Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tea Party Problematics

On this date in 1773, the colonial caper known as the "Boston Tea Party" took place in Boston Harbor. The event has reverberated through the years as "Americans objecting to taxation without representation." The truth is a lot more complicated and a lot less noble.

In truth, taxes levied on the British Colonies in America by the British Parliament did indeed raise the question of "taxation without representation." According to the British Constitution, British subjects could not be taxed without the consent of their elected representatives in Parliament. Since the British colonists in America did not vote for, nor have, representation in Parliament, political rabble-rousers in the colonies argued, with increasing vociferation, that Parliament's taxation of the Colonies, such as was the case with the Stamp Act, was "unconstitutional." In response to the outcry from the Colonials, the British Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1765 but maintained, in the Declaratory Act of 1766, that they had the right to raise revenue in the colonies. The irony is that any of the taxation Parliament attempted to impose on the American colonies was much less of a tax burden than that paid by citizens back in the British Isles.

Even more ironic is that the "Boston Tea Party" was in fact a reaction to lowered taxes on tea imported to Britain and then exported to America by the East India Company. British law, in granting a virtual monopoly on the British tea trade, required the East India Company to bring the tea to Britain first (in order to be taxed) and then auction the tea to middlemen who then shipped it to America. The taxes imposed and the cost incurred to make this indirect delivery to the colonies in America, meant that the Dutch could smuggle (a costly enterprise, considering the risks of confronting Britain's naval patrols) tea into American (as well as Britain's) ports and sell it much more cheaply than could the East India Company. When Parliament's Tea Act of 1773 reduced the taxes to undercut the Dutch smugglers and eliminated the requirement to auction the tea to middlemen, it directly impacted on the profits of American merchants who sold the smuggled tea. And, many merchants who had heretofore legally sold East India Company tea, were not given consignee commissions by the East India Company which could now ship its tea to America on its own right.

It was, therefore, a coalition of political rabble-rousers and undercut merchants that spawned protests against the new tea system, even though it meant that the people could now enjoy their cherished tea much more cheaply than before. Coercion--the threat of great bodily harm that was becoming an American talent--caused most of the East India Company consignees to resign their commissions and most of the tea sent to the Americas in 1773 returned to Britain in the ships whence it had come. Except, that is, for the three ships bearing tea to Boston. Seems the governor of the Massachusetts colony, whose two sons just so happened to possess East India Company tea consignee commissions, was not a man to back down in the face of threats. While every other colony's consignees had resigned their commissions, Governor Hutchinson's sons did not, and three ships bearing tea were tied up in Boston Harbor by the middle of December amid a standoff between the governor and colonists who refused to allow the tea to be unloaded.

British law allowed customs officials to confiscate cargoes for which import duties had not been paid within 20 days of arriving in port. When the first tea-bearing ship, the Dartmouth, arrived in Boston in late November, the local cabal of political rabble-rousers and undercut merchants called a mass protest meeting at which chief political rabble-rouser Samuel Adams led passage of a resolution calling for the Dartmouth's captain to return his ship and cargo to England. This impromptu congress also assigned a guard to prevented unloading of the Dartmouth, and Governor Hutchinson refused to allow the Dartmouth to leave Boston and return to England. With the deadline for paying the import duties looming and the possibility of custom officials seizing the Dartmouth's cargo, Samuel Adams was rousing the rabble at another meeting of the people on the evening of the 16th of December. At the end of the meeting, a group of men, the immediate impetus for whose actions is lost to history, disguised themselves as Native Americans, boarded the Dartmouth and two other vessels that had recently arrived bearing tea, and dumped all of the ships' tea cargo into the water.

We Americans point proudly to the "Boston Tea Party" as one of the seminal events in our revolution against British "tyranny." Many of us are invoking the event's remembrance in our protest against the current fiscal irresponsibility of our federal government's elected leadership. I'm okay with that. But, just know that no revolution, war, nor any other political movement is as pure in motive as our idealistic recollection of it years later.

Revolutions are bloody, divisive affairs. Perhaps it is better to ease our collective conscience with selective memory and revisionist remembrance.
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