TOMORROW is the 200th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. The Tea Party was no picnic, nor was it a purely symbolic act. Celebrating it as either can only obscure our understanding of the American Revolution and conceal the meaning of revolutionary activity in general. That is why there is some significance to the way Americans choose to recall the Tea Party at the beginning of the Revolution's Bicentennial celebration.
One historian, Richard Maxwell Brown, writes that the Tea Party stemmed from a century-long heritage of mob violence in Boston. Discontent was rampant up and down the colonial seaboard after the British government granted the East India Company a monopoly on all tea exported to the American colonies; only in Boston did discontent manifest itself in violence. Boston's merchant class feared that the monopoly would, according to one patriot, "destroy every branch of our commerce, drain us all of our property, and wantonly leave us to perish by the thousands."
These fears were exaggerated; nevertheless, Sam Adams led a meeting of the patriots that decided to enlist the aid of the South End Mob of Boston and dump tea from three British cargo ships into Boston Harbor. "Many persons," an exultant John Adams wrote at the time, "wish that as many dead carcasses were floating in the harbor as there are chests of tea." The effect of the action, conclude historians Morrison and Commager, was to commit the patriots once and for all to the use of violent means against the British oppressors.
To commemerate the symbolic significance of the Tea party without acknowledging the significance of the commitment to violence is to miss the point altogether. Boston did not win its "Cradle of Liberty" name because of a special intellectual quality of its leaders but because of a special leaders were willing to resort to violence under conditions they thought to be oppressive. The American Revolution began in Boston because Samuel Adams and the South End Mob were the first to understand Tom Paine's admonition, "Moderation in principle is always a vice."
While Richard Nixon is not George III--though some liberals will claim he is--America and much of the world is living dangerously close to oppression. These, as much as any others, are times that try men's souls. Americans have been reticent to face the trial of hard times in the recent past; they have been slow to react to the erosion of their own liberties and to the repression of freedom in other parts of the world. Whether Americans will soon become steadfast in their resistance to oppression depends on their coming to understand what resistance is all about. The way we celebrate the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party will gauge the depth of that understanding.
ON THE OCCASION of the 100th anniversary of the Tea Party in 1873, a group of Boston's finest citizens, including Harvard President Josiah Quincy, gathered in Faneuil Hall to commemorate the deeds of the South End Mob. The organizers wanted to find some appropriate way to mark the occasion, so they came up with the idea of having a tea party of their own. After a series of patriotic speeches, including one by Frederick Douglass about women's suffrage, women went up and down the aisles of the hall and served the celebrants little cups of tea.
The Josiah Quincy gang probably believed they were justly honoring the first Tea Party with their dainty little tea service. Violence was not mentioned in any of the speeches nor did any of the speakers refer to the oppression which led to the celebration. For the celebrants in Faneuil Hall the struggle was over and done with; all that was left was to sit back and enjoy a cup of tea.
Perhaps in Josiah Quincy's day the country could afford to do that. But not now. Freedom is on the wane in this country and repression is on the rise all over the world. We can no longer sit back and swap stories about the good old revolution. We have to start worrying about the present. On this anniversary we must recognize that the patriots of Boston acted wisely in overthrowing their oppressors and the time is come to express our confidence in what our forefathers did by doing it ourselves.
Most likely, there will be no new revolution in America for a long time to come. But these are revolutionary time around the world, and we must support the struggles of all people seeking freedom and self-determination. America has shamed itself by failing to do so, and its leaders have disgraced themselves by supporting the forces of oppression. When President Allende nationalized American mining interests in Chile, President Nixon denounced him for failing to respect the rights of property. Will Nixon say tomorrow that Boston's patriots should be condemned for failing to respect the property rights of the East India Company? Will he condemn them for their violence. Surely not.
Nixon and his Bicentennial Commission will ignore these issues. They will ignore what the American Revolution was really about and what it took to win it. They, like Josiah Quincy a hundred years ago will sit back and sip a cup of tea and say, "Let's keep revolutions in the history books where they belong."
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