The Boston Tea Party, 250 Years Later

The Revolutionary generation was committed to small government

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History Politics

This past weekend marked the semiquincentennial of the Boston Tea Party. Two hundred and fifty years ago, on December 16, 1773, assorted colonials in Boston dumped chests of the British East India Company’s tea into Boston Harbor. One could clearly see how much the Americans had lost their British roots: any self-respecting Briton would know salt water at December temperatures was not the proper way to brew tea.

The Boston Tea Party was one of those turning moments of the American Revolution. Its anniversary points the United States towards a whole series of 250th anniversary events in its Revolutionary history. Next year, 2024, will be the last lull, as 1774 was mostly preoccupied with British retaliation against the colonies and the creation of the First Continental Congress. But the anger stoked in Boston Harbor at the end of 1773 would stoke throughout the next year and explode at Lexington and Concord in the spring of 1775.

I offer three takeaways on this anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, two of which I owe to a wonderful editorial in National Review [here].

First, we should not think that the American resistance shown at the Boston Tea Party or against the various parliamentary attempts at taxes (the Stamp Act, the Sugar Act, the Townshend Acts) that preceded it was just or even primarily about money. It was far more about two things: self-government and small government.

By the time of the Boston Tea Party, Americans had for a century and a half grown accustomed to fending for themselves on the North American frontier. They had developed strong self-government, particularly in New England.

The French and Indian War, as it was called in North America, was part of a larger world war between Britain and its allies on one side and France and its allies on the other. The Redcoats came in mass to North America to defend the British colonies and had succeeded. Remember that British Boston lay just 250 miles from French Québec City, and there was not a lot between the two. With the War’s end, Canada was now also British (albeit still “papist”).

Somebody had to pay the bills for that war, and London thought it was places like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. They demurred.

Parliament’s attempts to tax made clear to Americans that their experience of colonial self-government was threatened, threatened by a government in which they had no voice. That — and not the tax table — is where “taxation without representation” comes from. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t perceive a moral component to taxation [for more on that, see here].

As a consequence of the Boston Tea Party, Parliament in fact clamped down on American self-government. Under the Coercive Acts, Boston Harbor was closed, Massachusetts government was put under direct British control (with even town meetings limited to one per annum), British officials could evade local trial by jury through transferal of cases to England, and Massachusetts men had to quarter British troops in their homes. Though not originally part of the Coercive Acts, Parliament’s extension of Catholic Quebec’s borders southward, colliding with colonial charters that supposedly extended “sea to sea,” was seen as a slap at Puritan New England to the benefit of papist Canada. Anti-Catholicism is deeply rooted in American DNA.

Second, the British who arrived with the French and Indian War indicated a willingness to stay. Because Britain was more directly involved in the colonies than before, it wanted to rule them more directly than before. The tax acts were examples of this. More important was the Declaratory Act, which claimed that, irrespective of the concrete fates of those individual tax bills, Parliament had the sovereign right to tax Americans, whether they liked it or not. The Coercive Acts that affected government and rights in Massachusetts were concrete embodiments of this growing British claim.

In the preceding century and a half, Americans had not only grown used to self-government but had become accustomed to small government. Their colonial regimes were examples of subsidiarity: power primarily situated at the local level. Small and localized government was accountable government. Small government fostered self-reliance, something these people, forged on the peripheries of North America, liked.

In contrast, the growing British presence augured big government. It was a presentiment of larger, more intrusive and expensive government, whose costs would be borne by people who had no say in its policy formulations. It wasn’t just the taxes, it was a recognition that such an arrangement promoted ever-bigger government. After all, why not grow comfortable sinecures when somebody else was paying for them? Alternately, from the colonial viewpoint, why abet a process of increasingly overbearing government at higher costs, about whose policies and costs you had no role?

The American Revolution was a revolution for small government, localized and accountable to the people. The fact that it took over 25 years from the Boston Tea Party to the U.S. Constitution to produce a national government that was both limited yet capable of coping with national-level issues shows how committed the Revolutionary generation was to small government. In this regard, America was a marked outlier from most “revolutionary” regimes.

Third, we need to reclaim our history. As usual, the New York Times cannot allow an American tradition to stand without revisionist rethinking of its meaning. Just as Thanksgiving can never come without articles about how unjust the Pilgrims were, so the Times informs us “The Boston Tea Party Turns 250 and Raises 21st Century Questions.” Those “questions,” of course, are fueled by the general presupposition of America’s “original sin” and “systemic racism” and, therefore, focus on whether the Revolutionaries were sufficiently diverse, whether the Boston Tea Party is comparable to the January 6 “Insurrection” or rather to post-George Floyd “civil rights” vandalism, and so on. Surprisingly, there was no comment on whether the Sons of Liberty engaged in impermissible “cultural appropriation” by dressing up as American Indians. One hopes they did not ululate during the reenactment.

I flag the historical question because, as we approach America’s 250th anniversary, I fully expect a very ideologized version of “history” to be pushed at every opportunity in an attempt to rewrite that history, fostering Americans’ ambivalence in what their history (and their Revolution) achieved. A Democratic Administration in power post-2024 is likely to throw plenty of federally funded gasoline on that fire, perhaps even raiding the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to stoke it (green considerations notwithstanding). We need to steel ourselves against the (mostly likely dour) rewrite of U.S. history coming soon to a celebration near you.

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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