Although the event is now steeped in the mythology of American democracy, a new book reveals a sour side to the Boston Tea Party.
A potent brew
Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & The Making of America
Benjamin L Carp
Yale University Press
On the night of December 16, 1773, a group of more than a hundred men - some bundled against the cold, others sporting coal-blackened faces and improvised Mohawk costumes - boarded three ships at anchor off Griffin's Wharf in Boston and broke open 340 wooden chests containing nearly 50 tons of British East India Company tea. The men were orderly and businesslike as they dumped cargo into Boston Harbor rather than let it be unloaded and sold in the city. Some, however, kept leaves of tea as souvenirs of the night's event.
When they were done they disappeared back into the ranks of the general public. They had committed the most famous act of civil disobedience in post-Enlightenment times. The generation that followed those men and boys dubbed their action "The Boston Tea Party," and it has since become enshrined in American cultural memory as the quintessential example of a grassroots rejection of tyranny.
It only underscores the effectiveness of that symbolism to stress that everything about the Boston Tea Party was carefully stage-managed. The myth of an outraged populace spontaneously boiling over with rage is a powerful palliative to the downtrodden, hence its strength and longevity. It is perpetuated even in American politics today, where in the last year a wave of "Tea Party" candidates have attempted to cloak naked ambition in that same myth, with decidedly mixed results.
This is not to say the outrage wasn't real. In the 20 years prior to that cold night 18th-century night, the American colonies had been subjected to multiple new duties and taxes designed by the British Parliament to dampen the frightening potential vigour of American trade, as well as to help defray the monumental costs of the world war which Britain was fighting with France - a war in which the colonies had been substantial beneficiaries.
In one sense, Lord North and his government in London (of which the Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson was a dutiful servant) might have felt justified in treating their American colonies as wayward children. Should they not have been grateful for the protection of the mightiest nation on Earth, rather than resentful of the niggardly taxations represented by the Townshend Duties, the Stamp Act, the Revenue Act, and the like?
And yet, every such measure did indeed spark resentment. In a letter to a friend Governor Hutchinson bemoaned the Tea Act, which gave an import monopoly to the British East India Company and a further monopoly on sales to a privileged list of Tory agents in the colonies - effectively cutting American merchants entirely out of this lucrative chain of commerce. As Benjamin L Carp writes in Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & The Making of America:"The years 1767 to 1773were banner years for tea smugglers, who were newly aware that they were engaging not only in illicit activity but in a political act."
As memorable and evocative as the Tea Party was, the whole thing was over in less than two hours, so Carp needs to do a considerable amount of backing up and filling in. Defiance of the Patriots uses the event as a climax and cynosure as it relates the long story of the British government's serial mismanagement of the American colonies. Carp's cast of characters is therefore largely drawn from New England: John and Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, James Otis, Joseph Warren, and several of 18th-century Boston's lesser lights fill these pages. Chief among the latter were William Molineux, a Boston hardware merchant and general-purpose muckraker whose command of the mob in the streets made him the most powerful man in town, and Ebenezer Mackintosh, a head-breaker from the city's South End who did the dirty work for patriot leaders who wouldn't have dreamed of letting him into their parlours.
At 6pm on December 16, when word was brought to the assembled citizens in Boston's Old South Meeting House that Governor Hutchinson refused to send away the three ships bearing all that East India Company tea, Samuel Adams mounted the pulpit and melodramatically said: "This meeting can do nothing more to save the country" - and before the last word had left his mouth, the gangs organised by men like Molineux and Mackintosh were whooping and heading toward Griffin's Wharf. Had the average tea-drinking citizen of Boston objected to any of this, they would have likely have ended up dumped in the harbour, too.
Carp is aware of this double-edged nature of his subject - perhaps too aware. Passages like the following abound:
Though some worried that families were squandering their disposable income on frivolities like tea and saucers, many economists believed that such expenditures enlivened international trade and enhanced the national income. Though some questioned whether tea was healthy, others praised the way that its bitterness balanced the seductive sweetness of sugar. Though chauvinists criticized women who mixed their tea with gossip, many commentators praised the way in which women civilised men and brought the family together at afternoon tea.
That double-edged aspect - rowdy young people bent on bucking authority (as Carp points out, over half the people of Boston in 1765 were under 16); established merchants fearing the loss of their livelihood; patriots mouthing words about freedom employing mob violence no more representative of (or responsive to) the will of the majority than were the British troops sent to the city - informed every aspect of the Tea Party. Thoughtful consideration of its implications governs Defiance of the Patriots, which does a nice job balancing philosophy and practicality.
"'Liberty' and 'freedom' have always had multiple meanings," Carp reminds us. "The Boston Sons of Liberty emphasised the importance of legislative representation, the consent of the governed, an independent judiciary, and the constitutional safeguards that protected people and property from arbitrary government. The Boston Tea Party specifically assailed taxation without representation, the danger of a government-supported monopoly, and the injustice of American tax revenue supporting an unaccountable executive."
This kind of summary would have made Samuel Adams smile with approval - it proves the durability of the agenda he set 200 years ago, one so attractive it almost always manages to crowd out any mention of money, profit, or the fact that three-quarters of colonial Boston's economy was built on smuggling.
The Boston Tea Party provoked a quick and stern response from the British government, as Benjamin Franklin observed first-hand in London: "The violent Destruction of the Tea seems to have united all parties here against our Province." The Boston Port Bill, the first of a group of measures that rebels later came to call the Intolerable Acts, was passed without dissent and closed the port of Boston to all local commerce. British warships were to blockade the eastern sea coast, and British troops were shipped over and quartered on the city of Boston.
The American Revolution precipitated very quickly thereafter. And, as Carp himself is fully aware, posterity has responded to the Tea Party with equal speed: "Even before the last of the Tea Party participants had died, the memory of the Boston Tea Party was being taken from them and appropriated for other political uses". As long as such appropriations continue, helpful histories like Carp's will be badly needed.
Steve Donoghue's work has appeared in The Columbia Journal of American Studies, The Historical Novel Review and Kirkus. He is the managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.