The Boston Tea Party: Part II

I keep seeing memes about the Boston Tea Party in my newsfeed. They all point out — properly, in my estimation — that in comparison to the manifest injustices of our racist society, property damage is a misdemeanor, at best. The meme intends to hammer home the truth that our Founding Fathers engaged in this exact same behavior in 1773, so what’s the big deal? So what if some tea gets dumped in the harbor? So what, if Starbucks loses a few windows?

It’s a reasonable point, but inside the history, there’s more worth considering.

First: Let’s assume the meme is correct about the morality of property destruction in the face of injustice. I’ll grant that happily. In fact, I agree. But if you’re going to argue through historical analogy, remember, at least to read the whole assignment before coming to class.

Britain — the unjust government of the day — had a response to the Boston Tea Party. They literally responded with coercion. They passed the Coercive Acts, laws that blockaded Boston Harbor, eliminated the elected legislature of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, granted extraordinary military and legal power to the handpicked, Loyalist governor, and allowed colonists to be extraordinarily rended to a new jurisdiction — a separate colony — for trial. They also massively increased the troop presence of British soldiers in the streets of Boston and required, through the Quartering Act, that those soldiers be housed, fed, and cared for at the Colonists’ expense.

It was an egregious, fatal overreaction.

Those Coercive Acts, known as the Intolerable Acts by the Colonists, caused extreme hardship for Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But they were perceived as a threat by the other colonies, as well. Those colonial governments agreed to send representatives to the First Continental Congress in 1774. Most representatives at that gathering supported united action against Britain, but not a declaration of independence or a declaration of war.

Tellingly, Samuel Adams, leader of the Sons of Liberty, the Massachusetts delegation, and the Boston Tea Party, disagreed. He was ready for the fight. And he was determined to get one. After the Congress delivered a list of grievances, but took no further action, he went home and kept readying Boston for a war he believed to be inevitable. One that, in many ways, he had been itching for for years.

To that end, the Sons of Liberty had weapons stored around the region, and on April 19, 1775, the British got word of a cache in the town of Concord, Mass. Orders were given to seize the weapons, and the troops marched down the road. Shots were fired, and the American Revolutionary War began. It then lasted for eight long, bloody, brutal years. We won in the end, but by the skin of our teeth, and through the fortunate intervention of Britain’s most lethal military, economic and political adversary on our side.

So, yeah, use the Boston Tea Party meme in your newsfeed if you want to justify picking up a brick and throwing it through a Starbucks window. But also, please, understand that the historical analogy you are employing suggests that those actions could precipitate ten long, bloody years of civil war. A war that we might not win.

King George III had soldiers in red uniforms shooting muskets in a green forest far from home. King Donald has the Air Cavalry if he needs it, and 35% of the country raised on white supremacy, gun culture, and a fear of being “replaced” by outsiders, people of color, and Jews. Neither you, nor I, have ANY idea if the military would follow his orders to violently “coerce” the population into compliance. But we all must be clear-eyed that it is a possibility.

Second, there’s another thing to consider before picking up that brick — or posting that meme — if you want to be part of what comes next. Strictly speaking, Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty are not counted among our “Founding Fathers.” They were either not invited, or chose not to attend, the Constitutional Convention in 1787. They had proven themselves most effective in starting a war, and — in many cases — fighting a war. But they weren’t part of building a new and durable world.

When you pick up a brick, when you hurl a Molotov cocktail, when you storm the White House, or when you post a meme indicating the undeniable moral justification for your rage, know the history and the potential fallout. You are, in my opinion, absolutely right about the ethics. Property damage in the face of systemic racism is so minor as to not even be considered a crime.

But morality is the easy part of revolution.

The hard part is moving the world to a better place without ten years — or more — of war. And if you don’t see that is on the table as a possible future in this darkest timeline, then you’re no historian. That’s for certain.

Once a history teacher in Brooklyn, Mike took a sabbatical in 2004 to travel through Latin America. He never returned. He lives and works in Guatemala.

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