“The Bos­ton Tea Party was a law­less act in de­fence of higher prin­ci­ples”

BBC History Magazine - - Anniversaries -

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)

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