In the uncertain period between the French & Indian War and the American Revolution, an unsustainable situation between colonies that felt they had the capacity to be free and an empire that wanted to assert its control and dominance, there was in New England a tension between a desire for order and the threat of anarchical violence against the British. In 1770, for example, some half a dozen Bostonians were killed by insecure British troops after protests and taunting, and those troops were defended in court by future U.S. President John Adams, who was part of the group of people who sought to lead and moderate the passions of the people and keep things from becoming a chaotic mob. When the American colonies showed a dissatisfaction at the trade monopoly given to the corrupt East India Company by British imperialists (an example of crony capitalism at its finest), it was not a surprise that Boston was the place where the crisis reached a flash point.
The Boston Tea Party itself came at the end of a long period of tension in the port of Boston . Manipulations and price controls made it so that the taxed tea (which went to fund hated imperial agents of Great Britain) was cheaper than tea that was smuggled by the colonists. The ship Dartmouth arrived on November 29, 1773 into Boston Harbor, with a deadline of a little over two weeks in port, with the colonial governor refusing to allow the ship to leave without paying the tax, and a restive population that was in danger of uprising. On December 17, 1773, the last day of the deadline, Samuel Adams (cousin of John Adams) sought to lead a Sons of Liberty meeting and keep it in order, but while he tried to keep control of the town meeting, some of the people started streaming out, some of them apparently dressed as Mohawk Indians, and boarded the ship to dump the tea. Eventually a couple hundred Bostonians participated in the destruction of the tea.
There are a lot of ironies about the destruction of the tea. For one, that is the name of the incident as it was referred to for the first fifty years after it occurred. This event was not called the Boston Tea Party at all until the 1830’s, as the revolutionary generation was passing away and as respect for property and propriety in the early American republican had declined to the point where the deliberate destruction of tea (which the founding fathers of the United States originally saw as an embarrassment) was no longer a shameful act of wanton waste and was seen as a praiseworthy act of resistance against a corrupt imperial regime. For another, the destruction of the tea was not a resistance to taxes per se, but rather resistance to taxation without representation (the United States long had a duty on tea that served to provide the federal government with substantial revenue during the late 18th and 19th centuries that was among the first bills passed by the United States Congress after the Constitution was ratified. We must remember that the American colonial leadership was not opposed to taxation in general, but rather taxation without representation. In the United States, we have taxation with representation, even if we may not always agree with who is elected, which is not the situation in colonial America, where Great Britain sent over corrupt members of its own ruling elite to rule despotically over the colonies.
There is yet another further irony that is worthy of exploration. There is a wide body of libertarian/economic conservative groups with loose organization and no central control (albeit with a shared ideology) who call themselves tea parties. Their very name reflects a decline in deference and a greater egalitarian culture that occurred in the Age of Jackson, when the remnants of deference for the political elite of the founding generation had been wiped away, in a similar way that the tea party movement itself signaled a drastic decline in the deference for grass roots economic conservatives for their political elite of mainstream Republicans that were judged as being insufficiently strong against unwanted increases in taxation or government from the grass roots in a similar time of drastic crisis within American society. And just like the Boston Tea Party (as it is now called) was the result of the failure of would-be colonial leaders to restrain the anti-British passions of their grass roots, so too the existence of tea parties is the sign of the failure of moderate Republican leadership to lead as grass roots Republicans could wish. Though left-wing press seems to delight in portraying mainstream Republicans as being extremist, the sad truth remains that mainstream Republican leaders are not sufficiently conservative for a majority of Republican voters, as they keep on being primaried out of office after running afoul of the grassroots, despite their heavy advantages in patronage and money against insurgent candidates.
There remains a further irony between the present reality of tea parties and the past history of the destruction of the tea, which according to some led to the patriotic habit of drinking coffee (I am a tea drinker myself, it should be noted). The Boston Tea Party occurred in Boston, which is now one of the core regions of leftwing politics in the United States, while the power of the tea party in the United States is greatest in those areas of the United States that are the most antithetical to left-wing politics. Both movements, though, represented populist hostility to the corrupt political culture of the time, a way for those who felt disenfranchised in their respective societies to assert power by forming loose organizations that preserved freedom and equality, sought to tame the power of local elites who were judged as being too moderate, and sought to deliberately provoke conflict over uncompromisable ideological differences. The Boston Tea Party succeeded in provoking the American Revolution by provoking an overwhelming imperial response (the so-called Intolerable Acts) that united a sufficient body of opinion among colonial leadership to resistance against Great Britain’s activities. Whether our contemporary tea parties will be as successful in provoking worldview conflict remains to be seen.