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?
Yale law professor Dan Kahan recently conducted a study of today’s Tea Party. “I fully expected I’d be shown a modest negative correlation between identifying with the Tea Party and science comprehension,” he noted. Instead, he found that people who identify with the Tea Party are slightly more knowledgeable about science than the average American. The study’s conclusions brought him up short. “I don’t know a single person who identifies with the tea party,” he realized. Reading the New York Times, the Huffington Post, Politico, and other like sources gave him a false and biased view of the Tea Party. To his credit, Kahan was happy to have the correction. Many others are not so open-minded. In both 1773 and today, the notion of middle-class protest simply does not register with the leadership class.
The two Tea Parties also share a concern with constitutional structure. In the 1760s and 1770s, some British leaders wanted to create an American “civil list”—a permanent elite with lifetime jobs to administer the colonies. That would bring the empire under proper management. In our day, we have civil servants—often graduates of elite institutions with impressive credentials—who have jobs for life and who, in effect, write our legal code, enforce it, and judge whether citizens have run afoul of the rules. Some of the modern Tea Party protest is directed against this modern—perhaps postmodern—aristocracy that threatens to alienate government from the common citizen. We should also recall that the modern Tea Party follows up the “Porkbusters” movement of the George W. Bush years. Pork-barrel legislation is, in some ways, the twenty-first-century equivalent of the pensions that George III would dispense when he needed votes in Parliament.
In sum, both Tea Parties reflect a frustration with distant elites who can hardly be bothered to know or care what most Americans think, and who wish to regulate us more than we would like, often without our direct consent. Those at the center seem to regard many of the people on the periphery as simpleminded plebeians whose opinions are hardly worth considering, motivated as they are by ignorance or, in current parlance, “racism.” Tea Party backers, meanwhile, are viewed by the establishment as self-serving pirates who wish to line their pockets, with the Koch brothers in the role of John Hancock.
The original Tea Party was a New England affair, while today’s is a national protest. But many of our Tea Partiers, like their colonial ancestors, want America to be that “city on a hill.” They believe that what is special about America is under attack, and they are, metaphorically, throwing tea into Boston Harbor in the hopes of forcing the establishment to take notice and persuading the rest of the country to rally alongside them.
Richard Samuelson is associate professor of history at California State University, San Bernardino. He is writing a book on John Adams’s constitutional thought.