My friend P.E. MacAllister shared a fascinating history of the real Tea Party. It bears little resemblance to the cartoonish version that is too often cited and emulated. It’s a bit long, but well worth the read.
Some Notes About Tea & Tea Parties
The emergence of a new political initiative called “The Tea Party Movement” has jolted American political equilibrium, altered political races and challenged the agenda of the Republican Party. “Tea party” resonates with most Americans who think “Boston… Patriots… British oppression”. But few of us can get specific on “why Boston”, what was achieved; what impact it had on American history. The full story reveals an amazingly convoluted train of events, bungling by a meddlesome government; colonial truculence and mutual mishandling of events that wreaked havoc Colonial America. An observation from this bias observer will suggest that governments which do not know how to finesse explosive situations often cause irreparable-damage when they opt to take action.
Common place in the 17th century America and critical to our story was a popular familiar commodity called tea. Its origin as reported in a Chinese legend goes back to 2737 B.C. and its discoverer is the emperor himself, one Shen Dung (who I never heard of either). Very quickly his new delicacy quickly spread outward endlessly and finally got to Europe, maybe via Marco Polo (1300AD).
When the age of discovery dawned (15th and 16th centuries), a ceaseless flow of ships plowing unknown waters, linked large parts of the remote world into a new galaxy of commerce. Access to the orient proved profitable; The commodities imported were generally light in weight but high in value i.e. pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ointments, incense, precious stones, silks and ultimately tea in abundance (coffee came later). Great Britain ultimately assessed the nature of the new opportunity and following the track of Magellan and Drake, sailed eastward in search of new opportunities and new profit (from which were derived new taxes). With respect to tea however, China presented a problem. It was a monopoly they guarded with some diligence. So when the Britts found adequate supply unlikely, they secured Chinese tea seeds or cuttings and created new plantations in Ceylon and India. I mean big time. In twenty years they were in business with a burgeoning supply to satisfy a growing market. To encourage and assure expansion, the British Parliament gave the East India Company an exclusive monopoly on the tea business in 1698.
At which point we have segued from the Far East to Britain and then extended to the new west i.e.; North America. Where Britain had claimed ownership of the land and allocated portions of it over the years to 13 separate quasi self- governing entities. Among the most noteworthy of these was Massachusetts: successful commercially; a vibrant intellectual center, sensible government; and a superb port in Boston. Its large fleet of merchant men nurtured a growing economy and the colony retained strong ties with Britain. Tea was a common commodity with respect to both merchandise as well as diet, and Boston consumed more per capita than any other city in North America.
Complicating the marketing was a strange provision that prohibited the East India Company from selling tea directly to the colonies, combined with an even goofier condition; Americans had to purchase all their tea from Britain. This required British middlemen who in turn sold to American importers who then sold to retailers. Note 18th century bureaucracy: the three stages, each with a fee. To recompense the government for their exclusive monopoly, the East India Company paid a whopping 25% ad valorem tax on all tea imported into Britain. The government then also levied a sales tax on tea. The market, functioning freely, senses the disadvantage here and shops with Dutch traders or black marketers who have no ad valorem thus a cheaper product. In 1760, the crown was losing 400,000 pounds sterling a year to the smugglers. (In today’s dollar value, that is just over $41,000,000). Let’s say it is enough to get ones attention. To wiggle their way out of this snarl in 1767, Parliament passed the Indemnity Act which refunded the 25% they were collecting on tea but then faced a short fall of revenue. To recover it, they passed the Townshend Revenue Act. These levied taxes on glass, lead, paper, paint…. and tea. Note all these are imports; none are produced in Boston. More significant and more odious is the fact that Parliament assumed the right to tax the colonies. Since they were not represented in the Parliament they could not be taxed: (Bill of Rights, 1689). So the responses to the Townshend tax were protests and boycotts. People stopped drinking British tea and sought out smugglers or Dutch merchants. Again groping for a response, (This is getting like tick-tack-toe) Britain finally abolished all taxes except the one on tea (three pence a pound) and America relented by sipping English tea.
But, hold on a minute. The Indemnity Act, refunding the 25% tax, had a time clause in it, ending automatically in 1772, so the ad valorem tax popped back in place though modified to10% it nudged up the prices enough so buyers again looked to the Dutch or the black market. British tea sales plummeted, while back at the ranch, it piled up, filling London’s warehouses. One of Europe’s largest commercial enterprises was on the verge of bankruptcy, thanks to government policy. The Tea Act of 1772 removed the ad valorem tax and also allowed The East India to sell direct to America, eliminating the middleman. Instead it appointed its own agents or consignees to process tea and collected the 3 penny per pound tax. Wiser heads asked why Lord North continued the tariff and insisted on antagonizing the colonials when abolishing it would have resolved the problem. Two reasons. It affirmed the right of Parliament to tax the colonies; secondly it provided revenue to pay its agents. The slogan “Taxation without representation is tyranny” appeared as bumper stickers and tea shirts; “Occupy Parliament” rallies occurred and the truculence of the crown was trumpeted by Boston rabble rousers (think Fox news). Enmity toward Great Britain took on a truly ugly look.
In September and October 1773, seven ships carrying 2,000 chests or 600,000 pounds of Bohea tea (That’s about 120,000,000 cups.) were sent to the colonies, four of them headed for Boston with a retail price of 2 shillings per pound, making it cheaper than Dutch or smuggled tea, but still included the now odious 3 penny tax. Aware of the shipment while it was en route the malcontents began planning an organized reaction or reception committee. These were Whigs, some calling themselves “Sons of Liberty”, and may have included both smugglers and legitimate tea merchants now bypassed by the East India Company. Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina had already convinced the local consignees (wholesalers) of the tea to resign their offices and each sent its ships back to England. But not Boston. The Dartmouth, Beaver and Eleanor arrived in Boston Harbor because Governor Hutchinson insisted on the ships landing. Two of his sons coincidently were consignees of the shipment; beyond that, he wanted to collect the docking fees. A ship had 20 days to unload and pay the duty. After 19 days of wrangling … with nothing unloaded, the Sons of Liberty decided to break the stalemate. On the night of December 16, 80 or 90 men, dressed like Mohawk Indians, feathered, painted and in buckskins, boarded the three ships and proceeded in the next three hours to throw 342 cases of tea into the Boston Harbor. (We are talking 6-7 million dollars of private property. It was enough tea to supply the entire city of Boston for a year.) All returned ashore, washed off the paint and joined big bonfire parties adjoining the harbor, none were unidentified, no one was imprisoned. The crowds of on lookers were jubilant.
Was the Tea Party a bold, brave move or an irrelevant “Quixotic Gesture”? “Why the raid? Why destroy the tea?” The answer “Taxation.” So the issue was taxes. Except the crown did not own the tea. It was the product of merchants who had been supplying same to Boston for years. It was their balance sheet that took the rap. Fact is they “Party” did nothing whatsoever to retaliate against Parliament. Then beyond that, why drag poor John Malcolm into their Walpurgis Night. John had no more to do with the taxes than you or I have to do with tomorrow’s temperature.
He was one of the agents of the Crown, hired to process tea and collect the taxes. After completing a day’s work was resting quietly at home the night of all the hoopla when without warning, six or eight thugs broke into his home; hauled him downtown to the big campfire and, with great glee, both tarred and feathered him. Hot tar blisters the flesh and a month later one is still trying to get the darn stuff out of his eyes, ears and nose, as well as the rest of his body. To the Mohawks this was great fun and tells more about Boston Patriotism than we wanted to know. Having a bunch of goons torture and humiliate another human being who had done nothing personally to justify the abuse is hardly a commendable, much less “Patriotic”, gesture. Then one wonders about the random destruction of private property which is the inviolate right of free peoples.
The English authorities were rightly indignant at this random vandalism and demanded payment for the tea. No way. So Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts which closed down the Boston Harbor to all incoming or out going vessels. Next, and most significant, the symbol of representative government was removed with political control taken from the governor and given to General Gage, a military commander who now called the shots. To enforce the edict and the blockage, he needed more troops so we count an accelerated roll call of Redcoats from now on. And to make matters worse before long there is no tea to drink. In Britain, where America had its fair share of sympathizers and supporters, the violence in the harbor quickly changed attitudes and support for America and Boston – dropped appreciably.
As Gates increased his military force to deal with this sulky and truculent city, the response was to drill local city militias, acquire arms and begin storing gunpowder and shot. It was this set of circumstances in April of 1775 that moved the British to march out of Boston and seize the stores of ammunition at Lexington and Concorde resulting in “the shot heard round the world”, the opening salvo of the Revolutionary war. The Boston Tea Party (never call that til 1834, by the way) was a direct precursor to the American Revolutionary War and thus more than a passing incident.
Viewing these events of 220-239 years ago, he who leaps readily to conclusions comes up with these for starters:
- Governments are better served doing nothing… when they have no solutions in mind… Except taking action in order to mollify the public. The current phrase would be: “Don’t do something, just stand there.”
- Failing to really understand the nature of a public’s discontent makes it impossible to find solutions. If we can’t define what is wrong how can we produce a remedy? If we think the Tea Tax is a monetary problem rather than one of principle, we aren’t going to find accord.
- Conditions imposed arbitrarily are less effective than condition reached thru “buy in” by both sides.
- Using short term measures to manage problems is building short term success… we ought to start with “where do we want to be” and then taking deliberate steps to get there.
Would the Revolution have occurred without the Tea Party? The answer is “Yes”. Would the Revolution have occurred if parliament had granted us seats in the House of Commons or even treated us as peers in the fraternity of western nations instead of country bumpkins? The odds now drop to fifty/fifty. To understand an opposing disagreement on given issues is not necessarily to agree with it. The “Loyal Opposition” is integral to British political structure and the process of debate between two sides tends to make for better legislation than arbitrary dictates. But failing to grant an opposing position, is to close the door not only on the argument but on the democratic process which relies on wide interchange which is critical to sounder management. If we thus have no role in this game, we are going to create a system wherein our rights of opinion and expression are respected. In our story, the intractable posture of British politicians, ironically, worked to our advantage. It was their unwise and unjust policies that provoked us to going where we did not want to go and that was to collecting arms and training militias in Lexington and Concord and creating the United States of America.