Savoring the Original Boston Tea Party

Jane Cook
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Posted: Apr 13, 2009 6:16 PM
Savoring the Original Boston Tea Party

How do the American tea parties of today compare with the original Boston Tea Party? The scale is far different but the substance isn’t far off.

Bitterness over the dastardly tea tax led to the Boston Tea Party of 1773. The actual tax was very cheap: three-pence per pound of tea. That’s like shelling out $9.98 for every 16 ounce package of Pike Place Roast whole coffee beans from Starbucks instead of paying $9.95. Obviously tea was not ten dollars a pound back then, but you get the idea—three cents per pound. Cheap! Today’s tea parties are protesting an $800 billion stimulus plan—an exponential, google-like difference.

The tempers of Boston merchants had been simmering for three years at the unfair market advantage. The London tea merchants had a surplus of tea and could much more easily absorb the tax than their Boston counterparts. When three ships carrying chests of tea from London arrived in Boston Harbor on November 29, 1773, the tempers began to boil.

“But am persuaded, from the present dispositions of ye people, that no other alternative will do, than to have it [the tea] immediately sent back to London again,” Town councilman John Andrews noted. “Handbills are stuck up, calling upon Friends! Citizens! and Countrymen!”

The outcry was also against corruption. It’s true that outspoken critics such as Samuel Adams objected to the tea tax and previous taxes based on the principle of taxation without representation. The colonists did not elect members to Parliament. But corruption had also fueled the tea kettle fire. The sons of the Massachusetts governor were custom officials. They were skimming profits from the tea tax. The colonists were as hot about the skewed market as they were the corrupt collection system and taxation without representation.

While today’s protests are widespread, the scale of the 1773 protest involved more than a third of Boston, whose population was about 15,000 at the time. The people petitioned the governor to send the ships back to England with their tea in tow. More than 5,000 people—nearly a third of the town—gathered at the Old South Meeting House on December 16, 1773, to await the governor’s decision. When word came down that the London tea ships could unload their cargo, shouts went up.

“You’d thought that the inhabitants of the infernal regions had broke loose,” Andrews wrote of the commotion.

Later that night 200 tea party guests boarded those ships. “They say the actors were Indians from Narragansett. Whether they were or not, to a transient observer they appear’d as such, being cloath’d in Blankets with the heads muffled, and copper color’d countenances, being each arm’d with a hatchet or axe, and pair pistols,” reported eye-witness Andrews.

They smashed the tea barrels and threw them overboard. “Before nine o’clock in ye evening, every chest from on board the three vessels was knock’d to pieces and flung over ye sides,” Andrews reported.

Unlike today’s protests of sending tea bags to government officials or rallying for speeches, the Boston Tea Party was a crime, the stealing and destroying of property.

What made the Boston Tea Party a history-turning event were not the profits lost from the 350 tea chests or the tea-colored harbor water. The king’s aftertaste was longer-lasting. King George III was so angry that he revoked the charter of Massachusetts and sent 3,000 soldiers to occupy the city and take up residence in people’s homes. Talk about government overreach. Think about how amazing that is. Because of a protest over a tea tax, the king kiboshed their constitution and forbade them from assembling.

The substance behind today’s tea parties is also government overreach but of a different kind. Today’s government is far more solid and representative than the monarch of 1773. The Constitution is still in place. The very fact that American tea parties can freely exist today is the legacy of incidents like the Boston Tea Party. Massachusetts lost its right to freely assemble after the Boston Tea Party. The rallying cry of “friends, citizens and countryman” spread throughout the other twelve colonies. If the king could revoke the charter of Massachusetts, then what was to stop him from doing the same thing in Pennsylvania, Virginia, or elsewhere? The patriots took action by sending delegates to the newly-formed Continental Congress, the precursor of Congress today.

It took a war, a Constitution, and a Bill of Rights to correct it, but the long-lasting aftertaste of the Boston Tea Party is the freedom to speak and assemble—the freedom to send a tea bag to the White House or Congress today without fear of a soldier being quartered in your home as a consequence. That’s a legacy worth savoring. Today’s tea parties are reminders of principles worth preserving.