Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Boston Tea Party

Eleven score and sixteen years ago today, a rowdy bunch of Bostonians dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor, to protest the Tea Act of 1773. Their cry of "no taxation without representation" helped to catapult murmurs of colonial dissatisfaction into full-scale resistance to British rule, which of course would eventually culminate in armed resistance during the American Revolution.

One of the most unfortunate things for me about how the Boston Tea Party has been remembered is how the recent "Tea Parties" have mangled the purpose of the movement. Many today are satisfied with truncating "no taxation without representation" after the first two words, when arguably it was the last two words that were most important to the colonists.

The Tea Act of 1773 actually made tea cheaper for the colonies. While previously existing duties on tea remained intact, the Tea Act effectively eliminated the need for British middlemen that the East India Company had to trade through to bring tea to the colonies. This lowered the price of tea in the colonies considerably, allowing the East India Company to undercut tea smugglers.

The problem was that the Townshend duties remained on the (cheaper) tea - duties which had been imposed since 1767. Colonists vehemently opposed these duties for two reasons. First, they were not represented in the Parliament that levied the tax (hence, "no taxation without representation"). That tax wasn't crushing, but the colonists had no role in imposing the tax, and they had no way to redress their grievances about the tax. Second, the Townshend revenue was used specifically for the purpose of keeping the colonies dependent. Previously, colonial assemblies (where the colonists did have representation) paid the salaries of colonial officials and judges. These officials and judges were therefore dependent on the people. After 1767, however, many of these colonial officials and judges were paid from the Townshend revenues. The Townshend Act therefore forced Americans to pay taxes that they did not assent to, to pay the salaries of public servants that the colonial assemblies no longer had control over. The concern was that their freedom and right to self-governance was taken from them quite deliberately.

The tax itself was virtually irrelevant. The issue was self-government, freedom, and representation. I personally find it incredible that the Glenn Beck/Ron Paul/"Tea Party" crowd has actually convinced themselves that (1.) their recent concerns have anything to do with the legacy of the Boston Tea Party or the Founders in general, and (2.) that somehow everyone that disagrees them has abandoned the legacy of the Founders.

I find it perfectly conceivable that some of the Founders would be surprised at how large government is today, as well as surprised at the taxes we levy. However, given the social and economic changes that have transpired since the time of the Founders they may have found it perfectly appropriate. Regardless, none of them would deny that the American people have decided how the American people are to be governed.
The claim that we are somehow exposed to the risk of "tyranny" trivializes the experiences of those who actually suffered under tyranny, who didn't have an opportunity to decisively elect the man or woman of their choosing (as we have elected Barack Obama), and who didn't have the opportunity to elect their own representatives in the legislature (as we have for centuries). Honestly, when I hear someone suggest that by disagreeing with them you're trampling on the legacy of the Founders it turns my stomach. It's one thing to find solace and inspiration in the Founders to support your own views, today. That's fine. But to insult someone else by claiming that legacy for yourself - and doing it in such a mangled way - is very unfortunate.

1 comment:

  1. I suppose the best way to understand "why it happened" is simply that the Tea Act of 1773 itself was actually a pretty decent law. It actually opened up trade with the colonies. And it was once trade was opened up that people started to have to pay taxes on what they traded - so the pretty decent Tea Act of 1773 moved the very bad Townshend Duties of 1767 front and center.


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