It was 250 years ago that colonists from Massachusetts dressed in disguise, boarded the Dartmouth, and dumped East India Tea into Boston Harbor. The last remnant of the otherwise repealed tax laws, the tax on tea, offered the rallying cry of No Taxation without Representation! Many locals found this defiance, this bold, brash, deliberate act to be joyous – a party! Others were appalled, mostly because it did nothing to hurt Parliament directly since this was (a really inferior, possibly spoiled) private company’s product. Some believe this entire escapade was pure theater to protect the interests of the tea smugglers and ensure that they could still make a profit.
In any event, like the Boston Massacre of three years prior, the lore of the Boston Tea Party was born. Following close on its tails would come the Coercive Acts. We’ll get to those shortly. But, just focus in on the actual event of December 16, 1773. After a meeting of townsfolk in Old South Meeting House, probably about 100 men ended up disguising themselves as members of the Mohawk tribe with the intent of destroying the tea in crates aboard the Dartmouth at Griffin's Wharf. There are a lot of aspects to this, but one so curious is that this ragtag group sticks religiously to the plan. No other cargo is destroyed (including Phillis Wheatley’s first publication, also on board The Dartmouth). Indeed, the story goes that the men who dumped the tea also swabbed the decks. Folks even went out in small boats in the ensuing days to submerge any lingering floating tea crates and ensure the damage to the tea.
Only one man was arrested, Francis Akeley. Whether he was charged or not is unclear, but he would live to fight for freedom and die on the same battlefield as the great Joseph Warren in the battle of Bunker Hill less than two years later. There was no wholesale entry into Mohawk territory to round up suspects or blame the members of that nation for dumping the tea. According to some accounts, nearby staffed British ships made no effort to stop the action. Whatever opinion people carry regarding destruction of private property or the choice of disguise, the discipline of this group of individuals is truly remarkable. This was all to avoid the tax on tea. Granted, there was a lot of tea – over 90,000 pounds of tea – so the tax would have been significant. But, what followed was, well, intolerable.
Retribution from British Parliament was fast and furious; it came in the form of The Coercive Acts. These included The Massachusetts Government Act which outlawed town meetings and abolished elected local leaders in favor of those appointed by Parliament to rule over the people of Massachusetts, The Administration of Justice Act which declared that trials for crimes committed by residents of Massachusetts could be tried in England if the Governor (appointed by Parliament) determined that a fair trial could not be had in the colony, The Quartering Act which allowed the British military to order private citizens to house soldiers in their homes and inns, and the Quebec Act which designated territory to be a Catholic enclave. While Massachusetts bore the brunt of these new laws, people in other colonies recognized that their fate was tied together with Massachusetts as far as the King and Parliament were concerned.
The Boston Tea Party was a deliberate act. Certainly, it was a conspiracy to commit malicious destruction of property. It was possibly a conspiracy to commit larceny of the tea. At the time, given the goal, it was only tangentially an offense against the crown in that by destroying the tea, no tax would be paid for it thereby depriving the King of the (according to the colonists, unlawful) tax payment. Maybe it was a crime, maybe it was a tort against the East India Tea Company, but it was not punished as either. The punishment was collective – all people would be subject to the new laws. The reaction was a classic example of overkill. And it was overkill on purpose where the King believed this would finally shut the colonists up. It backfired, as most such measures do.
Yet, this kind of reaction by those in power continues. The terrifying aspect of these kinds of laws today – think: punishment for providing food or water to people waiting in line to vote, criminalizing medical procedures, banning books from schools, etc. – is that we are a republic and not a kingdom. The whole point of fighting the Revolutionary War was to create self-rule, to trust in elections, to embrace a republican form of government, and in theory at least, to continue to perfect our union. The way we got there was by recognizing that if we do not hang together then we most certainly will hang alone.
This has always been a fragile and tenuous union of disparate people in far flung places. As a nation, we have progressed from one where slavery of other human beings established the foundation of the economy to one where slavery is outlawed everywhere (except prisons) and we maintain the most powerful economy in the world. We have progressed from a nation where only those rich enough to own property could vote to one where poll taxes have been universally abolished. We support the individual states as laboratories of democracy in order to learn best practices from each other, not to outdo each other on how low we can set the bar for protective laws for the most vulnerable.
This is an inflection point not because of some amorphous idea of policies that are backward and stupid, but because we truly risk our very democracy if we continue to tolerate oppressive impositions on those least able to fight back. When the folks disguised themselves and dumped the tea, they may not have envisioned the sledgehammer that came down. But, they were prepared to stand their ground and fight back against what they believed was wrong even if it meant dying for the cause of freedom. When the outraged King approved the Coercive Acts, he purportedly declared, “The die is now cast. The Colonies must either submit or triumph.”
The colonies did not submit. In fact, they triumphed. It would be a tragedy on this 250th anniversary of the spark for that flame of liberty to be so at odds with ourselves that we risk setting it all ablaze. Just as in 1773, people are frustrated. They feel like their elected form of government is being taken away not through faraway appointed officials or trials out of the country, but by gerrymandering and oppressive voting rules and nonsensical laws governing their very bodies. In 1773, people did not stand idly by as a detached government sought to force an educated and thoughtful populace into submission to arbitrary and idiotic laws. Not much has changed.
People who are burdened by their government will rise up to defeat that government. They always have. From time immemorial. And they always will.