Difficult History: A Cuppa Politics


Alternate title: “The Boston Tea Party is Relevant Today and Not For the Reasons You Think”

Yes, another one. Apparently, a follower on Instagram who had missed my previous three posts on the political history of tea decided to tell me that “tea should be relaxing, not political.” Obviously, I disagree. And plenty of my other followers immediately came into my DMs with “Yeah, have they never heard of the Boston Tea Party?!” Oh yes, we’re doing the Boston Tea Party today.

But guess what? The Boston Tea Party isn’t what you think it is. It’s come up a lot recently because of the violence, property damage, and looting that occurred surrounding the protests in support of Black lives this year. People on one side of the argument pointed out that looting is considered patriotic when it’s white people destroying tea, while others turned to refute that by ascribing higher morals and debunking that the Boston Tea Party was at all similar to looting Target.

So, in case there are people who aren’t familiar with the “Boston Tea Party,” as it has been come to be called since the 19th century, it was an event in December 1773 when a group of men disguised themselves and destroyed a shipment of tea belonging to the British East India Company. But the details of the event, and its significance in the motivations for the American Revolution, have been shrouded in the mythology of the noble founding fathers.

The myth is that a group of noble Sons of Liberty valiantly destroyed only the tea belonging to the British East India Company in protest of the taxes levied by the crown, selflessly refusing to take anything for themselves or to touch any private property. After this single, glorious act, the cause of liberty was begun, leading to the American Revolution, which freed the colonies and created the new democratic country of the United States of America. Well… it’s actually a lot more nuanced than that.

First of all, they were not protesting higher taxes. They were actually, technically, protesting lower taxes. The Tea Act of 1773 granted license to the East India Tea Company to import their tea without the typical duties levied against other teas coming into the colonies. This amounted to a decrease in the cost of tea for the colonists, if they bought EIC tea. Now, Malcolm Gladwell has argued that the real motivation was that the tax break for the EIC meant that smugglers were now getting undercut, but that seems to be a slightly reductive, naive reading of the situation.

Instead, the main concern was not that tea was too expensive, but that the colonists were protesting the levying of taxes without their input and the fact that the Crown was giving a specific tax break to one large company, effectively granting them a monopoly. The phrase “no taxation without representation” became a rallying cry, not because taxes were too high, but because they were too biased. In fact, the phrase “End Taxation Without Representation” still appears on DC license plates, as the District is federally taxed without full representation in Congress, and yet DC statehood is not supported by many conservatives for *reasons*.

And, yes, notable founding fathers like George Washington and John Adams wrote negatively about “the destruction of the tea,” as it was called at the time. While they supported the cause of colonial liberty (well, for them, at least), they spoke out of both sides of their mouths, lest they sever ties with their business contacts. In my video “Tea with Abigail Adams,” I discuss how, despite the perception that drinking tea was unpatriotic immediately following the destruction of the tea, Americans seemed to have quickly forgotten their newfound protest and return to tea-drinking rather quickly. Adams writes frequently in the years after 1773 about some new tea or other that he has tried and wanted to send home to his wife, and Abigail Adams includes bohea tea in her list of household expenses.

Plus, many of John’s business contacts were in the hospitality business and maintained ties to British ideology in order to serve foreign dignitaries. The politics of business has always been murky. So it is nothing new when a modern company posts support for a cause one day, but continues the practices that benefit them the next. In fact, this is part of the legacy of the Boston Tea Party.

Now, we get to the ideological effect of the Boston Tea Party. First of all, the term “Boston Tea Party” seems to have been coined around 1825 by newspapers referring to the historic event some fifty years earlier. At the time, it was simply known as the destruction of the tea or the dumping of the tea. Even a famous engraving from 1789, which has been come to be called “The Boston Tea Party,” was originally simply titled “Americans throwing the cargoes of the tea ships into the river, at Boston.”

Beyond that, the disguise as Mohawk indigenous people, while it has been explained as a statement of identification with the indigenous population of the continent and not as British subjects, was not as comprehensive as later depictions suggest. Contemporary accounts talk of people grabbing ragged clothing and blackening their faces with soot to suggest “savages” rather than donning well-thought-out costumes. That, combined with the secrecy surrounding the identities of the protestors, suggests that the disguises were just that — a way to avoid being identified. And the result was that the Crown, in the absence of specific people to prosecute, cracked down on the whole of the colonies. And THAT was what brought together politically disparate colonial leaders into supporting the Revolution.

As far as the issue of theft goes, while it was generally accepted that the purpose of the event was protest and destruction, not personal gain, the eyewitness account does point out the one or two were caught pocketing the tea and were “roughly handled” by their fellows, but one can imagine that there must have been some who were not caught. While many of the protestors had this ideal, it is apparent that not all of them did. So it is also unrealistic to claim that none of the protestors would stoop to theft. If modern protestors are caught stealing, perhaps it is only because we have a lot more first-hand evidence of current events on camera than we have of events of 250 years ago.

Finally, the protest at Boston is 1773 was not an isolated event. It happens to be the most well-known, but tea protests occurred throughout the colonies, both before and after the Boston event. In 1774, tea protests occurred in my own home state of Maryland in Annapolis and Chestertown. This was not a single, isolated event, carried out by proud, non-violent, non-self-interested people. This was a rash of violence and destruction throughout the country, as it was at the time, that prompted a brutal response from the Crown. And this response led to war.

I suppose the point of this article is 1.) as a reminder that tea has been used as a symbol of politics in the United States specifically since before our country was founded, and 2.) that protest is nuanced. When we view past protest, we are viewing it through the filter of time and the biases of the historians. They say that history is written by the victors, and it’s true here as well. So when criticizing politics and political unrest, it is occasionally important to take a step back and who might be trying to encourage your emotional response to align with their opinion. It turns out the Boston Tea Party is very relevant to modern protests, but not because it was invariably hailed as good and pure from day one, but because it is a perfect example of an event that was decried as violent and destructive at the time becoming a symbol of freedom.