How the Modern Day Tea Partiers Missed the Message of 1773

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Jim Sleeper, a writer and teacher on American civic culture and politics and a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (W.W. Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Viking, 1997, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).

I don't see why Tea Party Patriots in Nashville paid Sarah Palin $100,000 for a keynote last week when, for no more than the love of country, they could have honored me, a living witness to the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1973.

I would have told them how I stood boldly that day on Boston's old Congress Street Bridge as the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission and Boston 200, a consortium of corporations including the Salada Tea Company, sent costumed National Guardsmen to dump imitation tea chests from a replica of the Beaver, one of three ships that colonial rebels had relieved of their cargo 200 years before.

The chests of 1973 were empty, but demonstrators organized by a "People's Bicentennial Commission" offset the lavish unreality of it all by dumping metal drums from the Beaver to protest big oil companies' complicity in the fuel crisis of that year, whose long gas-station lines I also joined, albeit involuntarily.

That counter-demonstration was choreographed, too.  But so, actually, was the original one.  And, honestly, now, who was closer in spirit of the tea partiers of 1773 -- the costumed guardsmen and the salespeople at Salada's on-site exhibit and gift shop that day, or the counter-demonstrators?  I think that today's Tea Partiers know the answer, but that they talk about only half of it.

As Gordon Wood, the great historian of the American Revolution (he's mentioned by Matt Damon in "Good Will Hunting") told me this week, the original Tea Party was a rebellion not just against a tax but against government favoritism for a global corporation it considered too big to fail.

With 17 million pounds of unsold tea languishing in the East India Company's warehouses as other merchants' teas glutted the market, there were rumors that the British government might even revoke the company's charter and take over its management.

Instead, Parliament granted the company an exclusive license to sell tea; removed all duties; forfeited an annual payment the company had made to the government; and advanced a large loan.

Sound familiar?  In 1773, though, all these favors actually lowered the price of tea, underselling as well as excluding Dutch tea smugglers and American tea merchants.  No wonder that "Poor Lord North [King George III's prime minister] thought he was doing the colonists a favor" by saving the company from bankruptcy and giving it a monopoly in America, as Wood explains.

A modest tea tax remained, offending colonists' stand against taxation without representation.  But Wood -- crediting Benjamin Woods Labaree, the authority on the Boston Tea Party -- notes that "Giving the monopoly was probably more important in arousing the anger of many small New England merchants than the tea tax."

Moreover, the few locals who were licensed to carry the company's tea included relatives of Massachusetts' royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson, who ordered ships not to accommodate populist pressure by leaving the harbor without first unloading their tea.

"Samuel Adams and his radicals were looking for an issue to exploit," Wood notes, and Hutchinson's nepotism gave them and local merchants the hot button they needed to turn out the men who actually stormed the ships and dumped the tea.

Forgive me for asking, but had I been given the podium at Nashville instead of Sarah Palin, could I have admonished today's Tea Partiers to dump some of the medicines that are being sold by Big Pharma under the big Bush Administration prescription drug benefit plan, which bars its providers from buying cheaper generic drugs in Canada?

I know that that's awfully radical.  But Samuel Adams was too radical for his cousin John Adams, until the Tea Party made John exult, "This is the most magnificent movement of all. This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, ... and it must have so important consequences, and so lasting, that I cannot but consider it as an epoch in history."

Will today's Tea Partiers give us a new epoch of independence?  Trolling the Tea Party Patriots' website, I do find scathing mentions of oil companies, bankers, Big Pharma, and their lobbyists - but mostly in comments posted by wonderfully sincere, impassioned citizens.

But is Sarah Palin their Sam Adams?  Is there a John Adams among the tea partiers' cheerleaders at Rupert Murdoch's global News Corporation?  Tea Partiers protest rightly that our government is coddling incompetent and dishonest corporations with taxpayers' money.  But will they take direct action against these incompetent and dishonest corporations' control of government?  Or will they just wear revolutionary-era costumes?

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Angelika Preston - 10/10/2010

My interest is not so much in the events and underlying intentions of crowd dynamics as has taken place in global history but in the documented outcome. I pay attention to this because there is evidence of how one thing leads to another. All too often extreme groups are ignored as “insignificant” yet their growth over relatively short periods of time is due in part to the concealed fringe having found a platform that they can legitimately attach themselves to with their own hidden agenda that doesn’t seem to ever lead to anything but war and at worse totalitarian states like the former communist countries or nightmares like Nazi Germany. Neither one of these outcomes is what the general population intended. Proponents of war or totalitarianism, as we have seen repeatedly serve only the few. Those who are least affected by it and profit from it. Those we would psychologically profile as having a psychotic episode caused by a stressor.

I have researched the Boston Tea Party and found the article by Jim Sleeper matches my own conclusions on the parallels to today’s times. The posts are very interesting because they illuminate human nature. Some focus on the tea and others on the larger issue. The Boston Tea Party was not about tea. It was about power and economics argued on a political platform of rights. The event not endorsed by leaders of the time amounts to the actions of an immature act of a few destroying private property. The stressor, in this case, was the authority of the Governor of Massachusetts, a loyalist with self-interest. These Boston “patriots” were an anomaly and not representative of the colonies as a whole. Benjamin Franklin was appalled and insisted the British East India Company be repaid. The Boston Tea Party was opportune. It fueled dissention and led to the war that created this country. The USA could not have happened without war (or could it like Canada did). Can the vision of the USA that the tea party movement has i.e. their ten agenda items of their “Contract” manifest without a civil war? Is there awareness of the implications of their 75% majority requirement to pass legislation and other key acts of congress. It may be ridiculed as absurd and only supported by 50+% members of their own group (itself not meeting the majority vote they require) but more ridiculous ideologies have succeeded. Not without war though.

I don’t believe in guessing what the future will bring or predicting gloom and doom leaving that in the realm of evangelists. I believe in the present. Now is what matters. What I find compelling is looking at the results of events in the past that led to good and bad outcomes. The facts are there and the underlying theme for all of it is fear. I want freedom from fear, particularly freedom from the fears of others that are not mine yet imposed. In a world of pro this and that I find myself pro wisdom.

Andrew D. Todd - 3/12/2010

The executive branch of the European Union has received what amounts to a de-facto vote of no confidence (663-13) in the European Parliament, over the proposed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. This Agreement has become an American initiative, and under the present administration, an exercise in paying off campaign debts to the movie and recording industries. The administration has refused to disclose the terms of the agreement on grounds of national security, even while inviting private companies into the process. President Obama's public support of the treaty yesterday (March 11) is the first really stupid thing he has done.





In a related issue, I understand that Brazil has declared its intention to denounce certain American copyrights and patents, in a trade dispute which originally began over American cotton subsidies.


There have also been curiously heavy-handed efforts to pressure various Asian countries to pay more for American drugs.


Janet DeRose - 2/18/2010

I agree. Great point, David. We need politicians of character and principle that won't be bought by big corporations or any special interest group. America's roots lie in society of and by contract and voluntary association of individuals -- not political interest groups or mobs.

Andrew D. Todd - 2/18/2010

Well, Christopher Hibbert, _Rebels and Redcoats_ (1990, pp. 19-21, apparently citing Labaree) gives a figure of fifteen to twenty million pounds of tea stored at various locations in _India_, and 35,000 pounds of tea (342 chests of about a hundred pounds each) in the Boston Tea Party. That is broadly consistent with ten thousand consumers, and Boston's hinterland must have amounted to a couple of hundred thousand people.

Based on contemporary documentary evidence, such as Hogarth's etchings, the contemporary respectable working-class beverage was beer, which both men and women seem to have put away in large quantities, on the order of a gallon per person per day. For America, one would have to reckon on a higher proportion of Apple trees and hard cider. The line dividing amateur and serious drinkers was distillation. Of course, gin was in a class by itself, and might be spiked with absolutely anything. Sobriety is relative. Likewise, there were a range of herb teas (Pine, Spruce, Chamomile, Sumac, Sassafras, Nettle, Dandelion, etc.), plants which either grew natively in North America, or else in Europe, from whence they were introduced, and thereafter grown locally. Some of these teas, such as Pine and Spruce, had the advantage of providing a source of Vitamin C in winter. These kinds of things were available for the trouble of going into the nearest woods and doing some "botanizing." Tea supported a class of merchants, etc., precisely because it was a luxury good which no one really needed, an article of conspicuous consumption. Americans were economically self-sufficient, in terms of everything they needed, at either the household or the village level. Of course, the other side of the coin was that these urban luxury merchants were much more prone to economic anxiety than the village blacksmith would have been.

It is a mistake to think of the East India Company as a multi-national corporation. The Company was in fact a branch of the British Government, and its structure resembled that of other government institutions. Both the British Army and the British Navy preserved the bureaucratic forms of a mercenary past. Of the first ten or so regiments of the British Army, only two, the Coldstream Guards and the Scots Guards, had not at one time been mercenaries per se. The pattern of English administration was that the old forms continued until there was a crisis of some kind, and reforms became necessary. The East India Company had been given certain commercial privileges to cover the cost of maintaining an army in South Asia and a navy in the Indian Ocean. No one thought that the King of France could buy the East India Company. The East India Company would reach its own crisis point in 1857, with the Mutiny, which was in in good part over the issue of Muslim and Hindu religious autonomy. At that point, India would be taken over by the British Government directly.

A tax on tea, like the tax on French brandy imported into England, was, on the face of it, a reasonable sort of tax, because it fell on a luxury good, which no one really needed. At first sight, it wasn't as if anyone was going to go hungry because of the tax. The only problem was that the tax promoted a culture of smuggling, in Sussex (the Hawkhurst Gang) as well as in America. In both cases, the British government eventually recognized that it had to undersell the smugglers by reducing the tax, and find its revenue from some other source. Of course, what happened in the case of the Boston Tea Party was what happened in a series of other events. Decisions, good enough in themselves, were flawed in detail because the people deciding the details were in London, three thousand miles, and two months sailing, from the point of application. A few years later, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton made similar mistakes in respect of trans-Appalachian whiskey, but due to the shorter distances, they were able to correct their errors before serious damage was done.

One can compare the Boston Tea Party with a typical contemporary European event, a bread riot. What typically happened in a bread riot was that the mob compelled the corn-brokers to sell their stock at the "just price," established by custom, rather than the higher market price resulting from temporary shortages. Interestingly, similar riots are documented in India as well. Bread riots were not so much of an issue in colonial America, where provisions were notoriously cheap. The Tea Party was rather the reverse. The East India Company had a large quantity of tea which was nearly worthless in market terms. There was a glut, and the tea would not keep for ever, so economic logic dictated selling it off at bargain-basement prices.

An authentic development of the Tea Party occurred in New York in the 1840's with the "Anti-Patroon" riots. "Indians" would waylay landlord's agents, sheriff's officers, etc., and would relieve them of their legal papers. Alternatively, the "Indians" might disrupt public auctions of seized property. There was an element of Kabuki about this at times. A sheriff might loudly prompt the "Indians" to threaten him in precisely the right words to allow him to lawfully hand over his papers. He was an elected official, and they were his constituents, and he had no intention of actually serving the papers he had been compelled to accept from the landlord. Of course, the landlord's reaction, on hearing of the sheriff's excessive amiability, might be to get a professional bill-collector deputized on some pretext, and in that case, matters might proceed to tarring and feathering.

The curious thing about all of the latter-day "tea parties," two hundred years after the event, is that they are inauthentic in being merely symbolic. They do not involve the actual economic losses of, say, a serious labor strike. It doesn't matter how many Tea-Partiers gather on the National Mall-- the Mall is a location designed to handle large public gatherings. During the 1980's American autoworkers were known to vandalize Japanese cars, but it only happened sporadically, and did not rise to the level of millions of dollars of damages. During the 1990's, anti-World Trade Organization protests, notably Seattle, did involve the breaking of significant numbers of glass windows. Black-leather-clad anarchists fought with black-leather-clad policemen.

The closest thing I can find to the authentic tradition of the Boston Tea Party in our own time are the various disputes involving recorded music, and similar matters. History does not exactly repeat itself, of course. However, a common element is the sheer extent to which "the tail comes to wag the dog," the sheer number of unintended consequences. Things spin out of control.

The new tea parties are thoroughly international, or rather, their nationality is the internet. In Europe, they have already resulted in a new kind of political party, the "Pirate Party," taking its name from the Swedish music-trading server. Large numbers of European countries have political systems based on proportional representation, as does the European Union itself. The result is that once an interest group can accumulate the statutory five percent of votes, it becomes a parliamentary party. This goal has been achieved in Sweden (more than 7% in the 2009 European Parliament election), and the Swedish Pirate Party now returns two members to the European Parliament. The German Pirate Party, hastily organized in imitation of the Swedes, has received one to two percent in various elections, not enough to be seated, but enough to receive official campaign financing. Most of the other European national Pirate Parties are so new that they have not yet had a chance to contest elections. In Finland, the Pirate Party just missed the deadline for filing petitions in time for the 2009 election. It was able to register as an officially recognized party, and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industries, a music industry trade group, publicly denounced the registration, effectively demanding that Finland's laws be changed. In France, and in the Anglo-Saxon countries, of course, national elections are run on the winner-take-all system, and, in the case of France, a run-off system as well. France has introduced the extremely controversial HADOPI law, providing for the termination of the internet access of those accused of sharing recorded music. Given his connections with music moguls, President Nicolas Sarkozy is at least an interested party. In Britain, the notoriously corrupt New Labor politician, (Peter), Lord Mandelson, known colloquially as "Mandy," is pushing through a similar law.

The United States, unlike England and France, has a strong constitution. The costs of ramming a measure such as that through are high enough, that once the measure has become a subject of widespread controversy, the incentives the movie and recording industries could offer to corrupt politicians would not be worth the risk. Still, there is an emerging crisis over the proposed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, and the secret negotiations leading up to it.

Contexts of the Tea Party:
Henry Christman, _Tin Horns and Calico: An Episode in the Emergence of American Democracy_, 1945. A treatment of the Anti-Patroon riots.

Douglas Hay, Peter Linebaugh, John G. Rule, E. P. Thompson, and Cal Winslow, Albions's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England, 1975

David Arnold, "Looting, Grain Riots, and Government Policy in South India, 1918," _Past and Present_, 84:111-145, 1979

Neil Charlesworth, "The Myth of the Deccan Riots of 1875," _Modern Asian Studies_, 6(4):401-421, 1972

Sugata Bose, "The Roots of Communal Violence in Rural Bengal: A Study of the Kishoreganj Riots, 1930," _Modern Asian Studies_, 16(3), 1982, p463-91

Lakshmi Subramanian, "Capital and Crowd in a Declining Asian Port City: The Anglo-Bania Order and the Surat Riots of 1795," _Modern Asian Studies_, 19(2):205-237, 1985


The New Tea Parties:






Janet DeRose - 2/16/2010

Jim Sleeper queries, "Will teapartiers give us a new epoch of independence?" We have yet to see that.

All I know is that more than taxes, the colonists and founding fathers fought for their rights -- individual rights -- not bogus group, "collective" rights.

No organization today puts forth these same efforts on behalf of our individual rights as ARC, The Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights.

Until understanding of the proper place and value of individual rights is restored in politics and culture, this country will continue to flounder regardless of all the tea partiers or Sara Palins of the world.

The moral code of regarding Man as a sacrifical animal is on its way out.

David Alan Skidmore - 2/15/2010

You lament the fact that the tea party people do not lambast the corporations and their lobbyists. Instead they rail against the government. Well, the government is the entity that grants favors whether it is the East Indies Company or Big Pharma. The political entrepreneur will always be knocking on the government's door as long as there is money to be made. Cut off the money or fire the politician seems to be the only course of answer. Railing against the corporation is inane and unproductive.

Dale R Streeter - 2/14/2010

Two points.
Sure, on average that may work out, but is it a safe assumption that every person, men and women, would drink tea? Could everyone afford to drink tea? I'm not an authority on colonial America, I'm only asking.
Also, is it likely or even possible that 17 million pounds of tea could be gathered together in one place? What would be the size and weight of a tea bale? Did Boston warehouses have that capacity? Again, no agenda here, just curious.

David Austin Walsh - 2/14/2010

Well, the modern annual per capita consumption of tea in the UK is around 4.6 pounds. Assuming that consumption levels were about the same in colonial America, the 4 million Americans counted during the 1790 census would have drunk about 18 million pounds a year.

Dale R Streeter - 2/14/2010

"17 million pounds of unsold tea languishing in the East India Company's warehouses"

That's a lot of tea! How long would it take to drink that much tea?