Two hundred and forty years ago this month, a gang of Bostonians dressed as Indians boarded the Dartmouth, the Eleanor, and the Beaver and dumped 90,000 pounds of tea into Boston Harbor. That fateful action on December 16, 1773, and Parliament’s inflammatory response—closing the Port of Boston, altering the colony’s charter, radically limiting popular government in Massachusetts, allowing the quartering of troops in private houses, among other arbitrary measures—precipitated the American Revolution. The Boston Tea Party, like the revolution more generally, seems to be a relic of a bygone age, despite the modern namesake it’s inspired. Is it just the appellation that reverberates today?
Some scholars, most notably Harvard’s Jill Lepore, reject any comparison between 1773 and the present, accusing the modern Tea Party of “historical fundamentalism” for, in part, making “political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, as prophets.” But that criticism rests on a fundamentalism of its own, presupposing that the past is so distinct from the present that the political practices, ideas, and modes of 1773 cannot possibly be applicable today. America’s revolutionaries did not think about history that way, nor do many Americans today. Louis Hartz wrote years ago that “the traditionalism of the Americans, like a pure freak of logic, often bore amazing marks of anti-historical rationalism.” The ideas on which the country was founded are only a “freak of logic,” however, if one accepts Hegel’s progressive view of history as gospel. Such is the fundamentalism of our modern American historians.
There are, in fact, several echoes of the original Tea Party in the modern one. In both cases, we have a fight to preserve self-government, legal questions regarding the constitutional limits of the government’s powers and the structure of constitutional government, and the inability of a distant elite to distinguish between vigorous citizens and an unthinking rabble.
But it was a more prosaic issue that inspired both. As the historian Robert Middlekauff notes, Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773 primarily “to bail out the financially troubled East India Company.” The colonists regarded the tax as unconstitutional, and they nullified it, turning ships away with their cargo still on board in just about every colony. In Boston, however, Governor Thomas Hutchinson forced a showdown.
The response was a carefully managed legal action. When the Dartmouth entered the Port of Boston on November 28, 1773, her owners had to pay customs duties within 20 days, or the cargo would be forfeit to the government. That led to a standoff: The powers that be in Boston refused to let the cargo be landed, and the governor refused to allow the ship to leave without offloading the tea. In the meantime, two other ships with tea arrived in port. On December 16, with the clock running out and no resolution in sight, the tea was dumped into Boston Harbor.
One would think that a gang of men merrily breaking open chests of tea, splitting them with hatchets (to ensure the tea would spoil in the water), and hurling them into the harbor would have gotten out of hand. But it didn’t. One or two of the “Indians” on board went for the booze, but they were stopped. An overzealous rebel broke into the captain’s quarters; the captain was reimbursed for the cost of the broken lock. This was the most American of protests, conducted by a taxpaying mob.
Like that of the eighteenth century, today’s establishment has blinders on, assuming that the protesters are poorly educated and perhaps religious zealots, too. By the standards of the day, the British colonists were highly literate, particularly in New England. Massachusetts was the home of the Puritans, who were still religious, but hardly the fanatics the Anglican establishment took them to be. But the particulars didn’t matter. Looking at Boston, England’s leadership class saw the rabble of eighteenth-century London. It’s not so different today. Some of our recent Tea Party gatherings have been known to leave public spaces cleaner than they were before the demonstrators arrived—just as the original Tea Party replaced the damaged lock on the ship. Perhaps the editors of the New York Times mistake the Tea Partiers for the Occupy crowd?