On December 16, we will celebrate the 238th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. At the time, however, no one referred to this event as “The Boston Tea-party.” In fact, it was called many things. One newspaper referred to it as “the Boston Harbor teapot.” I think that is as close as it ever came to tea party at the time.
The destruction of tea in Boston Harbor was really the initial salvo upon the power of the crown over the colonies. Not even the “Boston Massacre” rose to that level. John Adams defended the British soldiers who were indicted on charges of murder for the events at the massacre and won them acquittal. He proper pointed out that the soldiers had been put into a position of defending themselves against a mob and their action were well justified. His cousin, Samuel Adams, of course, vehemently disagreed with him. That was in 1770.
In 1773 the political atmosphere in Boston and Massachusetts had changed significantly. The original Townshend Acts, which introduced the tea tax, had been largely reversed by the crown to assuage the colonists. But the English parliament saw the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a particularly defiant group who were intruding upon English commerce which all of them, to a degree, were involved in. They had taken aim a Boston in particular by creating a law called “the Boston Port Act” which limited the ability of Massachusetts to trade. When parliament had required the tax collectors to be English officials the people of Massachusetts had found ways around them. Certain English laws required goods sold in the provinces to have been made in England. The Massachusetts citizenry were particularly contemptible of this law and lead the way in the original “Buy American” revolt. This was particularly felt in the selling of fabric. The homespun fabrics of local manufacture were literally quite rough compared to the machine made fabric imported from England. It was because of a Boston merchant selling only English goods over “Made in America” that had brought on the Boston Massacre.
The men who led the attack on the three British cargo ships transporting tea were led by none other than Samuel Adams. The supposed disguise they used, dressing up as Indians, was a particularly poor job even by their own estimates. Even more so, immediately after the tea was destroyed, Samuel Adams stood in the pulpit of the Old South Church and recounted the events of that day leaving no doubt that he was the leader.
Americans felt their access to tea was a right and not a privilege and that it should be defended as such in parliament. It was not. The people of England paid no tax on their tea. Conversely, not only were Americans required to buy their tea from English merchants, American ships had been bringing tea to America, they were also required to pay a small duty on it. To be sure, the duty in itself was not unreasonable nor did it make the tea too costly. But the fact that their English brethren did not pay a tax infuriated Americans. By this time Americans were clamoring for a say, a seat, in parliament which they believed they had a constitutional right to as they were as much English citizens as were their brethren in England. The whole attack on the ships carrying the tea was based on that one simple principle.
The tea cargo itself, in today’s dollars, would be worth well over a million dollars. The crown simply could not overlook that fact and told the leaders of Massachusetts that the debt was owed to the damaged merchants. The colonists responded that they did not know who had perpetrated the crime and that it was inherently unfair to put such a burden on all the people of Massachusetts when only a few had committed the crime. Of course, as I said before, the leaders of Massachusetts were fully aware of exactly who had committed the crime. Curiously, the names of those involved was never documented and no attempt to pay the debt was ever made.
The incident on that day may have never gained a name except that well after the Revolution members of Boston society still celebrated their afternoons with what they referred to as “high tea,” an old custom first practiced in England. These events in Boston society became a who’s who in society in the late 18th and early 19th century. We do not know who, but some in the press started to derisively refer to the “high tea” as “tea parties.” Someone made the connection between those tea parties and the dumping of the tea and the name stuck. The “tea party” was never meant to be complimentary.
In 1773 Massachusetts, few people who engaged in that original “tea party” had any thoughts about separating from the English government. It was only meant to tell parliament that Americans had the right to be heard as a voting group in parliament. It was supposed to be an attention getter and nothing more. They were not even looking to have the tea tax reversed, which is why I find it peculiar that today’s Tea Party seems to be all about that. The group more exemplary of that original “tea party” is the “Occupy Wall Street” group who are not looking for political power but to be heard. I cannot help but wonder how that had become lost in the translation today.