Author’s note: Last week’s entry on American History was so well-received, I thought another might be of interest:
During the cold night of December 16, 1773, several dozen radicals, face-painted to resemble Mohawk Indians, stole aboard three American vessels moored in Boston Harbor christened the Dartmouth, Beaver, and Eleanor. There, the band broke open 340 chests of Chinese tea belonging to the East India Company and tossed the contents overboard. Popular myth has it that the act was widely celebrated in the colonies as an act of defiance and that it was all about higher taxes on tea. Both myths are decidedly … well, mythical.
Likely coming as a shock to our modern-day “Tea Party” devotees, the Boston version was not a protest over higher taxes on tea, but over a tax break engineered by the British Crown to save the East India Company. Also, the act of piracy was not particularly well-received by the majority of colonists, and became an object of scorn. In fact, most of the tea party conspirators fled Boston after the event to avoid arrest.
According to an article by Ray Raphael entitled “Debunking Boston Tea Party Myths,” the true motivator for this first meeting of the real Tea Party Movement was to protest a government bailout of the East India Company by the British Crown. It seems the world’s first mega-corporation was, like the mega-corps of our day, facing near collapse because of the bubble caused by speculative banking schemes that burst in Europe in 1772. Under Royal Charter since 1600, the East India Company effectively ruled over much of India and also controlled a large share of the world’s tea production. When the banking crisis froze credit all over Europe, tea began to pile up in the Company’s warehouses. British politicians publicly aghast at corporate greed, set about privately to bail out the Company with legislation designed to make tea more affordable.
What came out of the sausage grinder was the Tea Act of 1773 which repealed the tax on tea that landed on British shores headed for America. Behind the idea was the economic reality that Europe was awash in 18 million pounds of surplus tea. The colonies actually craved more tea (it was the recreational drug of its day), so a marriage made in London was arranged. Oh, America still had to pay the puny import duty, but Parliament made sure to “cut out the middle man” by allowing the Company to sell tea directly to American consumers thus reducing the ultimate cost. What could be wrong with that, reasoned the distinguished men of Westminster. Plus, as an added bonus, it would save the Company and the Empire.
What the London cartel didn’t consider was the personality of the New Englander who resented any tax break he or she didn’t come up with themselves. They were also tone-deaf to the feelings of colonists about the Currency Act of 1764. Sponsored by the Bank of England, the law forbade the colonies from printing their own paper money thus forcing them to pay in precious metals which they borrowed from banks (guess which one) at exorbitant interest rates.
As Raphael puts it, ” For the Americans, the fundamental issue was one of self-governance. Whoever levied taxes got to call the shots, including how to spend the money. Parliament insisted on taxing colonists to support—and command—colonial administration. Colonists countered that they were more than willing to tax—and rule—themselves. “No more taxation without representation” became their rallying cry, not “down with high taxes.” Even Benjamin Franklin downplayed the role of the tea import duty on causing the American Revolution saying, “… the colonies would gladly have borne the little tax on tea and other matters had it not been that England took away from the colonies their money, which created unemployment and dissatisfaction.”
The revolt was not well-received outside of the radical fringe that perpetrated it. George Washington chided “their conduct in destroying tea,” and Benjamin Franklin argued for compensating the corporate giant for the losses. The deed itself was not recognized as the “Boston Tea Party” for over 50 years. In fact, tea drinking was frowned upon in the colonies and considered either a faint evil or “slow poison.” One Virginia newspaper considering the habit, even went so far as to lament, “our race is dwindled and become puny, weak, and disordered to such a degree, that were it to prevail a century more we should be reduced to mere pigmies.”
What riled the rest of America were not the works of the faux Native Americans, but the British reaction to the Tea Party. Passed in its wake, the “Intolerable Acts” closed Boston Harbor and denied Americans the rights they took for granted as British subjects. This was the match that lit the fuse for revolution, not the costume party on the water.
–Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger