring of 1765 for a full understanding of the context in which the Boston Tea Party took place. On March 22, 1765, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act by an overwhelming margin of 246-49. It was expected that the American colonies on which this tax — to use legal documents and buy newspapers — was to fall would easily accept the small added impost. Benjamin Franklin himself told the London authorities he expected no trouble.
But such optimism failed to take into account the extent of the American nationalism that had developed in the 13 colonies. To the speech in Parliament by Charles Townshend, where he referred to Americans as “children planted by our care” who would not “grudge to contribute their mite to relieve us from the heavy weight of the burden we lie under,” there was a stinging reply from Colonel Isaac Barre, a pro-American MP of Huguenot origin: “They planted by your care? No! Your oppression planted ‘em in America. They fled from your tyranny to a then uncultivated and inhospitable country, where they exposed themselves to almost all the hardships to which human nature is liable.”
The public British argument for taxing the Americans had been the shaky financial condition of the government following the end of the Seven Years War. Not expressed was the fact that like the present-day situation in Washington, DC, many tax exemptions had been given to the wealthy members of the ruling society. Consequently, looking to spread the pain of their profligacy, they decided that the Americans had to pay the cost of their own protection, never mind that the Americans had mostly defended themselves at their own expense against the French and the Spanish.
In Massachusetts, the response to the Stamp Act was particularly explosive. Andrew Oliver, who had accepted the lucrative job of distributor of the stamps for the province, was a special target of the people’s wrath. On August 14, 1765, he was hung in effigy in Boston, and a mob trashed his office and later burned his stable house and coach and chaise. When Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson and Sheriff Greenleaf tried to stop them, they were stoned, and a week and a half later Hutchinson’s home was similarly assaulted.
Not only was Andrew Oliver forced to resign his distributorship but the royal stamp agents in all the other colonies were likewise pressured to quit. Here, again, the cry was raised of no taxation without representation,and in London the British government listened and took some corrective action. That is, they repealed the tax. But the real issue — that of representation — wasn’t faced. Or rather, through a law Parliament passed called the Declaratory Act, they sought to establish their supremacy. The very title of this law of March 18, 1766, baldly stated its purpose: “An Act for the better securing the dependency of his Majesty’s dominions in America upon the crown and parliament of Great Britain.” Furthermore, its text declared: “That the said colonies and plantations in America have been, are, and of right ought to be, subordinate unto and dependent upon the imperial crown and parliament of Great Britain (…)”, which would have “full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonists and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain in all cases whatsoever.”
Begging to differ, Sam Adams and his cohorts adopted a name for themselves that had been suggested by Colonel Barre: “The Sons of Liberty.” Their goal was to enforce American insistence that Parliament did not rule the colonies and, through long usage, a precedent set that they could only be taxed by their own representative assemblies.
The stage was now firmly set for future fiery confrontations.
to be continued…