Ask the Smart Aleck Staff: The Boston Tea Party

Here comes some reader mail from Ava, a reader in Nebraska,

In your book, you say that the Boston Tea Party was a protest against the government giving tax breaks to a business. So why do the tea party guys dress up like colonists? And why did the Boston Tea Party people dress up like Native Americans?

Great quest, Ava! First of all, here's a multiple choice question for you:

Which party is most often guilty of making wild claims about how The Founding Fathers would agree with them?
a. Democrats
b. Republicans
c. Libertarians
d. whichever party is not currently in power.

The answer is usually D (and, therefore, C - those guys are never in charge).

Both sides are making ridiculous generalizations to imply that the framers of our country all felt the same way on any given issue (especially issues relating to things they couldn't have imagined in the 18th century).

Exactly who counts as a Founding Father and who doesn't is a bit of an X factor - some count everyone who lived in the 1700s, some just count the people who fought in the wars and/or served in congress, and some just pick and choose at random. But any way you slice it, the Founding Fathers were a rather diverse bunch (for a bunch of rich white guys). They didn't agree on much back then, and they wouldn't agree on much now. When you ask what the founding fathers would think of any given issue, you really have to take it on a founding father by founding father basis.

 And even then, their individual views evolved over time - it's impossible to guess what they'd make of the situation now. Even if we dug them up (you know that we here on the Smart Aleck Staff just LOVE grave robbing) to see if they'd registered their disapproval by rolling over in their graves (as one does), it would take some hardcore forensics to figure out WHEN they'd rolled over (or how many times). Even if they were facing down, they might have rolled over at the Missouri Compromise, then again the Nebraska Kansas Act, and again during Bloody Kansas.

As for the costumes, one thing conservatives and liberals have in common is that their protest rallies tend to be taken as an invitation to put on stupid costumes, say stupid things, and act obnoxious (see also: the Smart Aleck's Guide to Making an Ass Of Yourself) (one that we're definitely qualified to write!). Protest rallies in the 1770s were probably no different.

But we digress (as we do). In the 18th century, the East India Company was  BIG business - it actually controlled parts of India for a time. In the 1770s, the British government gave them a legal monopoly on importing and exporting tea - colonists who wanted to buy tea from anyone who wasn't one of their consignees had to buy tea from smugglers. Smugglers didn't pay taxes, so they were able to keep their prices low. To help the East India Company, the government gave them MASSIVE tax breaks, allowing them to lower their prices and push competitors out of business.

But there was no spending cut attached to the tax break, so the government made up for the loss of revenue by passing The Townsend Acts, which added some taxes for colonists, including one on tea. They were not exactly crippling taxes, but the colonists were rather miffed that they had to pick up the slack to allow for a company to get a tax break.

So they organized boycotts, and started pushing locally-grown tea that didn't need to be imported (but apparently was not very good).  It worked well enough that in 1770 the government repealed most of the taxes in the Townsend Acts - except for the one on tea, which they left in place just to show that they could. For a few years, taxes on both the company and the colonies went up and down. By 1773, the East India Company was basically operating tax free, and were allowed to do their own exporting, cutting out middlemen and helping keep their prices far lower than any competitors.  Some in parliament wanted to do away with the tea tax, since it was just annoying the colonists, but they had set it up so that the revenues it brought in were what paid the wages of local officials, like judges.

With the smaller-time dealers and smugglers out of business, the East India Company now controlled the tea trade - if they didn't name your store as a consignee, you'd be going out of business.  Several people who WERE consignees resigned in protest. In 1773, seven East India Company ships were sent to the colonies, but since their consignees had resigned, six had to be sent back - all except the one bound for Boston, where the governor had talked the consignees out of resigning.

Sam Adams (brother of John) held a meeting at which people passed a resolution urging the ship to turn around and go home. 25 people guarded it against being unloaded. On the last night before the deadline by which they had to either pay the duties and unload the tea or go home, another meeting was held, attended by some 7000 people.

According to legend, when it became apparent that the governor wasn't about to let the ships go home without paying the duties on their cargo, Adams said "this meeting can do nothing further to save the country," which was the coded signal for the tea partiers to take action.  As with most of these legends, it isn't exactly right - the phrase may or may not have been a code, and Adams may have tried to STOP people from leaving because he wasn't done talking yet.

But hundreds DID leave, and one group (from 30 to 130, depending on who you ask) boarded the ship, supposedly dressed as Mohawk Indians (to conceal their identities and guard against being accused of treason, though it's hard to imagine the disguises actually fooling anyone   - we here at the Smart Aleck's Guide think there's just something about a protest that makes people want to get dressed up in pointless costumes). Once on board, they dumped the tea in the water.

What they were there for is probably a mixed bag - some might have been generally anti-tax, but it seems like the issue most were protesting was paying taxes to allow for a company's tax break. We don't know of anyone railing that parliament should have been cutting spending altogether and eliminating the need for taxes.

Others, of course, were probably just there because it sounded like a real party.

 No one at the time really seems to have thought they made much of a point, and even most of the pro-independence colonists seem to have found the whole affair sort of embarrassing - the sort of thing that made them look like they were nuts. The British responded with MORE "intolerable acts."

But the bottom line is that the party was about saying "this sucks, let's change it." This is something both parties can get behind - neither has a monopoly on the Boston Tea Party.   But it's certainly VERY difficult to imagine the modern "tea partiers" having any issue with the government making things easier on the East India Company.  In any case, the common notion that all of the "founding fathers" favored small government, low taxes, and the rest of the Libertarian Party platform goes against the basics of human nature. The "Framers" were arguing about what the part in the Constitution about promoting the general welfare meant before the ink was even dry.
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