Case Study



Boston Tea Party Historical Society

Forgotten Lessons from the Boston Tea Party

by George F. Smith

If we examine the Boston Tea Party and England's reaction to it, we will find mistakes the Crown made that we're in a position to avoid now. Like Great Britain in the late 18th century, our federal government today is big, militant, and expensive to run. Consistent with old England, it serves as the armed partner of select businesses and groups, whose welfare is useful to the political status quo. Like our former mother country, American politicians today consider the injustices they create as necessary sacrifices for the good of the state, while refusing to acknowledge any wrongdoing. On the contrary, everything the state does is in the name of more freedom and justice.

Let's take a look at what happened back in colonial times. On the night of December 16, 1773, bands of disguised Bostonians boarded three ships anchored in their harbor and feverishly dumped 342 crates of British tea into the water. How did Parliament react? One member proclaimed that "the town of Boston ought to be knocked about their ears and annihilated." [1]

The English were shocked—and hurt. Their beloved Tea Act was supposed to solve problems, not inflame them. By virtue of the bill, the near-bankrupt East India Company won a monopoly to export tea to the colonies, while the Crown would collect a small duty on the transactions, and the colonists would get their tea cheaper even than the smugglers' brew. [2]

Everyone should be happy. So why were the colonists carrying on about it? The Tea Act represented a violation of their freedom. It subjected them to monopoly and taxes. How dare this rabble, Parliament thought—as well as the king. Who are they to toy with laissez-faire?

The Tea Act epitomized British mercantilism in its granting of market privileges and the imposition of an import duty. Though other cities had resisted the landing of the tea, Boston's measures were the most forceful. The Boston vandals even rowed boats into the harbor the morning after, and seeing where the tea still floated, beat it "with oars and paddles" to ensure its destruction. [3]

Why didn't the Americans show more respect for their mother country, which had bled for their interests during the Seven Years' (French and Indian) War? Why didn't they want to help support the 10,000 British regulars left garrisoned in their midst following the British victory in 1763? Certainly they could see the need for keeping the French from becoming ambitious again. Certainly the Crown, by taxing the colonists, was making a reasonable demand to cover the costs of colonial defense.

But the colonists thought they could defend themselves. They wanted the British out and resisted all taxes.

In Parliament, Lord North, reflecting the king's wishes, laid out a series of acts intended to punish the Americans. Since Boston had been the "ringleader in all riots" with regard to opposing British Acts, North began with the proposal of closing the Boston Harbor. [4] It would remain closed, not only until Bostonians paid for the jettisoned tea, which amounted to 10,000 pounds sterling, but until they showed "peace and obedience" in their conduct. As Lord Dartmouth put it, the king's dignity required a full and absolute submission. [5]

The Boston embargo would be accompanied by new rules for governing Massachusetts. The Crown would run things, obliterating all self-government. Even town meetings would be subject to written consent from the royal governor. As Lord George Germain remarked during debate in the House of Commons, "I would not have [merchants] every day collecting themselves together and debating about political matters; I would have them follow their occupations as merchants, and not consider themselves as ministers of that country." [6] Bostonians should mind their own business and obey whatever is handed down to them.

When some in Parliament suggested the proposed punishment was too harsh, Lord North replied it was time to get tough: "The Americans have tarred and feathered your subjects, plundered your merchants, burnt your ships, denied all obedience to your laws and authority; yet so clement and so long forbearing has our conduct been that it is incumbent on us now to take a different course." [7]

Edmund Burke made an eyebrow-raising suggestion: Why not repeal the Tea Act? This "will be the remedy to bring peace and quietness and restore authority," he explained. Knowing North's proposals would require more troops, he added, "a great many red coats will never be able to govern [America]." (Emphasis added) Though he believed the Americans "cannot resist the force" of England, he thought North's solution would cause "wranglings, scuffling and discontent." [8]

Charles Fox agreed. "The only method by which the Americans will ever think they are attached to this country will be by laying aside the right of taxing," he told Commons. He pleaded with his peers to "consider whether it is more proper to govern by military force or by management." [9]

Parliament, of course, went for the military solution and passed the punitive measures. Did this serve as a warning to other colonies to behave or else, as England intended? Did other cities go along with the new acts, feigning loyalty to get business Boston would lose?

Not in the least. A year earlier, Sam Adams and friends had revised and expanded the Committees of Correspondence, a network of liberty-minded colonists that stretched the length of the continent. Eventually, "almost every colony was linked in a network over which flowed expressions of solidarity, promises of help, protests, fresh ideas." [10] Horseback riders such as silversmith Paul Revere carried the writings of the members from one colony to another.

The Committees transmitted news of Boston's impending punishment up and down the coast. When Parliament passed the Boston Port Act closing the harbor, other colonies rose in support. Charleston sent Boston money and rice. From Connecticut and Long Island came convoys of bleating sheep, and New York guaranteed Boston a 10-year supply of food. In Farmingham, Connecticut, as in other towns, the Sons of Liberty held a rally in which one of their members read the Boston Port Act aloud then had the town's hangman set fire to it on a scaffold. The member then read a series of five resolves that put the American cause in perspective:

First, that as long as our parent State secures our liberties, "we are ready with our lives and properties" to support it.

Second, that the present ministry, "being instigated by the devil . . . have a design to take away our liberties and properties and to enslave us forever."

Third, that the blocking of the port of Boston "is unjust, illegal and oppressive; and that we and every American are sharers in the insults offered to the town of Boston."

Fourth, "that those pimps and parasites who dared to advise their master to such detestable measures be held in utter abhorrence . . . and their names loaded with the curses of all succeeding generations."

Fifth, "that we scorn the chains of slavery; we despise every attempt to rivet them upon us; we are the sons of freedom and resolved that, till time shall be no more, godlike virtue shall blazon our hemisphere." [11]

Unlike today's pack mules, many colonial Americans knew what it was like to live free of oppressive government. They had first-hand experience with liberty, not so much on principle but from England's hands-off policy of salutary neglect, which ended around 1763. Freedom, not obedience to state edict, had been the norm. Yet that norm was the rarest of human treasures, which is why the patriots were so intractable.

Parliament's punishment, which Americans called the Intolerable Acts, prompted the calling of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. To the end, Britain was willing to put down its arms only if the colonists were willing to pledge allegiance to the king.

George Dubya and George III

For both George W. and George III, military force and contempt are the keys to effective foreign policy. Our embargo of Iraq, like the Crown's closing of Boston's port, was a just punishment for destructive behavior—to question it is a confession of depravity. England's policy of salutary neglect produced harmonious colonial relations, a policy it should have retained and we should try.

England misjudged the support of other colonies when it put the heat on Boston. Will our attacking of Iraq produce serious repercussions, given the fanaticism of the terrorist global network? The War Hawks don't seem concerned. Bush has set the tone by getting clearance to step up the war against Iraq. It's as if he triggered land mines, as we're seeing in Yeman, Kuwait, Indonesia, and possibly the D.C. Beltway. We are, in a sense, mimicking the Palestinian suicide bombers—attempting to achieve a "noble" goal at the expense of our existence. Until met with a superior force, or taken down by the electorate, our "kill or be killed later" policy will continue unabated.

We need to re-examine the Founders' idea of avoiding entangling alliances. We need to get our DoD defending our homeland, instead of scattering our troops all over the earth. A great many American G.I.'s cannot govern the world.

If we lived according to our Founders' principles, instead of those of our Founders' oppressor, the world would be a safer place today.


1. Commager, Henry Steele and Morris, Richard B. (ed.), The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of The American Revolution as Told by Its Participants, Castle Books, 2002, p. 12

2. Lancaster, Bruce, The American Revolution, Mariner Books, 2001, p. 68

3. Commager, p. 6

4. Ibid., p. 11

5. Langguth, A. J., Patriots: The Men Sho Started the American Revolution, Touchstone Books, 1988, p. 191.

6. Commager., p. 13

7. Ibid., p. 13

8. Ibid., p. 15

9. Ibid., p. 14

10. Lancaster, p. 68.

11. Commager, p. 21, 22



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