History as Prop v. the Original Destruction of British Tea

The historically preserved Old South Meeting House in downtown Boston — “Old South” —  is most well known, historically speaking, for its role in the Boston Tea Party protest of December 16, 1773. Asked if the Old South  historical site (preserved as a museum in the 1870s) has seen more foot traffic than usual with the rise of the modern “Tea Party movement," the site's staffers answer “No, not at all: We don’t see them, even when they have one of their rallies downtown.”

 The modern day “Tea Partiers” are right to steer clear of the real history of the event they have sought to appropriate. Their supposedly independent, grassroots, and anti-establishment “movement” is a case study in rancid, elite-crafted fake-populism. To be sure, the Tea Party phenomenon draws heavily on fans and exploits the economic and social anxieties and related cultural prejudices of its largely white, suburban, professional, and small-business-rooted “base.” It also taps into the overlapping fears and biases of a minority of white, native-born workers.  Still, it is a quintessentially Astroturf creation of corporate and Republican Party overlords – people like the billionaire oil capitalist brothers  Charles and David Koch, key backers of the Tea Party-seeding group Americans for Prosperity (AFP)[1]; Sal Russo, a former Reagan aide and founder of the national Tea Party Express; leading Tea Party spokesman Dick Armey, former Republican House of Representatives majority leader and founder of FreedomWorks, a leading sponsor of the initial Tea Party protests; and Roger Ailes, the chairman of FOX News and a former top media strategist for Republican presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. According to Russo, in a recent interview with New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, “there would not have been a tea party without FOX”[2] – a rather candid insider expression of the fact that “the Tea Party” is largely a media creation.3


The “Whole Body of the People” on the Road to Independence

The original and real American Tea Party was a very different affair.  The Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, forced the third and last great crisis of Britain’s rule over its North American colonies.[4] It was sparked by an attempted government bailout of a giant English corporation, the British East India Company, in the form of the British Parliament’s passage of the Tea Act, an early example of what today might be called corporate welfare.” For reasons that had nothing to do with the Americas, the East India Company—a colossal merchant-capitalist trading firm—was failing to turn a profit for its well-heeled English investors. It was also failing to provide the hoped-for tax revenue that the British Empire needed to consolidate control over recently acquired possessions on the Indian subcontinent. Facing severe financial difficulties, the company was deemed too big and important to be allowed to fail.

Parliament hoped to find the East India Company’s salvation in North America. Tea, once a preserve of the rich, was now consumed by all social classes in England and its colonies. To stimulate sales and save the company, the British government, now headed by Frederick Lord North, offered it a series of rebates and tax breaks permitting it to dump low-priced tea on the American market, undercutting smugglers and established merchants alike. Beyond the goal of rescuing the corporation, the expected money raised through taxing the imported tea would help defray the costs of colonial government and undermine colonial assemblies’ significant control over public finances in North America.

A British tax on imported tea was not new in the colonies. In an effort to extract more revenue from its North American possessions, England in 1767 passed the Townshend Act, a bill to tax tea, paint, paper, lead, and glass as they arrived in colonial ports. The tea tax survived the repeal of the other Townshend Duties in the wake of large-scale street protests after the Boston Massacre (March 5, 1770—when British troops fired into an angry crowd of poor Bostonians, killing a handful), which followed a two-year colonial boycott of imported British goods. The effects of the tea tax were minimal, however, because American merchants had long “honestly smuggled” (as John Adams put it) tea from Holland.

In the British view, the 1773 Tea Act was beneficial for all concerned. Parliament would increase its revenue from the colonies, the company’s politically powerful investors would profit, and the colonies would enjoy cheap tea. But the colonists were already obtaining low-priced tea under the existing arrangements, and the legislation undercut established North American merchants. By providing a source of revenue for colonial governments independent of the colonial assemblies, the bill threatened the independent power of the colonists’ proud and relatively autonomous representative bodies. And many colonists believed that to pay consumption excises on what promised to be a large new subsidized volume of English imports would be to surrender the core principle over which the colonists had been fighting London since the Stamp Act crisis of 1765 – no taxation without representation.

Steeled by years of dedicated “nonimportation” struggle, northern colonial leaders were determined to reject the empire’s “tea bribe.” Colonial port authorities in Philadelphia and New York refused permission for ships carrying East India Company tea to anchor in their harbors. In November 1773, however, a British tea ship did succeed in docking in the harbor of Boston, the hotbed of the colonial nonimportation cause since the mid-1760s (with Boston in the lead, the colonists had waged a successful nonimportation struggle in response to the British Stamp Act of 1765).  Boston was also the site of a symbolically powerful confrontation with British imperial power in March 1770—the Boston Massacre and its aftermath. Massachusetts’s widely unpopular colonial governor, Thomas Hutchinson (whose Boston mansion had been ransacked by an angry crowd of colonists in the wake of the Stamp Act), decreed that the ship could not leave the harbor until it had unloaded its tea and paid the tax on it.[5] The colonists recognized that Hutchinson’s sons were poised to profit as the East India Company’s two new Boston agents. Hutchinson agreed to negotiate with colonial leaders chosen by “the Whole Body of the People.” The negotiations failed, and more tea ships arrived in Boston Harbor.

On December 16, 1773, after a large town hall meeting in Old South, approximately 150 colonists outfitted as Mohawk Indians boarded three British vessels from Griffin’s Wharf and tossed more than 300 chests of tea—valued at nearly £10,000 (more than $4 million today)—into the water. The action took three hours. A crowd of 1,000 to 2,000 watched. It was a well-planned, highly coordinated military action. An armed detachment was placed on Griffin’s Wharf to prevent any tea from landing. Many of the participants carried muskets or pistols on the advice of leading Boston revolutionary Sam Adams. As distinguished social and political historian Alfred F. Young (a former teacher of mine) recounts in his remarkable book The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (Boston: Beacon, 1999),  “the boarding parties risked arrest and prosecution. …All participants risked life and limb. Several British naval vessels, marines aboard, rode in the harbor, and more troops were stationed at Castle William on one of the harbor islands…. The crowd on the wharf thus served as insurance against military intervention.”6

It was a pivotal moment in pushing the colonists and Britain on the road to war and American independence. Faced with the perceived necessity of showing “whether we have, or have not, any authority in that country” (Lord North), Parliament passed what the Americans called the Coercive and Intolerable Acts. The English shut down the Boston port until the East India Company was compensated in full. The second Coercive Act tore up the 1691 Massachusetts colonial charter, vastly curtailing town meetings and authorizing the colonial governor to appoint members of the Massachusetts Council, thereby ending the colony’s unique right to elect the members of its own governing body. The third Coercive Act let British officials accused of wrongdoing be tried in another colony or province or in England itself, far from popular juries in Boston. The final Coercive Act permitted British officials to billet redcoats (imperial soldiers) in colonists’ private homes. General Thomas Gage, the top British commander in America, replaced Hutchinson as governor of Massachusetts, putting the most proudly independent and rebellious colony in North America under direct British military control.

 In response to the tea action, the empire struck back like never before. It was determined that there would be no humiliating British retreat as there had been in response to colonial resistance to the Stamp Act (1765) and the Townshend Duties (1767). The British government’s reaction to the original Boston Tea Party united colonists and the colonies in common opposition to what they widely saw as an intolerable threat to their already considerable political freedoms. The die was cast. The Coercive Acts “were the last straw. They convinced Americans once and for all that Parliament had no more right to make laws for them than to tax them.”[7] The colonists were well on the road to the open military conflict that broke out in the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, and ultimately to the independence declared in July 1776.


Turning the World Upside Down: Reversing the Traditional Order

 More than being a critical episode on the path to national independence, the great tea action also helped establish the American Revolution as a social movement.[8] The Tea Party was “unique,” Young notes, “in many ways that later generations have not always been willing to recognize.”[9] Unlike some other early American revolutionary events (the raiding of Hutchinson’s mansion in 1765, the recurrent tarring and feathering of British colonial tax authorities, and the Boston Massacre and its aftermath, for example), the tea action remained from start to finish in the hands and under the direction of the Boston merchant class and its independent Whig leadership, organized as the Sons of Liberty.[10] Nevertheless, “the destruction of the tea” (as the event was generally described in early American public memory through the early 1830s) was the single largest popular action of the decade leading to the onset of war between England and its North American colonies. At the two mass meetings held in late November and at two climactic December gatherings at Boston’s Old South (the leading site also of meetings and speeches against the Boston Massacre), attendance reached five thousand. The last Old South event was the largest meeting ever to have occurred in Boston. The crowd flooded into the streets, fed by attendees from surrounding towns. Traditional legal property qualifications for town meeting participation were abandoned, and “the laboring classes” formed the bulk of the participants.11

Besides being a quasi military action (what Young calls the “most revolutionary act of the decade”)[12], the Tea Party upended the traditional social and political order. Previous colonial protests had mocked the traditional order but, Young notes, “the action against the tea ships—destroying 9,659 British Pounds[’ worth] of private property belonging to the powerful East India Company, defying Parliament, defying the whole array of British officials and military might in the colony—this was truly turning the world upside down.” The event was characterized by “festive euphoria” as muscular male colonists (who could lift and break open 350-pound tea chests) poked fun at the genteel British and aristocratic teatime ritual by “making tea” in Boston Harbor, turning the “harbor [into] a teapot,” and “making so large a cup of tea for the fishies.” Class distinctions among the original Tea Partiers were leveled or at least suspended and cloaked by the participants’ common American Indian disguises and personas. As Young notes, “It was a masquerade that released [participants] from the usual norms.” The tea protest was “an exhilarating reversal—aggressive, quasi-military, destructive and carnivalesque.”13


“To Masquerade as Commoners”: The Official Rediscovery of the Tea Party, 1830s to the Present

The Boston Tea Party was seared in the personal and private memories of those who participated and witnessed the dramatic event, but it was played down in the early American republic’s publicly sanctioned collective memory. It did not figure prominently in the official history crafted by the upper-class keepers of the young nation’s public memory. For those historical gatekeepers, the Boston Massacre (1770) and the Battles of Lexington and Concord (1775) were far more appealing as commemorative events. As an “unmistakably willful and provocative, a true act of revolution”[14], the tea action did not fit the reigning elite national narrative which cast the British as aggressors and the colonists as defenders of their own liberties. Cultural authorities in the early republic were less than eager to promote an event that highlighted the Revolution’s plebian heritage —its reliance on the anger, solidarity, strength, and agency of the urban laboring and popular classes.15

The Tea Party gained a central, even iconic place in the nation’s public memory—in the North at least—six decades after it actually occurred, in response to an upsurge of radical labor activism and social contestation in the mid-1830s. Both sides of the labor-capital conflict of the Jackson era sought to appropriate the Revolution’s heritage to their own purposes. For early New England trade unionists like Seth Luther, the Tea Party (as the event was now commonly called) was a useful example of legitimate collective action against propertied interests by ordinary citizens.[16] With northern labor and antislavery activists seizing upon the “radical traditions of the Revolution” in struggles against northern and southern concentrations of wealth and power, the history-conscious northern elite moved to provide its own spin on the American Revolution. The Tea Party emerged as an officially sanctioned iconic event as elite politicians and their parties—the Democrats and the Whigs (the latter seeking by its name to wrap its elite mercantilist agenda in the democratic legacy of the Revolution)—scrambled to “masquerade as commoners” (Young) in a supposedly new “age of Democracy and the common man.”[17] Against the backdrop of rising popular activism and radicalism and related upper-class fear of “mob violence” in the 1830s, the relatively orderly tea action struck some northern elites and collective memory-keepers as relatively “safe” in comparison to “other [revolutionary] events (the Stamp Act riots, the mobbish Massacre, the grim tarrings and featherings.” The term “tea party,” common in popular parlance, now emerged in book titles and newspaper stories in part because it was a frivolous name for a serious event – undermining its radical potential.”[18] From the mid-1830s on, the Boston Tea Party took a central, honored place in the official history and public memory of the American Revolution. It has been claimed by left and right ever since. 19

The Tea Party “movement” of February 19, 2009 (the official starting date in the “movement’s” own history) to the present – financed and coordinated by the right wing of the Republican Party[20]— is hardly the first example of the American right trying to appropriate the legacy of the Boston Tea Party against supposedly left wing “big government” Democrats. During the 1980 presidential campaign, the Libertarian candidate Ed Clark—sponsored by the Koch brothers—told The Nation that libertarians were going to hold “a very big tea party” because citizens were “sick to death “ of taxes.[21] In 1994, under the encouragement of the leading Republican representative and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Sharon Cooper (currently a state representative in Georgia) published a book titled Taxpayers’ Tea Party.[22] Four years later, on April 15 (tax day) 1998,  Dick Armey, the ultraconservative Republican House majority leader from Texas—and future head of leading Tea Party funder and coordinator FreedomWorks?-joined a fellow right-wing representative from Louisiana for a curious ritual in Boston. They “boarded Beaver II, the tea ship replica, put a copy of the federal tax code in a chest marked ‘tea,’ and dumped it in the harbor.”23

Throughout the 1990s and earlier, the Boston Tea Party theme was used by anti-tax protesters on Tax Day. FreedomWorks (formed in 1984) held protests outside post offices across the country every April 15. As New York Times reporter Kate Zernike observes, it “even proposed the idea of a modern-day Boston Tea Party. In 2002 it launched a website for the U.S. Tea Party. “Do you think our taxes are too high and the tax code too complicated? We do!,” the site proclaimed as “The Star Spangled Banner” piped in the background.” In 2007, Armey and Freedom Works president Matt Kibbe wrote an op-ed article “proposing the Boston Tea Party as a model of grassroots pressure on an overbearing central government. They couldn’t get it published.” Armey’s own spokesman “thought the historical comparison was boring. But all that changed in the first months of 2009.”24

The contemporary Tea Party phenomenon was launched by Texas representative Ron Paul, actually something of an opponent of the political establishment. An authentic libertarian who seriously opposes imperial wars and advocates drug decriminalization, Paul gave the name “Tea Party” to the rallies for his 2008 presidential run. During a Boston fund-raising event for his campaign on December 16, 2007 (the 230th anniversary of the  Boston Tea Party), Paul evoked the “Tea Party” to emphasize his fiscal conservatism and strict “small government” stance in a fund-raiser that garnered $6.01 million, reported to be the largest single-day campaign finance take in history.[25] As the iconoclastic journalist Matt Taibbi noted in September 2010, Paul’s genuine libertarianism meant that he could never be taken seriously by the Republican establishment, but the curious success of his insurgent campaign and brand name was not lost on GOP elites, who “s[aw] the utility of borrowing his insurgent rhetoric and parts of his platform for Tea Party 2.0” – “this second-generation Tea Party” that “came into being a month after Barack Obama moved into the White House.”26

There is nothing surprising about the sharp contrasts between the harshly reactionary, regressive, fake-populist, Astroturf, and elite-directed Tea Party phenomenon of 2009-2011 and the genuinely progressive and revolutionary Tea Party protest of 1773. The Tea Party label or brand—the iconic image of a popular-revolutionary event that right-wing “patriots” do not care to deeply understand or remotely investigate—is sufficient for contemporary right-wing imitators, for whom the real past is little more than a superficial propaganda field to be mined and marketed in service to contemporary political agendas.[27] They are neither the first nor the last political salesmen seeking to crudely appropriate and simplify the complex and poorly understood past for selfish and undemocratic purposes.

Most of this essay is excerpted from Chapter 2 (“‘Turning the World Upside Down’: From the Original Tea Party to the Current Masquerade”) in Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011, order thttp://www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=280225

1 Jane Mayer, “Covert Operations: The Billionaire Brothers Who Are Waging War Against Obama,” New Yorker, August 30, 2010.

2 Gabriel Sherman, “The Elephant in the Green Room,” New York Magazine, May 22, 2011 at http://nymag.com/print/?/news/media/roger-ailes-fox-news-2011-5/

3 Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011).  We do not restrict our sense of corporate media’s role to FOX News.  We find that that the entire “mainstream” media played a key role in creating the Tea Party phenomenon and its grassroots and movement mythologies.

4 This and following paragraphs rely on Eric Foner, Give Us Liberty! An American History, vol. 1 (New York: Norton, 2005), 163–181; Gordon Wood, The American Revolution: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 27–38; Benjamin Larabee, The Boston Tea Party (New York, 1964); and Edmund Morgan, The Birth of the American Republic, 1763–1789 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

5 Alfred Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 94.

6 Ibid., 99–100.

7 Wood, The American Revolution, 38.

8 J. Frederic Jameson, The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968).

9 Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, 100.

10 Ibid., 92, 161.

11 Ibid., 53, 99–100.

12 Ibid., 100.

13 Ibid., 101–104, 107.

14 Ibid., 106–107.

15 Ibid., 108–131.

16 Ibid., 145–154.

17 Ibid., 170.

18 Ibid., 160–161.

19 In the 1830s and 1840s, pro- and antiabolitionists and antieviction “downrent” activists in the Hudson Valley all appropriated the symbols, regalia, and tactics of the Tea Party in different ways (the Hudson Valley movement cited the tea action as a justification for “extra-legal action”) At centennial celebrations in Boston of what had by 1873 become a fully enshrined iconic event, leading advocates of social reform, racial progress, and women’s suffrage (including Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Lucy Stone) claimed the Tea Party for the causes of social justice and political reform and against those who were trying “to prevent money from accumulating in the aristocratic class.” Two and a half years later, during celebrations of the nation’s centennial, Phillips spoke in defense of the preservation of the Old South Meeting House by noting that “it was the mechanics [the artisans and workers] of Boston that threw the tea into the dock; it was the mechanics of Boston that held the hand of Sam Adams; it was the mechanics of Boston, Paul Revere among them[who] carried us through the revolution.” In sharp contrast, the well-off attendees of elite Tea Party centennial celebrations heard a speech from Robert C. Winthrop, a longtime Massachusetts congressman and president of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Winthrop “all but disavowed the destruction of the tea,” saying that “we are not here today to glory a mere act of violence, or a merely successful destruction property.” Winthrop warned against “lawless violence” and claimed falsely that “we know not exactly whether any of the patriot leaders of the day had a hand in the act.” The left-right divide over the meaning of the Tea Party would continue into the twentieth century. See Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, 147-48, 180-183, 186-191.

20 See Chapter 3.

21 Jane Mayer, “Covert Operations: The Billionaire Brothers Who Are Waging a War Against Obama,” New Yorker, October 30, 2010.

22 Sharon Cooper, Taxpayers’ Tea Party (Baen, April 1994).

23 Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, 198.

24 Kate Zernike, Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America (New York: Times Books, 2010), 33–35.

25 http://mysite.verizon.net/nathanielyao/index.html.

26 Matt Taibbi, “Tea and Crackers: How Corporate Interests and Republican Insiders Created the Tea Party Monster,” Rolling Stone, October 15, 2010.

27 For useful reflections on the Tea Party’s egregious exploitation and manipulation of American history, see Greg Grandin, “Glenn Beck, America’s Historian Laureate: The Tea Party’s Guide to American Exceptionalism,” TomDispatch.com, May 13, 2010. 

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