In a country with a story as long and colorful as ours, there is hardly a date on the calendar that was not — at some point — an important day in American history. It would be tedious to comment on all of them, yet I cannot help but note that yesterday marked one of my favorite events in American history, the Boston Tea Party.
There are two reasons I like the Boston Tea Party so much — one “low” and one “high.” The low reason is that it is a good reminder that the Founding generation was not all about highfalutin philosophy and earnest debate about first principles of government. Far from it! There was a lot of mob-like activity during the eleven years between the end of the War of 1765 and the Declaration of Independence. There was also, to be blunt about it, quite a lot of booze consumed by said mobs.
And yet, the Boston Tea Party stands out for its sheer criminality. Basically, a group of revolutionary radicals and tea merchants conspired to destroy thousands of pounds’ worth of India’s finest. That is hardly an act consistent with a revolution that would be premised in part upon the protection of private property. And for their part, colonists throughout the rest of the continent were frankly embarrassed by this. Benjamin Franklin encouraged the city of Boston to pay for the damages. A 23-year-old James Madison wrote to his college friend William Bradford, “I wish Boston may conduct matters with as much discretion as they seem to do boldness.” The Boston Tea Party became a galvanizing issue only when the government of Prime Minister Lord North overreacted, passing the so-called “Intolerable Acts,” placing Massachusetts under martial law. The rest of the colonies came to appreciate that, if Great Britain was prepared to revoke God-given rights and ancient governments from Bostonians, it was prepared to do it to anybody else in North America, too.
There is also a higher lesson to be drawn from the Boston Tea Party. The attitude among many progressives these days is that the Founding story is of little use because it happened so long ago, and its main characters were racist, sexist, homophobes. As Vox’s editor-at-large, Ezra Klein, noted a few years ago, the Constitution is “confusing” because it was “written more than 100 years ago.” Call me old-fashioned, but I think that with some careful application of the gray matter, confusion can give way to clarity. And so it is with the Boston Tea Party.
The origins of the Boston Tea Party were in the Tea Act of 1773. In the spring of 1773, North was in a bind, due to the declining fortunes of the British East India Company. The East India Company was suffering under a sizeable surplus of tea and was in financial jeopardy. In a free-market system, that would not have been a problem for His Majesty’s government, but that was not how the East India Company operated. Publicly chartered in 1603, it had a monopoly over English trade with India — which had made many Englishmen, including many members of Parliament, fantastically rich. The government could not afford to let the East India Company go under. So, North’s government exerted more control over the East India Company, but also offered it a quasi-bailout in the form of the Tea Act. The East India Company would be allowed to sell its tea directly to North America, hopefully eliminating the illegal tea trade and cutting out North American tea merchants. The reduced costs for the colonists would, North hoped, make them amenable to paying the Townshend Duties on tea, thereby validating Parliament’s right to tax them.
This maneuver was too clever by half. The Sons of Liberty — the radical vanguard of Bostonian politics — joined with disgruntled tea merchants in an act of protest on Dec. 16, 1773. The rest, they say, is history.
The lesson for contemporary readers might be styled cronyism and its discontents. Lord North was particularly solicitous of the East India Company’s fortunes because the government was all tangled up with this private business. As for the North American tea merchants who were more or less ruined by this act of favoritism, well, too bad for them.
The Boston Tea Party, in other words, is an illustration of the dangers of government favoritism. In the Anglo-American understanding of government, there is a broad expectation for equal treatment under the law. When the government ignores that, when it plays favorites to the well-connected and the wealthy, when it leaves other people on the outside looking in, it runs the risk of a popular uprising — a populist movement, if you will. And in many instances, the populist response to government inequity is not reasonable or high-minded because, to put it plainly, people are ticked off.
The British East India Company was a product of the mercantilist mindset that dominated British economic policy during the early modern age. That theory of political economy has mostly been done away with, thank goodness. But governments today are still stubbornly insistent on micromanaging the economy, which inevitably entangles them with private interests. It is rare indeed to see the government create losers like Lord North did to the Boston tea merchants, but our government still likes to pick winners and losers in our economy and society.
I think it is worth asking, as we commemorate the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, whether that is really a good idea.