The men slipped aboard the vessels at dock in the dead of night, bent upon property destruction and a bit of revolution. Some of them were dressed in the ordinary clothes of a New England workingman in 1773; others in exotic disguise as Mohawk Indians, as if those tribesmen were anywhere near the heart of Boston, Massachusetts, on this given December 16th.
Once aboard the merchant ships Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver, they set to their work.
It was the night immortalized as the Boston Tea Party, and these men were throwing the tea — cargo worth millions in today’s terms — into the harbor waters.
This 250th anniversary of one of the precipitating events of the American Revolution comes upon us at a historical moment strikingly similar to that faced by the American patriots of that era. In an age in which popular memory simplifies the events of the past too much, too often, it’s worth engaging the history at hand: especially on the Boston Tea Party, which by its nature brings to light the fundamental issues that move Americans to fight for liberty then — and now.
The popular narrative, the one remembered from school days, is that the patriots who threw the tea into the harbor objected to the taxation of the tea as such. This is untrue.
The taxes themselves were modest — especially compared to what our present government extracts — and moreover on a good that was, if popular, also a luxury. In theory, those who wished to avoid the tax could easily do so. Unlike, say, a property tax on homes, which hits the taxpayer squarely in the realm of a necessity, a tax on tea — in this case, an import duty — was borne only by those who chose to consume it.
The mere fact of taxation therefore does not explain the anger and rebellion that spurred the Boston Tea Party. What mattered to the men who did the deed were the twin issues of who was taxing, and why.
The tax upon tea sold in the American colonies was a remnant of a series of deeply unpopular acts for American taxation imposed by the British Parliament throughout the latter half of the 1760s, beginning with the Stamp Act and continuing with a series of bills known collectively as the Townshend Acts. Colonial resistance and protest eventually resulted in the Parliamentary repeal of all the taxes, except for the tax on tea, retained not for revenue purposes but as an affirmation of principle.
Contemporaneous political theory in the United Kingdom did not repose sovereignty in the people, but in the nation-in-Parliament, a related but distinct concept. The Americans in their colonies were therefore not sovereign polities within the British realms, but creations of Parliament, over whom the Parliament retained the power — as it affirmed in the 1776 Declaratory Act — to govern in any manner “in all cases whatsoever.”
This did not sit well with the Americans, who — as of 1773 — regarded themselves as subjects of the King of Great Britain, and fully equal in rights to all others. Or rather, they regarded themselves as entitled to that equality — but they did not have it. An American under British rule in the eighteenth century enjoyed (arguably, but plausibly) more prosperity and a higher standard of living than nearly anyone else in the world, including in Britain. But that American was denied one thing: liberty.
He was unrepresented in the Parliament. He did not tax himself: others taxed him. He saw himself as equal — and he saw that his fellow subjects and rulers did not see him that way at all. Every British subject on both sides of the Atlantic knew that the 1689 Bill of Rights stipulated taxation only by Parliamentary act. The Americans, taxed directly and visibly now, knew they were denied this measure of dignity.
They aimed to seize it.
Prosperity, flourishing, standard of living: all this took a distant second place to the question of plain liberty in the eyes of the original Americans. Therefore, into the harbor went the tea — and successive British governments, insensible to the disaster they courted, simply doubled down. It was a contest of prerogatives, between a people who would be free and rulers who would rule, and in the fullness of time, the people won. We know the outcome and retrospect gives us a false impression of inevitability.
But nothing was inevitable, and history is contingent. The men who boarded the three vessels in Boston Harbor two hundred fifty years ago today were risking everything: status, wealth, freedom, and possibly their lives. To them, it was worth it — for what good is a life lived without liberty?
Five years on, the British government learned its error. It sent a peace commission to the Americans, offering the golden liberty of taxation with representation: the Americans would have representation in Parliament. But what would have been received with American jubilation in 1773 was rejected out of hand in 1778. In those crowded five years between the Boston Tea Party and the offer to include Americans in Parliament came Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill, Saratoga, Trenton, Princeton, Long Island, Valley Force — and a Declaration of Independence. Freedom had come, not as the gift of a chastened sovereign, but as the work of their own hands.
To the Americans, it was the best sort of freedom — and they meant to keep it.
The circumstances that face us today echoes those of 1773 in outline if not always in detail. But that outline is compelling. The great and pitiless mechanism of the administrative state, the crowning achievement of progressivism in power, mimics in this century the action of the Parliament in that one: remote, unanswerable, unaccountable, and alien.
This generation of Americans is faced with questions exceptionally similar to those confronted by our forefathers: not whether we should claim our liberty, but how. The answers are still taking shape — but the desired end is clearly in view.
On this 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, remember them — not as commemoration, but as instruction.
Brooke Leslie Rollins is the President & CEO of the America First Policy Institute, and former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.
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