Below is my column in The Hill on the increasingly common rationalization that looting and property damage is a long-standing tradition first embraced by the Sons of Liberty in the Boston Tea Party. That historical analogy was very popular in the days before the Fourth of July. A professor made the comparison on CNN on the Fourth. The view is widely raised in universities like the column in the University of Arizona’s Daily Wildcat newspaper declaring “The Boston Tea Party was when we first saw looting as a form of protest in America. White people acting out in anger is literally celebrated in our history books.” Likewise, at the University of Dayton last week, a column stated “There is something to be said when our White founders destroying British property in the Boston Tea Party is glorified in every textbook, but burning down a Target for the rights of African Americans to simply breathe is damned in the media.”
It is a revisionist historical argument that is as convenient as it is wrong. While the Framers would have supported the vast majority of protesters who engaged in peaceful demonstrations for reform and racial equality, the Sons of Liberty would have been the first to denounce the concept of wanton property destruction or looting as a means for social change.
Here is the column:
As the country celebrates Independence Day, many of us will view monuments that have been toppled, defaced or entombed in protective fencing. Businesses throughout the country have been vandalized or boarded up, creating a surreal landscape for many this holiday.
Most protesters did not engage in rioting or looting. Yet, the only thing more maddening than the random destruction is an increasingly common media rationalization that today’s rioters are the new Boston Tea Party patriots continuing a long tradition of property damage as a form of political speech. These rioters have as much in common with the Boston Tea Party as the Antifa movement has with the Anti-Federalists.
The rationalization is not new. After violence and looting in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, leading Black Lives Matter figure DeRay McKesson was hired by Yale University to lecture on “Transformative Leadership.” McKesson’s lecture included reading about how looting is a “righteous tactic,” and he defended property damage as a tradition dating to the Boston Tea Party. Many in the media have raised the analogy, including CNN’s Don Lemon, who recently chastised anyone “judging” the looting and rioting because “our country was started because — this is how — the Boston Tea Party. Rioting… this is how this country started.”
Even some academics have given these crimes the imprimatur of history or patriotism. Journalism professor Steven W. Thrasher at Northwestern University wrote in Slate that “property destruction for social change is as American as the Boston Tea Party.”
These and other statements misrepresent history. Consider just five glaring conflicts:
The Tea Party’s “Sons of Liberty” did not commit “property destruction for social change”
It is certainly true that the Sons of Liberty destroyed property but they did not do it for social change and some likely did not it for political change. The embrace of the Sons of Liberty as a model by the left is as comical as it is incorrect. They were the ultimate capitalist movement. Some of these men were tea merchants or tea smugglers upset with the sale of huge amounts of tea by England’s East India Company under the Tea Act. Indeed, one would think today’s activists would be least likely to embrace a group of militant capitalists engaged in the most famous act of cultural appropriation in history.
The Sons — dressed as Mohawk Indians — wanted to destroy the tea itself. The taxation of tea was not, as commonly thought, the triggering of this confrontation; tea had been taxed, along with other items, since 1767 as part of the Townshend Revenue Act. In 1770, those taxes were lifted — except on tea, to enable the East India Co. to sell 544,000 excess pounds in storage by undercutting the market in the colonies.
The “tea party” was more like supporters of U.S.-made steel dumping Mexican steel into Houston’s port. The targeting of the tea had as much of an economic as a political purpose. None embraced the concept of generally destroying property to change society.
The Sons of Liberty were not looters
Another problem with today’s rationalizations is that the Sons of Liberty were not looters in common meaning of that term. More importantly, they actions were manifestly different from what we witnessed across the country. They did not take the tea home. Conversely, today’s looters seen carrying flat-screen TVs out of Target stores were not desperately seeking a harbor to toss away cursed symbols of Sony’s tyranny. They were stealing TVs. While academics like Clifford Stott, professor of social psychology at Keele University, may assure CNN that “looting is an expression of power,” it is primarily a crime for personal gain.
The Sons of Liberty did not advocate wanton property destruction
In fact, they would have been the first to condemn today’s destruction. We know that because they said so. Before boarding three tea ships, the Sons agreed they would not cause damage beyond destroying the tea. (The ships actually were owned by Americans). Samuel Adams, one of the leaders, insisted that the Sons carry out their mission “without the least Injury to the Vessels or any other property.” After the Sons broke a padlock to access one ship’s hold, they returned the next day to replace it.
That is in stark contrast to Greater New York Black Lives Matter president Hawk Newsome’s defense of the use of violence “because this country is built upon violence. What was the American Revolution, what’s our diplomacy across the globe?” He added “if this country doesn’t give us what we want, then we will burn down this system and replace it. All right?” The Sons of Liberty would say that is not right, as they did in 1773.
The Sons of Liberty did not start the revolution or receive wide support
There is a popular misconception that the Sons of Liberty were widely praised for their actions and galvanized the nation to rebel against the British Crown. Many patriots, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, condemned their act. It was the Crown’s heavy-handed response to this and other acts that fueled the call for independence.
Indeed, if the British government had not stupidly ratcheted up oppressive measures, the Boston Tea Party could have worked to its advantage with many Americans who wanted to reconcile with England, including many of our Framers.
The Sons of Liberty lacked liberty
These were the “Sons of Liberty,” not the “Sons of Anarchy.” The biggest difference is that, putting aside economic interests, the Sons wanted liberty and representation. We now have a Constitution that affords the self-determination and rights that were denied to them. Yet, looting, arson and vandalism are being committed today despite the legal and legislative options for reform. Indeed, soon after the killing of George Floyd, an array of reforms already were proposed. These criminal acts have made reforms more difficult, not more likely.
As a nation, we fought the Crown to free ourselves from arbitrary acts and injuries — not to empower such acts by our own citizens. Samuel Adams declared, “Among the natural rights of the colonists are these: First a right to life, secondly to liberty, and thirdly to property; together with the right to defend them in the best manner they can.” In other words, he would not have been in the mob shattering an auto-parts store’s windows. He and his compatriots more likely would be the guys in New England Patriots Jerseys standing in front protecting the store in Boston.
The vast majority of protesters have been peaceful. They have forced us all to think about racial inequities and personal prejudices. However, the destruction of property and monuments are the very type of capriciousness that patriots condemned. There are many contemporary causes for violence and anger; they are worth discussing — but leave the Sons of Liberty and the Boston Tea Party out of this.