“The Boston Tea Party was a lawless act in defence of higher principles”
John Adams was right to note the boldness of the Bostonians’ action. They had rejected cheaper tea on principle – they didn’t accept parliament’s power to tax them, they hated that the revenue paid the salaries of certain government officials, and they detested parliament’s favouritism toward the East India Company monopoly.
The destruction of the tea looks even bolder because it invited dire consequences: the Coercive Acts of 1774. The Boston Port Act prohibited commerce until the town made restitution for the tea, threatening total economic ruin. The Massachusetts Government Act took power away from town meetings and local juries and vested them in the king and his governor. Meanwhile, the Administration of Justice Act allowed officials to stand trial for capital crimes in more favourable venues. These acts were intended to single out Massachusetts (and its capital) for punishment, but instead the harshness of the laws united 13 of the American colonies in their complaints against the British parliament.
The Boston Tea Party was a lawless act in defence of higher principles and in later years advocates of civil disobedience on the right and left have cited its example. These range from practitioners of violence (including the Ku Klux Klan and libertarian bombers) to practitioners of nonviolence (including Gandhi and Martin Luther King).
Benjamin L Carp is professor of American history at Brooklyn College. He is the author of Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (2010)