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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

“Was the Tea Party even such a good idea the first time around?”

Caleb Crain opens “Tea and Antipathy,” his recent essay in The New Yorker on the economic motivations for the Boston Tea Party, by revisiting Nathaniel Hawthorne’s vivid story about anti-loyalist fervor, “My Kinsmen, Major Molineux.” In the tale the mob, which tars and feathers a rich elderly merchant, is led by a rider whose face is painted as if divided in two: “One side of the face blazed an intense red, while the other was black as midnight.”

Crain argues that much of what we know about the original tea parties may have more than one side.
Spend a little time with the venality, misinformation, hysteria, and violence that led up to the Revolution and the picture becomes murkier.
Historians who “follow the money,” Crain contends, have found evidence of extensive smuggling among colonial merchants. And, as John Tyler writes in Smugglers and Patriots, “illicit traders were highly influential among political radicals.” The impetus for the climactic December dumping was when Parliament restored the tea tax refund and empowered the East India Company to unload its surplus tea directly on the American market, rather than through merchant middlemen:
With the new measures, the price of legal tea was expected to halve. Consumers would save, Parliament wouldn’t lose quite so much on its bailout of the East India Company, and smuggling would be driven out of business.
Threatened, Boston’s merchants had to act:
Not only might smuggling cease to be profitable but, if the experiment of direct importation were to succeed, it might cut them out of the supply chains for other commodities as well. Clearly, it was time for Sam Adams and William Molineux to rile up the public again.
Did precolonial merchants conspire to create the fiction that England was determined to enslave the colonies? Crain concludes by quoting T. H. Breen, author of American Insurgents, American Patriots:
“No evidence survives showing that the king or his ministers contemplated a complex plan to destroy American rights,” yet a significant proportion of the American populace became convinced that this was the case.
Certainly one of the more influential believers was George Washington. Although he initially was troubled by the Tea Party, subsequent actions by the British changed his mind, as this exasperated letter to Bryan Fairfax on July 4, 1774, attests:
As to your political sentiments, I would heartily join you in them, so far as relates to a humble and dutiful petition to the throne, provided there was the most distant hope of success. But have we not tried this already? . . . And to what end? . . . Does it not appear, as clear as the sun in its meridian brightness, that there is a regular, systematic plan formed to fix the right and practice of taxation upon us? . . . Is not the attack upon the liberty and property of the people of Boston, before restitution of the loss to the India Company was demanded, a plain and self-evident proof of what they are aiming at?
Crain’s blog provides additional documentation for his article’s argument. The blog Boston 1775 found his notes for the article “even better than the original” and anyone seeking additional reading will enjoy Boston 1775’s extensive research into the history of tea parties.

Related LOA works: Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches; George Washington: Writings

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