241 Years Later, The Politics of Tea Still Resound

In commemoration of the Boston Tea Party, the UST History Club will be serving free tea and coffee to students and faculty from 11:30-1:30 on Tuesday, December 16, in Anderson Student Center 236. Please stop by, enjoy a hot beverage on us (coffee if you’re a Patriot, tea if you’re a Loyalist), and reflect on this significant moment in the history and culture of the United States. Dr. David C. Williard explains the events of 1773 & their link to our contemporary global society.

On a cold winter evening in December 1773, the port city of Boston was abuzz with talk of a new piece of legislation: the Tea Act. Its contents, at first blush (cheap pun intended), sounded innocuous: the British Parliament would allow the East India Company to flood cut-rate tea into the North American colonies directly, avoiding both import duties from the Crown and merchant middle-men. A staple of workingmen and polite society made more affordable, and in the dead of a Boston winter when a hot beverage was most desirable? It sounds like grounds for celebration, not protest; a kind of consumer-friendly policy designed to win the hearts and minds of fractious American colonists.

Yet the Tea Act and its aftermath set the thirteen colonies that little more than a decade later would become the United States firmly on the path to revolution. The Act had a subtle clause that angry colonists saw right through: even as it lowered import duties that would be paid by the East India Company (allowing tea to be sold at lower prices), the tea came with a small direct tax that consumers would pay to the British government. Moreover, “patriots,” as they had already begun to call themselves, were concerned that the tax directly supported British government officials and military officers stationed in the colonies. To add insult to injury, the results of the Act promised windfall profits to insider investors in the East India Company, including the Crown-appointed governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson. Finally, many colonists had less principled and more pragmatic concern: cheap tea imports would effectively destroy the black market for untaxed tea imported by many of Massachusetts’ leading citizens, including none other than John Hancock and Samuel Adams.

On the evening of December 16, 1773, as thousands of colonists congregated to debate their response, approximately fifty men, their faces painted to resemble the Mohawk Indians, stormed the ships carrying tea as they lay at anchor in Boston Harbor. The costumes were an ironic tribute: as members of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Mohawk had a fractious history with their colonial neighbors, and when the Revolutionary War finally broke out, the Mohawk would side with the British against the Americans who had appropriated their culture. The colonists used axes and boarding hooks to smash the chests containing the controversial tea, which they then dumped into the harbor. Rather than brewing tea, they had brewed a revolt that would culminate in a revolution.

While its place in American memory seems permanent, the meaning that contemporary society attaches to the Boston Tea Party appears more open to debate than ever. What does the act really represent: political principles or naked self-interest, the will of the people in action or a mob rejecting the law and refusing to pay for government services and protection? In 2014, I’d suggest that two major legacies seem particularly pertinent:

  • Globalization and Colonialism: Contrary to popular perception, the Tea Act did not actually raise the nominal price of tea; in fact, it was designed to lower the retail costs of tea by flooding the North American colonies with surplus tea from the British East India Company. In some respects, the East India Company was an amalgam of today’s Amazon: with the Tea Act, it could cut out the middle tier of merchant importers and give colonists access to their tea at a smaller price. But in doing so, the East India Company threatened to put local importers out of business and therefore to gut Boston’s strongest economic sector. To complicate matters still further, the colonists had been getting cheap tea illegally through illicit importers, whose duty-free tea made fortunes for many of Massachusetts’ local political elite. Was this a forerunner of the 21st Century music industry, whose consumers often prefer free if illegal music downloads to either traditional full-price downloads or services like Pandora and Spotify? Was it a protest at measures that would benefit Americans as consumers but hurt their GDP in the long run by destroying their middle classes to enrich an offshore, multinational corporation and the government elites who supported it?
  • Violence and Democracy: Were the Tea Partiers of 1773 embodying democracy in action by acting on the principle of “No Taxation Without Representation,” or were they inaugurating a Cliven Bundy-style political culture in which destruction of property and the use of violence became weapons of protest for people who did not recognize that their livelihoods benefitted directly from government resources and that their share of taxes paled in comparison to those paid by Britons in England and Scotland as well as in the rest of the empire? Should we see this as a courageous, ideologically laudable refusal to obey a government that did not have the interests of the people at heart, or as the petulant acts of pampered colonists who rioted when given an incentive to follow the law?

Come drink a cup of your favorite beverage with us to mark the anniversary of the Tea Party—coffee if you’re a Patriot, tea if you’re a Loyalist—and tell us what you think this moment in history can tell us about the relationship between our present and our past!

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