Issue 225 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
In my school days the portrayal of the Boston Tea Party event (the dumping of British tea into Boston harbour by disguised colonists on 16 December 1773) was of a surreptitious act by a handful of troublemakers passing themselves off as 'Indians'. I remember thinking how unfair it was of the American colonists to try to put the blame on hapless Native Americans.
In fact the famous 'Mohawk' disguise was designed to hide the identity of the individuals, but not the collective interests that they represented. Indeed the disguise was becoming superfluous. When similar events were staged in New York three months later a crowd took matters in their own hands and dumped the tea while the 'Mohawks' were still dressing up.
The Boston Tea Party was an act of open defiance against the British state, at that time the most powerful in the world. It was witnessed, not only by an angry crowd of 2,000 Bostonians (more than a tenth of the population), but also by the British garrison, whose commander judged it wiser to stay put rather than defend the tea from being thrown into the dock. The tea had been imported by the East India Company, which Britain was attempting to bail out of its disastrous financial difficulties by granting a monopoly, in addition to levying a tax of three pence per barrel.
The tax on tea and the monopoly were the culmination of years of Britain's attempts to assert authority over its American colonies, and over the increasingly democratic and revolutionary resistance. A notice posted across Boston a few days earlier referred to 'that worst of plagues, the detestable tea', and called for a 'united and successful resistance to this last worst and most destructive measure of administration'. That this resistance had been largely successful was due to the organisations at the forefront of the struggle - the Sons [and daughters] of Liberty.
The Sons of Liberty had been formed in the earlier resistance to the Stamp Acts, which had attempted to levy charges on most administrative acts conducted in the colonies, such as wills, apprenticeships and bail bonds. The Sons carried out acts of mass resistance aimed at forcing non-collection of the Stamp Duty, and raised the idea of solidarity between the various colonies. Furthermore, they gave birth to the means to coordinate that solidarity - the Committees of Correspondence. Demonstrations, boycotts of loyalists, and sometimes physical force initiated by these organisations put such pressure on those designated agents for collecting the duty that eventually none could be found to do so.
The Sons represented an alliance of classes who had an interest in opposing British rule (even though this was not a spoken aim for most of them at first). The merchants, traders and lawyers who saw themselves as the natural rulers in America had to rid themselves of the commercial restrictions placed on them by their British masters. They tended to provide the leadership, such as merchant's son Sam Adams and silversmith Paul Revere. The mechanics, sailors, and other members of the masses (who tended to provide both the muscle and the more radical tendencies) had more democratic aims, which sometimes brought them into conflict with their wealthier allies, but which could not be realised without them. For them, taxation from afar, and the appointment of officials by parliament, was an attack on the democratic institutions like the Town Meeting.
In New England there were almost no voting restrictions for adult males, and Town Meetings had been essential to the movements which had defeated other taxes of which the tea tax was remnant. It was the Boston Town Meeting which had called for a convention of delegates across Massachusetts in response to the stationing of British troops there in 1768 - the first of such conventions to be established. By the time the Boston Tea Party took place most provinces had conventions and most towns had Committees.
Although it was not a spoken aim, the Sons of Liberty had built a revolutionary organisation. While the leaders were at constant pains to stress their loyalty to the crown, wishing only to assert their rights as 'Englishmen', events were moving to a conclusion which would make that wish impossible.
Britain's response to its public humiliation in Boston took the form of the 'Intolerable Acts', foremost of which was the closure of Boston port until the East India Company was recompensed. Boston was to be an example to the rest of America, because in the words of Lord North, Chancellor of the Exchequer, it had 'been the ringleader of all violence and opposition...New York and Philadelphia grew unruly on hearing the news of the triumph of the people of Boston.'
The revolutionary institutions swung into action as the Boston Committee of Correspondence asked for support from across the colonies. The response was mixed, as was opinion even in Boston. Many of the moderate merchants were unhappy about the destruction of property, given the implicit threat to their own status. But the call struck a chord in Virginia, where leaders such as Thomas Jefferson were seeking a means to up the stakes. They hit upon the idea of calling for a 'Continental Congress' representing all the colonies, expressing the sentiment that an attack on one colony was an attack on all.
Although this Congress did not declare independence, nor call for war (both of which were to come later), it was a clear break with Britain. Even before it met, the military commander in Boston complained at his inability to enforce British rule: 'Civil government is near its end, the courts of justice expiring one after another.' The Town Meetings and Committees of Correspondence were all the government that existed in much of America, although not yet controlling the means of force, nor trade with the outside world.
This would have been impossible to predict at the time. The period from 1771 up to the Boston Tea Party had been quiet. As historian Theodore Draper says, 'The "lethargy" as Jefferson had called it in Virginia, was deceptive. All the revolutionary leaders had to do in Massachusetts and Virginia was touch the right buttons, and the pent-up resentment and rebelliousness again broke loose.'
The American revolutionaries were pushed by events into revolutionary consciousness. Fortunately for us, we have such lessons from the past to warn us not to be misled by appearances.