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The Federalist
The Federalist
16 Dec 2023

NextImg:What The Boston Tea Party Teaches Us 250 Years Later

They came like torches in the night, swarming over the sides of the three ships anchored in Griffin Harbor: the Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver. Their faces were painted black, red, and copper from lamp soot and paint, bodies wrapped in blankets or wearing “old frocks, red woollen caps, gowns, and all manner of like devices.”

Axes pecked away at locks. Three hundred and forty wooden crates were cracked, scalped, and gutted, their 92,000 pounds of black powdered innards thrown into the water, turning it dark. After three hours, it was over. The only piece of personal property destroyed during the exercise was a padlock belonging to one of the captains, and this was replaced the next day.

The Boston Tea Party — which occurred 250 years ago this Dec. 16 — may not have been the spark that ignited the American Revolution, but it set the pieces up for the great conflict. Because of the tea’s destruction, Parliament retaliated throughout 1774 with the Coercive Acts.

The Boston Port Bill (March 25) closed Boston Harbor to any and all trade; the Massachusetts Government Act (May 20) replaced the elected delegates of the Massachusetts Council with the king’s appointees, gave the royal governor the power to select sheriffs and sheriffs the power to select juries, and restricted town meetings; the Impartial Administration of Justice Act (May 20) empowered the royal governor to move trials out of Massachusetts as far as Britain, depriving the colonists of impartial trials by jury (a right that went back to 1215 and the Magna Carta); and the Quartering Act (June 2), which was applied to all the colonies, allowed officers to demand better accommodations for their troops. While the act specified that troops be put up in “uninhabited houses, out-houses, barns, or other buildings,” and not in private homes, Americans were to be billed for all the expenses tallied up by their “guests.”

The American response was sharp. “For flagrant injustice and barbarity, one might search in vain among the archives of Constantinople to find a match for it,” declared Samuel Adams. John Dickinson of Philadelphia said that “the insanity of Parliament has acted like inspiration in America. The Colonists now know what is designed against them.”

Resistance in the form of days of fasting and prayer called for by colonial assemblies and resolutions pledging a boycott of British goods swept across the Atlantic seaboard. Later that September, the First Continental Congress met and drafted the Continental Association, an intercolonial alliance that would ban all imports and exports to and from the mother country. Some delegates, such as John Adams, with Nostradamus eyes, could already see the final break still seven months away. And something even more important happened. According to historian Joseph Ellis:

Previously, the only identity the colonists shared in common was membership in the British Empire. During the summer of 1774 a major shift was occurring. They now shared a common conviction that their equal status within the empire was being downgraded. What was happening to their brothers and sisters in Boston was a preview of what soon could be happening to them.  

Ironically, the British forged the very spirit that would ultimately defeat them in 1781.

Although only a prelude to the Revolution, the Boston Tea Party still has pertinent lessons for us today, especially in our specific moment. Like today, Americans 250 years ago faced an openly hostile government, much stronger than they were, and it was determined to prove its dominion over the colonies regardless of cost. The specifics have changed, but the familiar beats can be distinctly heard.

Lessons from the Past

The first lesson is to fight intelligently. When we think of the revolution, we think of the Spirit of ’76, the Minutemen at Lexington, Washington crossing the Delaware. We think of marches and speeches and flags defiantly waving. But 12 whole years of organization, planning, and activities came before the first actual line of resistance formed on Lexington Green.

The colonists took seriously the words of Christ, “Be thou gentle as doves and wise as serpents.” The Tea Partiers were no different. While they did not actually dress as Mohawk Indians, the painted faces, frocks, caps, and blankets were necessary disguises.

Many of the Tea Party’s participants were younger men, apprentices whose masters were Tories. Because apprentices were more than just employees but were legally bound to their masters and their masters’ trades, any participant recognized by shrewd, hostile eyes would have been punished to the full extent of the law. And the full extent reached far. Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor of Massachusetts, described the Tea Party as high treason, the punishment for which was still hanging, drawing, and quartering. Therefore, the disguises.

But why disguise themselves as American Indians? And why identify as Mohawks, a tribe native to New York, and not the Narragansett Indians who lived close to Boston? Even by 1773, Indians were a symbol to Americans and Europeans of purity — simpler people who had escaped the decadence of Europeans, a decadence Americans feared would corrupt them next. And, of course, as so-called “savages,” American Indians were seen in part as fierce warriors, the Mohawks being recognized as some of the most ferocious. Call it LARPing or meme magic or mythological recreation, but the colonists seem to have taken the “war paint” and name of warriors to become warriors themselves, warriors native to the New World, untainted by Europe.

In other words, Bostonians took a symbol and made it their own because they understood the power of symbols. For all the assumptions made that America was an “enlightenment nation” that always steered by cold, Vulcan reason, the revolutionaries and founders were men of keen imagination who understood that logical arguments were not sufficient. They mixed people and events from the classical world, the Bible, and England together into a unique blend for the cause of independence, whether it was in their letters and pamphlets, putting on plays of republican virtue, or actually dressing as ancient Romans.

Relevance to Today’s Election

The third lesson is harder. Right now, we are in the midst of a presidential election, and most people are backing one candidate over another and declaring all candidates but theirs to be inadequate at best, corrupt at worst. The enthusiasm is fine but misplaced. The truth is that no one is coming to our rescue on a white charger. If there is to be any hope for the United States, it will have to come from the same force that powers the Constitution: We, the People. John Adams recognized this when he wrote about the Boston Tea Party in his diary:

There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity, in this last Effort of the Patriots, that I greatly admire. The People should never rise, without doing something to be remembered — something notable And striking. This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences, and so lasting, that I cant but consider it as an Epocha in History.

Adams didn’t wonder to himself why an Alfred or a Cato hadn’t ridden to Boston’s rescue. Instead, he instinctively knew that a people who claimed to be self-governing and were supposedly fighting to preserve their traditions of self-government would have to save themselves. People who expected saviors must be willing to accept kings and lords. A free people must roll up their sleeves and do the hard work of freeing themselves. Voting is part of that, but it is not nearly enough to vote for a candidate on Election Day with crossed fingers and then expect him to rub a magic lamp if he wins office.

And this leads to the fourth lesson, which might be the most painful: the willingness to suffer the consequences of actions taken on behalf of a cause. When Parliament and George III punished Boston and the rest of the colonies, the easiest thing to have done would have been to beg for mercy and pay for the tea ($1.7 million in today’s currency). After all, who knew how bad things could and would get? But writing to James Warren on Dec. 17, 1773, John Adams again offered ice clear words:   

Threats, Phantoms, Bugbears, by the million, will be invented and propagated among the People upon this occasion. Individuals will be threatened. … Armies and Navies will be talked of — military Execution — Charters annull’d — Treason — Tryals in England and all that. But — these Terrors, are all but Imaginations. Yet if they should become Realities they had better be Suffered, than the great Principle, of Parliamentary Taxation given up.

Truth never changes. And after 250 years, neither have the words of those early Americans nor their actions.