The Boston Tea Party at 250

The Boston Tea Party at 250

Today is the 250th anniversary of the (in)famous Boston Tea Party, which took place on December 16, 1773. The memory of that historical event has been more recently degraded by the unfortunate, early 21st-century « Tea Party » Movement. That said, the actual, historical Boston Tea Party (so-called only in 1834, before which it was more accurately called « the destruction of the tea ») was a significant event in the run-up to what became the American Revolution. More than anything else, the American Revolution was a tax-revolt largely led by people who could afford to pay for government services (in that case, primarily defense) but preferred not to.  Could anything be more prototypically American?

The British Parliament’s Tea Act of May 10, 1773, had allowed the British East India Company to sell Chinese tea in the American colonies without paying any taxes apart from those imposed by the Townshend Acts, which some colonists objected to as a violation of their ostensible right not to be taxed by Parliament without representation in that Parliament. (Tell that one to the citizens of Washington DC.) The « Sons of Liberty, » some disguised as Native Americans, destroyed an entire shipment of tea sent by the East India Company to Boston. They boarded the ships containing the tea and threw the chests of tea into Boston’s harbor. This provoked a harsh response on the part of the British government against Boston, which contributed to the growing colonial attitude of impending apocalypse, which led eventually to armed insurrection and the War. of Independence. 

When I was in grade school in the 1950s, we were taught that the Boston Tea party had been a sin – since the « activists » (as we would call them today, although « terrorists » might also be a word used to describe them) destroyed other people’s property (a sin agains the seventh commandment) and appeared to be trying to pin the blame on the Indians (a sin against the eight commandment). As a naive school kid, I was somewhat shocked (if also unconsciously liberated) by this idea that one did not have to think everything Americans did was automatically right and good.

From that, it was a short step – years later, when studying political philosophy professionally – to question the wisdom of the American Revolution itself. Of course, the independence of the United States is an historical fact and the Revolution’s wisdom or lack thereof is now a moot point, of primarily theoretical interest. But, as the country careens toward the commemoration the 250th anniversary of the Revolution, how to evaluate the founding era and its accomplishments is again a contentious question.

One unambiguous cultural benefit of the American Revolution is that many Americans on the winning revolutionary side came to consider tea drinking to be unpatriotic. (Presumably Tories still favored tea.) So tea drinking declined during and after the Revolution, resulting in tea’s replacement by coffee as the new country’s preferred hot drink – an altogether welcome change, which has improved American life immensely.

As a coffee-drinker, I am grateful for the American Revolution, but it remains an open question how to evaluate that entire event and the political attitudes (like anti-tax libertarianism) it celebrated and enabled. Ideally, the upcoming anniversary should be an opportunity for serious scholarly and popular examination of such questions. My guess is that that won’t happen, and that reflections on the Revolution will be filtered through – and in service to – contemporary ideologies and the toxic polarization in which we currently have chosen to revel. That will surely be loss on so many levels. The U.S. has been in many ways a unique political experiment. Its achievements and its defects deserve to be examined seriously, a process from which all Americans would benefit, but which I suspect few of us will actually experience.

The 1976 Bicentennial celebrations in New York City seemed to me at the time to highlight less the colonial-era experience and more the city’s subsequent experience as a nation of immigrants’ primary city of immigrants. (The symbol of that, of course, is New York’s Statue of Liberty, which, whatever the original intention, was soon transformed into an icon of immigration.) But that too was a part of the American story, as much as 1776 was. The American Revolution was not just something from the 1770s but is an ongoing experiment in civic life and political philosophy that has continued for 250+ years, with (hopefully) no end in sight. 

While immigration has undoubtedly benefited the U.S. enormously, it has also had its problematic aspects, which current controversies have highlighted. One of the best ways to observe the upcoming anniversary might be for the powers that be at long last to resolve the current crisis with a full-scale reform of immigration that reflects actual contemporary realities. Sadly, the dark side of American life seems to be in the driver’s seat at present, precluding immigration reform and any number of other things that need to be done to fulfill what Herbert Croly so famously called « the promise of American life. »

That promise seems sadly to be receding further from our imagination as Americans of all sorts seem to be giving up on both the purpose and the process of political life.

Image: In 1973, the US Post Office issued a set of four stamps, together making one scene of the Boston Tea Party.