Thursday, April 15, 2010

Tea Parties: An Accurate Name?

Here in America, we like to imagine that the founders of our nation were heroic idealists unaffected by greed or self-interest. We praise their revolutionary idea that all men are created equal while ignoring the fact that they bought and sold other humans; we conveniently ignore the fact that they made themselves richer through war bond scams; and we boil the Boston Tea Party down to a simple protest against taxation without representation. Since our education system is more interested in producing good little citizens than critical thinkers, the average American rarely learns (or even learns how to learn about) the real story and motivations behind important historical events. So it's not really surprising that tax protesters have chosen to identify themselves with John Hancock, Sam Adams, and the rest of the colonists who pulled off the Boston tea party.

The truth, as always, is a little more complicated than a simple protest against taxation without representation and, like our recent financial crisis, is tied up in the fortunes of a company that was "too big to fail," in this case the British East India Company. Before 1773, the company was not permitted to export tea to the colonies. Instead, it sold the tea to other companies, who exported it to America, where it was a subject to a 3 pence per pound duty according to the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767. The high price of legally-imported tea led to the rise of a class of gentlemen smugglers, including shipping magnate John Hancock, who worked closely with Tea Party organizer Sam Adams (The joke around Boston at the time was "Sam Adams writes the letters [to newspapers] and John Hancock pays the postage").

While it is true that Parliament refused to remove the duties imposed by the Townshend Act primarily because doing so could be construed as ceding its right to tax the colonists, these duties had been around for six years before the Boston Tea Party. The question, then, is "what changed?" The answer, of course, is money: The Tea Act of 1773 permitted the East India Company for the first time to export its product directly to the colonies. Without the middlemen, this allowed the company to sell tea in the colonies much more cheaply, which worked out well for everyone. Except, of course, smugglers like Hancock.

In short, the original Boston Tea Party was the work of men who engaged in dubious business practices convincing their fellow Americans to act against their own financial self-interest in order to protect the profits of the wealthy. You know, on second thought, "Tea Party" seems like a perfect name for the Fox News zombies protesting taxes today, even without the many "balls in the mouth" jokes it provides Jon Stewart.


Anonymous said...

This was wonderful.

Didn't realize you were such a history buff. :)

Steve Johnson said...

Got a minor in history. Oddly probably the most useful part of my Transy degree.