A perfect time to look back at the original Tea Party
While painful spending cuts are planned across the land to reduce burgeoning government deficits, nobody seems to be calling for more taxes. We live in an age of Tea Party frenzy, when the dreaded “t-word’’ makes a growing segment of the population apoplectic. Never has a meticulous, well-written history of the Boston Tea Party, the ultimate tax revolt, seemed more relevant. Colonial historian Harlow Giles Unger delivers a stirring chronicle, making it clear that the similarities between then and now are thought-provoking.
Unger describes the context that led the British Parliament to impose additional taxes. The British Army had largely assumed the burden of fighting the long French and Indian War that advanced the economic interests of the colonists. Moreover, as Unger shows, Boston merchants had not only gotten rich supplying the British Army, but had profited by supplying the enemy. Britain “had accumulated debts of more than 1 million pounds . . . and Parliament was determined to step up tax enforcement’’ to recover the shortfall.
Yet tax enforcement in the colonies, especially in Boston, had become a running joke. When Parliament imposed a small tax on molasses (used to make rum) before the French and Indian War, Boston merchants responded by smuggling their ships into small harbors to avoid paying the tax. Like any revenue-strapped government, Britain responded with anger and determination to step up tax enforcement. The smuggling simply became more creative.
Unger’s narrative paints a wonderful portrait of Colonial Boston, especially the merchant community, which dominated its politics. For these business owners, taxes “represented confiscation of part of their own private property and an infringement of their liberties.’’ Unger shows that economic motives aligned perfectly with emerging antigovernment radicalism. “Radical’’ Boston merchants like John Hancock, Unger explains, “disguis[ed] their struggle for wealth as a quest for liberty for the common man.’’
It was Sam Adams who lit the powder keg. Adams had loathed British authority since it closed down his father’s bank, saddling the family with massive debt. A poor student at Harvard who would become an inept businessman (“he ran the [family] brewery into bankruptcy,’’ notes Unger,) Adams would become the greatest propagandist in American history. Adams roamed the taverns of Boston constructing an underground organization (the Sons of Liberty) made up of dock workers, laborers, and craftsmen, the “mob’’ Adams would wield to terrorize British officials.
While the tireless Adams organized the grass roots and planned provocations against British rule (destroying the Boston houses of British officials was an Adams specialty), wealthy John Hancock financed the whole operation. At the center of Unger’s story, the ultimate provocation against British rule, was the Boston Tea Party. On Dec. 16, 1773, Adams fired up a Boston mob of 5,000 at an Old South Meeting House meeting to protest the tea tax. After the gathering, a group of some 80 men, including about 50 described as “Mohawks,’’ walked over to Griffith Wharf. In the dark, they boarded British cargo ships and began tossing boxes of tea into the harbor, destroying about $1 million (today’s value) in taxable cargo.
As Unger makes clear, the true impact of the Boston Tea Party came from Britain’s ill-advised overreaction to the symbolic act of vandalism. It was exactly the response Adams had dreamed of, with an enraged British government closing the port of Boston, sending more troops, imposing martial law, and requiring permits for any large Boston meetings. These “Coercive Acts,’’ along with Adams’s constant drumbeat of anti-British propaganda, helped unify the colonies around the idea of independence. Unger ends the book with British soldiers marching out to Lexington and Concord hoping to arrest Adams and Hancock (who, tipped off by Paul Revere, had fled). The rest, as they say, is history, and Unger has brought it brilliantly to life.
Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.