The Empire Goes Overboard
Boston had had enough. After a merchant ship refused to return to England with its controversial tea cargo, John Hancock, in a raucous town meeting at the Old South Meeting House, announced “Let every man do what is right in his own eyes!” And so, on a December evening in 1773, a mob of men vaguely dressed as Mohawks boarded three merchant ships and methodically went to work. Three hours later, more than three hundred cases of tea—an East Indian Company product valued at over £10,000—floated out the Back Bay.
This audacious act of vandalism was the culmination of what, taken in isolation, would seem to be insignificant controversy that should have been resolved peacefully by prudent men. It was after all, literally a fight about a three cent duty on a pound of tea. But, as Hancock and other Sons of Liberty never tired of insisting, it was the principle of the thing. The colonies would not be forced by an indifferent mother government to be taxed without their consent.
This “Tea Party” came about because of the Crown’s insistence on supporting the East India Company—a chartered monopoly, or we might call today a “government sponsored enterprise”—and its lucrative importation of tea into the colonies. The “Tea Act” that imposed the duty on the colonies was actually a compromise from the more sweeping Townshend duties, but it reinforced the image of tea, and the East India Company trade monopoly, as twin symbols of British arrogance.
Up to that fateful December day, Boston patriots had been losing their leadership role in freedom’s cause. Her Sons of Liberty rebels had failed to gain support for their earlier “non-importation” boycott campaign against East India Company tea. Other cities, especially New York and Philadelphia, were taking stronger action. Ships were forced back to England, with serious threats communicated against their captains if they failed to comply. In Rhode Island, the 1772 burning of the Gaspee was a more violent event than the tea toss.
The boldness of the Boston Tea party put Boston back in the spotlight and made it the object of Parliament’s wrath. The Empire’s policy passed from benign neglect to malicious intent. The “Coercive Acts” that followed took away Massachusetts’s self governing rights and shut down the port of Boston. This overreaction by previously out of touch Britain played right in to the revolutionaries’ hands. The Sons of Liberty and their supporters now called for political independence.
In Benjamin Carp’s new book about the Boston Tea Party, we learn all about the origins of this strange, but still evocative, event. It was brought about by a determined minority of agitators and exacerbated by feckless and clueless British officials. The authorities hardly lifted a finger to prevent it. Even a naval flotilla in the harbor sat and watched. Little wonder that the Empire was so unprepared to stop the revolution, or defeat it after it broke out. It is no exaggeration to say that the Tea Party, more than any other single event, caused the American Revolution.
Without secret societies to galvanize public support, the Tea Party never would have happened. The famous Sons of Liberty, which had branches in other major colonial cities, grew out of the clubs like the “North End Caucus,” organized to celebrate Pope bashing on Guy Fawkes’ Day, and the local Masonic lodges. Their story lends some ammunition to those who believe that revolutions are normally the product of well organized and determined provocateurs, and not the outcome of blind historical forces.
Necessary though they were, these conspiratorial groups represented democracy’s dark side. Credit Carp for noting that the Sons of Liberty, when their pressure tactics and threats failed, mobilized rent-a-mobs, engaged in large scale vandalism, and sometimes tortured their opponents. Tar and feathering was their preferred tactic against customs agents. In reading Defiance of the Patriots, we sometimes cringe at their excesses in the name of popular sovereignty. Little wonder that characters like Sam Adams, the American Danton, soon faded from the scene, and important founders like his cousin John Adams later advocated safeguards against pure democracy.
Thomas Hutchinson, the appointed and long-suffering governor of Massachusetts, stood out as the longtime object of the patriots’ wrath. Though smart and competent, Hutchison completely embodied the British imperial system of patronage. He hoarded appointed positions for himself and his family; his son, for example, was the main importer for the East India Company. In quieter times, this “placeman” might have stood out as a decent and competent governor of a prosperous colony. Such was not his fate. When the Stamp Act had passed in 1765, a Boston mob literally tore down Hutchinson’s house in revenge.
Hutchinson also found a devious opponent in Benjamin Franklin, no rebel yet, but a competitor in the Imperial patronage machine. Acting as assistant postmaster general for the colonies, Franklin intercepted Hutchison’s correspondence with England and published the contents, exposing the governor’s musings about playing hard ball against his patriotic opponents. Later the revelation of Franklin’s involvement cost him his job, which probably ensured his commitment to the patriotic cause.
Franklin, though, was a bit player in this drama. The rough and determined Sons of Liberty, who were also disciplined and well organized, emerged as the key opponents to their British rulers. Yet the Tea Party itself was a model of restraint and good behavior. Carp points out that the tea “destroyers” forbade their gangs to steal the tea they were depositing in the harbor. The one unfortunate who disregarded this rule received a sound beating. The Tea Partyers committed no collateral damage to the three ships, nor did they disturb the rest of their cargo. And most importantly, they buttoned their lips after the event to protect the identity of their leaders.
They kept their secrets so effectively, in fact, that we still do know for certain who organized the Tea Party. Carp is a careful researcher, but he resists going beyond what the evidence suggests. Yet several men seem obvious candidates: the smuggler John Hancock, the prosperous malter Samuel Adams, the rabble-rouser William Molineux—even the ubiquitous silversmith Paul Revere. Speculating on the true leader would not have been out of place here.
Despite his cautious approach, Carp exhibits a sharp eye for detail and an abundant knowledge of city life in the colonies at that time. He captures well the atmosphere of brawling, bigoted, freedom-loving Boston—a fit setting for a revolution’s beginnings.
Likewise Carp writes engagingly about the Indian issue and the strange attraction/repulsion the patriots had toward the native Americans. As Carp puts it, “they hid behind the masks of scapegoats,” but he acknowledges, too, that the image was more complicated than that. The Indian, the pure primitive in the state of nature, was an early symbol of the Massachusetts colony. Dressing in Indians garb had multiple meanings: not just a disguise, but as a symbol of resistance and an act of political theater. The disguises served to muddy the details of the events for those outside Boston.
Most of the time, the reader can appreciate Professor Carp’s fact-fraught prose. But sometimes his love of detail gets the better of him. We might be spared such descriptions as conspirators meeting under “a half gibbous moon, just past full” or the son’s name of a long-forgotten custom’s official, or the exact number of pellets that riddled one riot victim’s body. A tougher editor might have helped the book’s readability.
Another quibble with Carp: In the book’s penultimate chapter, Carp discusses the long range unintended impact of the Tea Party. He claims that the act derailed the nascent abolitionist movement, as anti-slavery advocates sided with the mother country. This seems a stretch. Carp offers little proof that the whites who ran Boston, especially the rough characters who perpetrated the Tea Party, were prepared to take up the cudgels for the black man. Carp’s discussion of this issue, though interesting, sidetracks needlessly from the main narrative.
Finally, there is the question of the larger context today. Carp maintains that the Tea Party stands as a relevant symbol for other rebels against abusive authority worldwide. But the only compelling example he offers is the current Tea Party movement in the U.S. He gives this only passing attention, even though the movement was well under way during the preparation of his book. That’s a shame, because had he taken the opportunity to examine it more closely, he might have noted that the modern Tea Party—once again a taxpayers’ revolt—exhibits much of the proud spirit and firm principles of their colonial ancestors, without the vandalism or dubious fashion sense.
Michael J. Ard earned his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 2001 and has been an occasional contributor to the University Bookman. A former naval officer, Mr. Ard is now a government analyst and recruiter. He lives with his wife and five children in Loudoun County, VA. In solidarity with the Sons of Liberty, he seldom drinks tea.
Posted: January 15, 2012
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