William Martel is associate professor of international security studies at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and author of Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Military Policy.
Two hundred and thirty-six years ago this week, Britain's Parliament passed the Tea Act. It lowered taxes on tea.
And the Colonies were furious.
Why? The act gave a monopoly to the British East India Company on trade to the Colonies, effectively scuttling colonial tea smugglers and angering locals who had been quite satisfied with their own arrangement. As one more sign of British arrogance and meddling, it eventually sparked a revolution.
Two hundred and thirty-six years later, the very idea of taxation is no more popular. And politics are just as complicated. So it's little surprise that April 2009's American tea parties denouncing congressional spending of taxpayer dollars took their cue from patriot Samuel Adams.
A conservative revolution? Not so fast. But it sure got people's attention, just as when, on Dec. 16, 1773, Adams's men, numbering between 50 and 100, dressed as Mohawk Indians and boarded three British ships in Boston Harbor. The Dartmouth, the Beaver, and the Eleanor had carried 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. The colonists, organized by Adams, dumped all 90,000 pounds of tea, worth 10,000 British pounds ($1 million today), over the side. Observers said the harbor ran brown for days with "saltwater tea."
The Boston Tea Party was the opening salvo in the American Revolution—and events accelerated quickly afterward. In September 1774, 12 of 13 Colonies (all but Georgia) sent 56 representatives to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia to organize resistance to British rule. In May 1775, the Second Continental Congress convened, naming George Washington commander in chief of the Continental Army. On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed.
And three months and two weeks shy of the 10th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party—on Sept. 3, 1783—the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War.
The rest, as they say, is history.
So, if today's tea party organizers are to point to their own demonstrations as the beginning of something big, what exactly are they pointing toward? Why did the Boston Tea Party happen? What were the politics of the time? And what does this mean for today?
First, let's look at the original Tea Party.
Britain was hurting economically in the years preceding the American Revolution, and the king's native subjects were restless. Facing significant postwar debts from the French and Indian Wars in North America, British citizens believed the Colonies should pay for the cost of the British troops who defended them. Already heavily taxed, they believed the Colonies should share this economic burden. To meet those wishes, Britain's Parliament passed several acts to raise revenue.
The 1767 Townshend Act directly taxed glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea. Colonists protested, boycotted British tea in favor of a cheaper, smuggled blend, and popularized the slogan "No taxation without representation." In 1770, Parliament repealed the Townshend Act but kept the tea tax. The Tea Act—passed on April 27, 1773—lowered the high taxes on tea, but let British merchants set their own price, and they of course undercut the smugglers. Anger that had simmered for years finally boiled over.
When news of the Boston Tea Party reached London months later, Parliament responded by passing the 1774 Intolerable (or Coercive) Acts. Specifically designed to punish Massachusetts, these acts banned commercial traffic in Boston Harbor, protected British officials in Massachusetts from criminal prosecution, and permitted British troops to commandeer private homes.
Parliament clearly had little idea what punishment the Colonies would inflict upon the British in return. For beyond economics, Britain likely suffered from, to put matters euphemistically, a "failure of leadership." King George III, Lord North, and others pursued policies that only inflamed matters. Judging by the Intolerable Acts and tax policies, the British never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.