Tea parties and the whitewashing of the American Revolution

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

“Clio, the muse of history, is as thoroughly infected with lies as a street whore with syphilis.”

– Schopenhauer

 I don’t blame the Tea Party Protesters for getting it wrong. They probably learned the same myths in school that you and I did. It most likely never occurred to them that they were being lied to at such a young age.

  Normally the lies we are told are lies of omission. For instance, schools no longer teach the long history of labor struggles in America, or the dozens of times we invaded Latin American countries to defend the profits of American banks.

 However, on occasion, the lies we are told are overt and intentional.

 The tea party protesters are victims of both flavors of lies. It wasn’t by accident. As Saul Bellow once said, “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.”

Before Halliburton and Blackwater

“The past is never dead; it’s not even past.”

 – William Faulkner

 If you are like me this is what you learned in grade school:

 The Boston Tea Party was the colonists’ protest against taxes.  Britian imposed a tax on tea and other imported goods, and the colonists were outraged.  They dressed up as Native Americans, boarded ships in the Boston Harbor, and threw overboard all the tea they could find on the ships.  They wanted to send the message to the British that they would not tolerate exorbitant taxes.

 Pretty straight forward, right? This is why right-wing tax protesters consider themselves patriotic even today. They are just following a great American tradition…or are they?

 Would you be surprised to find out that this is 100% lie? Well, maybe not 100%. The colonists did throw tea into Boston Harbor in 1773. It’s only everything else that is a lie.

 The Honourable East India Company (HEIC) was created by royal charter on December 31, 1600, and was given a monopoly on all trade with India. By 1670 King Charles II had granted the HEIC the rights to mint money, employ an army, make war, form alliances, autonomous territorial acquisition, and administer justice in those areas.

 This was not a good thing for the people of India, which had been conquered by the HEIC’s mercenary armies. This huge multi-national company was only interested in what all multi-national companies are: profit.

  And when a huge company is also the government, that means exploitation on a massive scale.

 A few years later the Company acquired the right to collect revenues on behalf of the Mughal Emperor, but the initial years of its administration were calamitous for the people of Bengal. The Company’s servants were largely a rapacious and self-aggrandizing lot, and the plunder of Bengal left the formerly rich province in a state of utter destitution. The famine of 1769-70, which the Company’s policies did nothing to alleviate, may have taken the lives of as many as a third of the population.

 The commodities the company primarily traded in were cotton, silk, indigo dye, saltpetre, opium, and tea. It’s the last two commodities that I want to focus on.

   HEIC started transporting opium to England in 1606 and had established a legal monopoly on opium trade in India (by force), and controlled a majority of opium trafficking to Europe, China, and America by 1800. This became important because Britain had developed a large trade deficit with China from using silver to buy tea.

  In order to balance the trade deficit, Britain enlisted the East India Company’s opium cartel. Before long China was importing 900 tonnes of opium a year from HEIC sources. The resulting epidemic of addiction in China caused the Qing Emperor to ban the sale of opium in 1839.

  This led directly to the First Opium War, in which the British government underwrote a war on behalf of private interests and their future profits, so that they could force drug addiction upon another race of people. By this time the East Indies Company’s main job was to administer India, rather than being strictly a trading company.

 As for that Chinese tea, the colonies in the New World had to buy it through Britain by law.

  The trouble was that the colonists frequently flaunted laws like these.

   The expenditures that the East India Company was making on their mercenary army was draining their resources and eliminating their profits. The company had huge debts, large stocks of tea in warehouses and little prospects of selling it because colonial smugglers like John Hancock were importing the tea from Holland to avoid paying taxes. The company appealed to the British government, which passed the Tea Act in May 1773.

 13 Geo III c. 44, long title An act to allow a drawback of the duties of customs on the exportation of tea to any of his Majesty’s colonies or plantations in America; to increase the deposit on bohea tea to be sold at the East India Company’s sales; and to empower the commissioners of the treasury to grant licenses to the East India Company to export tea duty-free.

This act allowed the East India Company to sell tea in the colonies for half the old price that British tea was sold at, and even less than smuggled tea from Holland.

Still reeling from the Hutchinson letters, Bostonians suspected the removal of the Tea Tax was simply another attempt by the British parliament to squash American freedom. Samuel Adams, wealthy smugglers, and others who had profited from the smuggled tea called for agents and consignees of the East India Company tea to abandon their positions; consignees who hesitated were terrorized through attacks on their warehouses and even their homes.

 So you see, Bostonians weren’t angry about any taxes being imposed on them. They were angry about a huge corporation using its powerful lobby in the halls of government to crush the small businessman via corporate welfare in the form of tax loopholes.

  Why that sounds downright leftist to me. Does it to you?

  The outraged Bostonians circulated a pamphlet called The Alarm which reminded people of the company’s recent record in Bengal.

 Are we in like Manner to be given up to the Disposal of the East India Company, who have now the Assurance, to step forth in Aid of the Minister, to execute his Plan, of enslaving America? Their Conduct in Asia, for some Years past, has given simple Proof, how little they regard the Laws of Nations, the Rights, Liberties, or Lives of Men…. Fifteen hundred Thousands, it is said, perished by Famine in one Year, not because the Earth denied its Fruits; but [because] this Company and their Servants engulfed all the Necessaries of Life, and set them at so high a Rate that the poor could not purchase them.

 Notice the anger and fear at corporate monopoly pricing. I’m going to come back to that.

  The rest of the story you already know. The first of the huge East India Company tea ships (the Dartmouth) arrived in Boston Harbor in late November, 1773, but John Hancock, Samuel Adams and friends wouldn’t let them unload their shipments.

  On December 16, 1773, the Sons of Liberty dressed up as indians and boarded the Dartmouth and two other East India Company ships and dumped 45 tonnes of tea into the harbor.

 Can you imagine today’s tea party protesters raging against unfair corporate tax breaks? I certainly can’t. Yet that is exactly what their movement is named after.

Defenders of the ruling class

“God help us-Terrible times…The poor starving here and rise for redress. Many flying the city for fear of Vengeance.”

 – Samuel Patterson, Philadelphia, 1779

 One of the popular myths of the Founding Fathers is how they fought for democracy, when in fact they often opposed what we take for granted today. The best example I can give for this is James Wilson.

 Wilson was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, helped create the first draft of the American Constitution, and served on the Supreme Court. He was also instrumental in rewriting the Pennsylvania Constitution, of which more needs to be said.

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  The 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution was known as the “radical constitution”. It incorporated ideas such as term limits, allowing no enforcement of laws until the public had time to read them, no judicial independence, and an extremely progressive bill of rights. It also allowed for state controlled markets and self-imposed embargoes. But the three elements of this document that concern us are: a) the right to buy one’s release from military service, b) outlawing debtor prisons, and c) universal male suffrage for anyone over 21 who had paid taxes.

  For the first time in the history of the colony men without property could vote.

“The same reasoning which will induce you to admit all men who have no property, to vote, with those who have, for those laws which affect the person, will prove that you ought to admit women and children.”

 – John Adams warning of the dangers of universal male suffrage

 In March 1779 the conservatives founded the Republican Society in opposition to the radical constitution of 1776. The conservatives were generally “old money” property owners such as James Wilson. In response, the Constitutional Society was created, led by Charles Willson Peale.

  The spark that triggered violence between these two groups involved economics.

 The Continental, the currency of the revolution, was experiencing hyperinflation in 1779 from overprinting. The minutemen were discovering that the wages they were paid in the army weren’t worth much when they got back home, while the rich were able to buy their way out of service. Thus the burden of war was falling on the poor, who were getting poorer.

 On April 20, the ship Victorious had arrived in Philadelphia. The price of the dry goods aboard began to suddenly rise in price. Robert Morris, another signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, had been contracted to unload that cargo, but week after week the cargo didn’t leave the ship while the poor of Philadelphia suffered.

  Morris was a banker who was involved in the slave trade before the war. He added to his fortunes during the Revolution by hiring a huge pirate navy to raid British merchant ships and then sell the stolen goods at a large mark-up.

“You can’t think how much worse the money is since you left this [city]… Many families yesterday went without bread; not a bit to be bought.”

 – Sarah Bache, writing to her husband, May 1779

 The people of Philadelphia were outraged against the “monopolizers” who were “getting rich by sucking the blood of this county.” This language, while it might sound radical and leftist to today’s tea party protesters, would sound perfectly fine to the Boston Tea Party participants.

 A town meeting, led by the militia, agreed to price controls and investigations into “combinations formed for raising the prices of goods and provisions”, Morris in particular. People suspected of conspiring to raise prices were put in jail.  

  Nevertheless, the price control efforts failed. This created even more bitterness among the militia, who decided to deport suspected tories and political opponents to occupied New York aboard a prison ship. At this point Peale refused to participate. A list of names, including opponents to price controls, was posted.

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 On October 4, 1779, around two hundred militia men met at Paddy Byrne’s Tavern and decided to march through the city, seizing four people on the list and parading them. At 3rd and Walnut was Wilson’s house. Hiding inside of Wilson’s house was Robert Morris and many of the wealthy elite of Philadelphia.

  It is disputed who fired first, but one thing is for certain – the crowd had mostly passed by Wilson’s house before anyone had started shooting, thus showing that there was no plan of attacking it.

  Nevertheless, once the shooting began it quickly became bloody. One person inside the house, and five outside of it were killed within minutes. The militia regrouped to gather crowbars to attack the door. They then forced open the door and a fierce firefight ensued that left one seriously wounded on either side before the militia was driven off.

  Around this time the militia has succeeded in procuring a cannon, which was being directed at the front door of the Wilson house just as the cavalry of the Continental Army appeared, commanded by General Benedict Arnold.

  27 militia members were arrested on the spot and the rest were put to flight. That night there was a failed attempt to break into the prison and free them. The general sentiment of the city was supportive of the militia, so the prisoners were freed on bond the following day. Six months later there was a general pardon.

 James Wilson succeeded in helping to draft the Pennsylvania Constitution in 1790 to make it more business friendly. He was beaten by a mob for his efforts.

  Both Wilson and Morris were ruined when a real estate bubble collapsed in 1796. Both wound up on the lam from creditors, and eventually behind bars in debtor prisons.


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  1. gjohnsit

    to give today’s tea party protesters a clue.

  2. cassiodorus

    that the current “health insurance reform” bill counts as a sort of neo-mercantilism, where the government grants corporations privileges to keep them in power.  The East India Company, of course, was an example of the old mercantilism.  I think it’s staging a comeback.

  3. Inky99

    Whenever I see a new piece by you, it greatly pleases me, knowing I’m about to read something really terrific.  And I have yet to be disappointed.

  4. thethinveil
  5. Rubber Rebel

    in the American Revolution. Now the teabaggers fight for their rights. I would be very interested in the diarist’s view of corporate rights through American history. My understanding is that corporations did not make a foothold in this country until the Civil War.

    I think things are getting worse. In revolutionary times the king made corporations. Now the corporations make kings.

  6. svboston

    The Boston Tea Party was hardly a spontaneous populist uprising against the East India Company and the Crown – rather it was a bunch of smugglers and traders protecting their own business interests. At least, from what I remember of Howard Zinn’s book and other stuff I have read over the years.

    Another interesting historical sidenote in the same vein – Elihu Yale, after whom Yale University is named, made his fortune with the East India Company as Governor of Madras (where I grew up, incidentally).  He made most of his money by deals so shady, and was so brutal to the “natives”, that he was removed from Governorship – which is saying a LOT….

    And interestingly, when I looked up his wikipedia page now, it has been considerably “whitewashed” to make him seem like a benevolent philanthropist…..

  7. lotlizard

    … just ordered up 30,000 more troops—to control the opium trade . . . ?

    Some things never change.

  8. dkmich

    there is a rift amongst the teabaggers.  One faction is the libertarian faction that founded the movement, and the other faction is Republican sponsored wingnuttia.  

    There has got to be a way to coalesce and gain control without the giving them the opportunity for violence in the streets.  In today’s world, they’d all be dead, on death row, or in Gitmo.    

  9. gjohnsit

    I was going to talk about Shay’s Rebellion next. I even set it by mentioning how Morris and Wilson wound up in debtor prisons (i.e. the reason for Shay’s Rebellion). But the essay was simply getting too long.

      I might write about it in conjunction with Bacon’s Rebellion, but I’m not sure how to work the two together yet.

  10. Xanthe

    is being taught in some schools now.  My cousin’s children said it is an “alternative” class – still it’s out there. They live in a fairly affluent suburb in Illinois.

    Nations do need stories, myths to hold a people together but there is no reason it can’t be clarified in the upper grades.  

  11. mint julep

    I know I’m asking a lot, but I’m sure more of us could use a refresher on the real history.

    Now off to read some more. Thanks

  12. BruceMcF

    he Boston Tea Party was hardly a spontaneous populist uprising against the East India Company and the Crown – rather it was a bunch of smugglers and traders protecting their own business interests.

    So you see, Bostonians weren’t angry about any taxes being imposed on them. They were angry about a huge corporation using its powerful lobby in the halls of government to crush the small businessman via corporate welfare in the form of tax loopholes.

    Slight differences in phrasing, but complete agreement on the substantial situation.

  13. svboston

    I missed that sentence…

    See, it’s always easier to rouse a populace against foreign corporations and powers.  Maybe that should be used as a selling point by the anti-corporatist movement in America – pointing out that most of these corporations are now multi-national…..

  14. randgrithr

    They finished what was started under Henry VIII – they completely industrialized the British brewing industry. Drove all the brewsters and alewives out of business by mandating that beer could only be brewed with (imported) hops, which of course the women couldn’t afford. Started rumors that women making beer with other ingredients were witches, or accused them of prostitution if they were running independent inns and hostels. Made a daily tot of grog or beer part of the military , which attached a need for the industry to Britain’s imperialist expansion.

    In fact by this time in history women, once the primary producers and servers of beer in Britain, were not even permitted into in British pubs at all – even as CUSTOMERS.

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