Across the country, the "Tea Party" movement is spreading. Anti-stimulus protests in Arizona, Washington State, Kansas, Georgia, and elsewhere are popping up, and of course CNBC's Rick Santelli has become an instant folk hero after calling for a Chicago Tea Party. But if we're going to compare our actions to those brave Bostonians of 1773, we should really take a look at what their protest meant, and what happened afterwards. To simply compare ourselves to those men and women, without truly understanding what they did, at the least cheapens our shared history and could lead to consusion over the motives of this new "Tea Party" movement.
The decision to dump 45 tons of tea into Boston Harbor wasn't made at the spur of the moment. It had been carefully discussed and planned by the leaders of Boston's patriot community. They knew exactly what they were doing when they boarded those three ships and began breaking open the heavy chests filled with tea from the East India Trading Company. They were committing an act of insurrection, not political theater.
Let's back up for a second. In colonial America, there were a lot of tea drinkers, but many of them bought smuggled tea. The reason was simple: it was cheaper. There was already an import duty on British tea which made it more expensive than the Dutch tea many merchants (including John Hancock) smuggled in to the colonies. In April of 1773 Parliament tried to rectify this by passing the Tea Act. The legislation granted a monopoly of the North American market to the East India Trading Company in order to try and keep the company from economic collapse. At the same time, Parliament imposed a new tax on tea, but one that would be paid in London as a surcharge. The Americans would actually see lower prices on tea, but the tea they purchased would already come pre-taxed. Historian Benson Bobrick says it "remains a noble feature of the whole confrontation that immediate economic interest did not determine [the colonists'] response."
And Americans didn't take the bribe of lower tea in exchange for accepting a revenue tax. In Philadelphia, ships bearing tea couldn't find anyone willing to lead the ships into harbor. In Charleston, South Carolina, the tea was off-loaded, but was stored in moldy warehouses where the product quickly rotted and became useless. In New York City, storms prevented the tea-laden ships from docking.
Boston, already filled with thousands of Regular troops sent to suppress the insurrection, would be a different story. Three ships eventually landed at Griffin's Wharf in Boston Harbor, but armed townspeople stood guard over the vessels to prevent the tea from being unloaded. Patriot leaders pleaded with the captains of the ships to sail away, but they refused to do so until their cargo was removed. Only when word was received that the tea was to be off-loaded and imported the very next morning did the patriots act.
The beginning of the Boston Tea Party took place at Fanueil Hall. The large meeting house was packed to the brim on the night of December 16th. When he was informed that the governor had rejected pleas for help from the colonists, Samuel Adams, a staunch supporter of the Patriot cause (and something of a rabble-rouser) cried out, "This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!"
That was the signal that triggered the Boston Tea Party. Two hundred men disguised themselves as best they could (it's interesting to point out that at the time, no one dared publicly admit they had taken part in the Tea Party) and set out to dump the tea, while thousands of residents watched from the streets.
It took them three hours. They did not burn down the ships, or vandalize them. They didn't steal any tea. They only destroyed it, and then marched off the boats and down the street with a fifer leading the way.
I mentioned earlier that His Majesty's troops were already in Boston that night. They did nothing to stop the Tea Party. Warships anchored less than a mile away did not fire upon the crowd, nor did they send a detachment of soldiers to try to break up the silent riot. Instead, the Crown's men exercised a great deal of restraint (no doubt thinking back to that March night just a few years earlier when troops opened fire on a crowd of belligerent Bostonians, killing five of them in what became known as the Boston Massacre). Still, Admiral John Montague couldn't help but open a window as the patriots passed by on the street below. "Boys, you have had a fine, pleasant evening for your Indian caper, haven't you? But mind, you have got to pay the fiddler yet."
They paid, all right. The reaction from Parliament and the Crown was swift and severe. Parliament quickly passed the Coercive Acts, better known in the colonies as the Intolerable Acts. The response to the insurrectionist Tea Party was to try to break the will of the colonists. They shut down the port of Boston, revoked the charter of Massachusetts, removed any civilian governing authority and replaced it with Royal rule, and re-established the practice of quartering troops in civilian homes. Additionally, more than 5,000 more troops arrived to crack down on the rebellious Bostonians. Boston at the time was a city between 15,000 and 20,000, which meant that there was nearly one Regular for every adult male in the city. General Gage, the new military governor of Massachusetts, soon set out to confiscate gunpowder and arms stored in towns throughout the colony. Long before Lexington and Concord, Regular troops marched on the towns of Somerville (where they successfully removed the powder) and Salem (where they were forced to turn back by a crowd of civilians). Patriots responded by seizing the armed garrison at Portsmouth, Maine (then a part of Massachusetts) without firing a shot.
In short, the Boston Tea Party was an act of defiance and insurrection that set in motion a chain of events that led to armed rebellion against Parliament and the King. I wonder, do we really mean to compare ourselves to the men and women who, even at that early date, were ready to sacrifice their all for the cause of liberty?
It seems that what we're actually seeing now is a relatively low-key and sedate protest in relation to the audacious and incredible increase in government power. Frankly, the patriots who took part in the Boston Tea Party would probably call us cowards for not responding in a more full-throated manner.
I'm not objecting to the protests. Far from it in fact. I'll be at the protest in Washington, D.C. But I am not expecting anything other than street theater, or the political equivalent of clearing our throat rather than the yelling our politicians deserve to hear. I won't compare it to the Boston Tea Party, because there is no comparison. To claim otherwise is to both cheapen the actual protest by 200 Bostonians and their thousands of supporters, and to inflate the magnitude of our current actions.
I wonder, what are we expecting to achieve from these protests? Are we content to merely register our disapproval, or are we seeking to change what Congress and our president have done? If it is the former, I'm sure the politicians will note our objection, and wait for us to quiet down. If it is the latter, I fear our current protests are too scatter-shot to do any real good.
What is the target of our protest? Are we protesting the President and Congress for an act already passed, or are we petitioning our state and local governments to refuse to accept the stimulus money?
What do we do if these protests do not result in the change in policies we are asking for? What happens next?
Make no mistake, once a movement like this has begun, it will, sooner or later, have to answer these difficult questions or risk failure. Now is the seed-time of liberty, and the steps we take and the words we use will either be recalled triumphantly by our grandchildren, or seen as a sad charade conducted by children who could not muster the strength and conviction of their ancestors.
In 1775, just a few weeks before blood was spilled at Lexington Green, Dr. Joseph Warren addressed a crowd of Bostonians who had gathered to commemorate the anniversary of the Boston Massacre.
Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of. Our enemies are numerous and powerful; but we have many friends, determining to be free, and heaven and earth will aid the resolution. On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves. The faltering tongue of hoary age calls on you to support your country. The lisping infant raises its suppliant hands, imploring defence against the monster slavery. Your fathers look from their celestial seats with smiling approbation on their sons, who boldly stand forth in the cause of virtue; but sternly frown upon the inhuman miscreant, who, to secure the loaves and fishes to himself, would breed a serpent to destroy his children.
With all due respect to Dr. Warren, this is not your father's protest movement. This is your forefathers' protest. Act worthy of yourself.