With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

How the Modern Day Tea Partiers Missed the Message of 1773

I don't see why Tea Party Patriots in Nashville paid Sarah Palin $100,000 for a keynote last week when, for no more than the love of country, they could have honored me, a living witness to the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1973.

I would have told them how I stood boldly that day on Boston's old Congress Street Bridge as the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission and Boston 200, a consortium of corporations including the Salada Tea Company, sent costumed National Guardsmen to dump imitation tea chests from a replica of the Beaver, one of three ships that colonial rebels had relieved of their cargo 200 years before.

The chests of 1973 were empty, but demonstrators organized by a "People's Bicentennial Commission" offset the lavish unreality of it all by dumping metal drums from the Beaver to protest big oil companies' complicity in the fuel crisis of that year, whose long gas-station lines I also joined, albeit involuntarily.

That counter-demonstration was choreographed, too.  But so, actually, was the original one.  And, honestly, now, who was closer in spirit of the tea partiers of 1773 -- the costumed guardsmen and the salespeople at Salada's on-site exhibit and gift shop that day, or the counter-demonstrators?  I think that today's Tea Partiers know the answer, but that they talk about only half of it.

As Gordon Wood, the great historian of the American Revolution (he's mentioned by Matt Damon in "Good Will Hunting") told me this week, the original Tea Party was a rebellion not just against a tax but against government favoritism for a global corporation it considered too big to fail.

With 17 million pounds of unsold tea languishing in the East India Company's warehouses as other merchants' teas glutted the market, there were rumors that the British government might even revoke the company's charter and take over its management.

Instead, Parliament granted the company an exclusive license to sell tea; removed all duties; forfeited an annual payment the company had made to the government; and advanced a large loan.

Sound familiar?  In 1773, though, all these favors actually lowered the price of tea, underselling as well as excluding Dutch tea smugglers and American tea merchants.  No wonder that "Poor Lord North [King George III's prime minister] thought he was doing the colonists a favor" by saving the company from bankruptcy and giving it a monopoly in America, as Wood explains.

A modest tea tax remained, offending colonists' stand against taxation without representation.  But Wood -- crediting Benjamin Woods Labaree, the authority on the Boston Tea Party -- notes that "Giving the monopoly was probably more important in arousing the anger of many small New England merchants than the tea tax."

Moreover, the few locals who were licensed to carry the company's tea included relatives of Massachusetts' royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson, who ordered ships not to accommodate populist pressure by leaving the harbor without first unloading their tea.

"Samuel Adams and his radicals were looking for an issue to exploit," Wood notes, and Hutchinson's nepotism gave them and local merchants the hot button they needed to turn out the men who actually stormed the ships and dumped the tea.

Forgive me for asking, but had I been given the podium at Nashville instead of Sarah Palin, could I have admonished today's Tea Partiers to dump some of the medicines that are being sold by Big Pharma under the big Bush Administration prescription drug benefit plan, which bars its providers from buying cheaper generic drugs in Canada?

I know that that's awfully radical.  But Samuel Adams was too radical for his cousin John Adams, until the Tea Party made John exult, "This is the most magnificent movement of all. This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, ... and it must have so important consequences, and so lasting, that I cannot but consider it as an epoch in history."

Will today's Tea Partiers give us a new epoch of independence?  Trolling the Tea Party Patriots' website, I do find scathing mentions of oil companies, bankers, Big Pharma, and their lobbyists - but mostly in comments posted by wonderfully sincere, impassioned citizens.

But is Sarah Palin their Sam Adams?  Is there a John Adams among the tea partiers' cheerleaders at Rupert Murdoch's global News Corporation?  Tea Partiers protest rightly that our government is coddling incompetent and dishonest corporations with taxpayers' money.  But will they take direct action against these incompetent and dishonest corporations' control of government?  Or will they just wear revolutionary-era costumes?