The one-sentence version of the Boston Tea Party is that in December 1773, angry colonists dumped a load of tea into Boston Harbor because they didn’t want to pay the tax on it. That’s true as far as it goes, but the full story is a bit more complicated — and holds even more instructive parallels for the tea partiers of today.
For one thing, the tea tax was not new in 1773. It had been in effect since 1767, and in spite of sporadic attempts at a boycott, many colonists had wearily reconciled themselves to paying it. Others consumed tea smuggled in on Dutch ships (which was cheaper, though generally thought inferior), or bought from importers who had bribed the tax collector.
Meanwhile, the gigantic East India Company (EIC), which imported goods from Britain’s South Asian colonies, had a large and growing amount of tea sitting in its London warehouses. To help the EIC sell the surplus in the American colonies, in mid-1773 Parliament passed a new Tea Act, which did several things. First of all, it allowed the EIC to pay the tea tax in London, either before shipping or after it had been sold, instead of paying at dockside. This was meant to make the tax less conspicuous and to cut down on bribery. It also granted the EIC what amounted to a subsidy on tea sold in America, so it could undercut the smugglers, and it let the EIC ship tea to America on its own account and consign it to a handful of favored wholesalers there, instead of working through British and American middlemen who would sell it on the open market.
Some in the British government advised the prime minister, Lord North, to take a simpler course. Instead of messing around with accounting tricks and hidden subsidies, why not just eliminate the tax? After all, the amount taken in barely defrayed the costs of collecting it, and eliminating it would put the EIC on an equal footing with the Dutchmen. But North was adamant: The tax had to stay.
North insisted on the tax for several reasons. One was to avoid handing the American rebels a victory; another was to establish the principle that London could tax the colonies when it wanted. Most important, however, was that revenues from the tea tax were earmarked to pay colonial officials — in particular, judges. This made the judges beholden to the central government. If there were no tea tax, the colonists would collect their own taxes to pay — and thus have control over — their judges. Such a degree of local autonomy could never be allowed to flourish.
In other words, the government was using indirect means to collect a hated tax, while pretending to save the citizens money; it was regulating the economy to bail out big corporate allies and reward favored businessmen; and all this was done for the purpose of reinforcing the central government’s authority over the lives of distant citizens.
The clumsy maneuver united the general public with businessmen who were losing out on the deal, with everyone opposed to the scheme’s sinister mix of deviousness, favoritism, market rigging, and centralization. American patriots worried that if a de facto government-regulated monopoly was established in this one area of the economy, it would quickly spread to others. That’s the real parallel between the Boston Tea Party and the tea partiers.
In 1773 as today, respectable supporters of the cause were uneasy about the participation of undisciplined masses; Benjamin Franklin called for the cost of the destroyed tea to be repaid. And to be sure, many of the tactics used by 1770s revolutionaries — not just seizure of property but vandalism, physical intimidation, tarring and feathering, and the like — have no place in today’s politics. Even back then, they were considered extreme, which is why the original Tea Partiers had to disguise themselves (as Indians, according to legend) and act under cover of night. Their descendants today engage in nothing more violent than the occasional vivid metaphor. Similarly, it’s worth recalling that while Boston’s rebels were protesting taxation without representation, today’s protesters have duly elected representatives in Congress — just not enough of them. That’s why their efforts are focused on winning back government through the ballot box instead of shaking it off through force.
In both cases, the government expected a supine public to accept a loss of liberty in exchange for a seeming benefit (“cheap” tea, “universal” medical care). The British ministry thought the public would be too dumb to see through the Tea Act, or too apathetic to care, just as the Democrats thought today’s public would eagerly devour the poisoned lollipop of Obamacare. And in both cases, the government didn’t know when to cut its losses in the face of determined resistance. While Barack Obama’s response to today’s tea parties will not be as heavy-handed as that of Lord North in 1774, we can hope that today’s Americans will be just as vigilant in defense of their freedom as the original tea partiers were.
– Fred Schwarz is a deputy managing editor of National Review.