The founding lore of the United States celebrates one moment in particular as that which first crystallized the sentiment that Americans would no longer prostrate themselves to a foreign and unrecognized power that demanded duties without acknowledging rights in return. It came in Boston, in 1773, when news was circulating that the crown had imposed yet another tax upon the colonies; this time in the form of a duty imposed on tea.
The arrangement made it impossible for American tea merchants to compete, and while it allowed the Empire’s company to sell tea at cut-rate prices, the imposition of the tax was seen as but one more act in a line of imperial dictates that had come to be perceived as intolerable.
In response to this news, the locally known rabble-rouser Samuel Adams rallied the population to mass meetings and invocations in order to build the sort of popular support that had previously halted the hated Stamp Act of 1765. In the heat of emotion, Benjamin Rush went so far as to declare that in the importation of tea lay “the seeds of slavery.”
The Royal Governor, however, proved stubborn, and admitted the tea-laden ships to harbor despite the protests of the vocal crowd. With their voices unheard, these self-named Sons of Liberty decided upon more drastic action, and in a daring morning raid they boarded the ships, commandeered their cargo, and cast it into the bay, all as part of a bold declaration that they would be ruled no more. The legend of the Boston Tea Party was born.
There’s a bit more to it though. From the perspective of power, Samuel Adams was little more than a fire-thrower at the head of a mob. After all, the price of tea had actually decreased since the imposition of the duties. From their point of view the colonial uproar had all the appearance of a childish fit.
And, in fact, the Bostonians were a mob. The earliest agitation against the tea duties were marked by public displays of violence, wherein figures of the colonial administration were burned in effigy. One meeting ended when crowd settled upon the stamp distributor Peter Oliver as the target of their ire. However, rather than dispersing to begin a campaign of nonviolent letter writing, they got together and marched over to his house where they threw rocks through the windows before breaking in to drink his liquor and smash his furniture.
Another group at another time headed to the home of William Story, a judge, where they seized his court records and fed them into a bonfire. Yet another crowd headed directly to the home of the colonial governor, Thomas Hutchinson, where they set about smashing the insides with axes and clubs. Along the way they raided the wine cellar and stole whatever money was available.
Even the tea party itself was a rowdy affair. The saboteurs disguised themselves as native Americans, perhaps in an attempt hide their identity, or else to scapegoat the native inhabitants for the wreckage they intended to undertake.
Whatever their reasons, they’re reported to have made quite an impression. The mate of the ship Dartmouth, upon which the tea was being held, recorded that the tea partiers came aboard “dressed and whooping like Indians,” and the Boston Post-Boy reported on the events as “a Number of very dark complexioned Persons (dressed like Mohawks or Indians) of grotesque Appearance” who made “a most hideous Noise” before heading to the docks.
Once onboard the ships, the actual dumping of the tea was a chaotic affair. Some of the apparently drunk participants proved as interested in outright looting as solemn protest. Others were simply caught up in the fun of it and continued whooping and hollering throughout. All told, the day ended with a bunch of apparent hooligans having raided a private ship to steal and destroy private property.
All this, in defiance of a Massachusetts law which was passed in 1753 that had prohibited “all riotous, tumultuous and disorderly Assemblies” along with the “horrid Profaneness, Impiety and other gross Immoralities” that accompanied them. Especially forbidden was the act of disguise, noted as “painted or discoloured Faces” or “having and Kind of Imagery or Pageantry for a publick Shew.” The tea partiers were not the party of law and order that day.
No doubt though that they had principle of their side, despite the roughness around the edges. Theirs was a stand against unrepresentative government. They took it upon themselves to oppose the tyranny of minority interests dictating the lives of the common man. Theirs was an act in favor of democracy.
Unfortunately, with his proposal to criminalize the act of protest as a form of “economic terrorism,” our current State Senator Doug Ericksen has put himself squarely on the side of King George III.The patent absurdity of his hyperbolic rhetoric describing protest as “terrorism” aside, Senator Ericksen’s proposal betrays a deep-seated contempt for the (sometimes dramatic) goings on of democratic expression.
Saying so is not an endorsement of vandals or stone-throwers. Those are petty crimes which are already best dealt with in existing law; be it civil or criminal. The problem with Senator Ericksen’s legislative revanchism is that a law which condemns protest as terrorism will find no surer applications than those which advance dictatorial tyranny.
It is a price to pay of living in a free society that freedom will grate at times. Sometimes it stings. Sometimes windows are broken and tea dumped in harbors. And frankly, that’s a better result than empowering the state to clamp down upon every protest because of the actions of a minority. In such a situation popular sentiment which might once have boiled over before dissipating is left only the opportunity to build until it explodes.
Quotes and historical background sourced from Benjamin L. Carp, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & The Making of America (Boston: Yale University Press, 2011)