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Con-men and dupes at the Boston Tea Party?

  • In these blogposts, I discuss questions and issues that students have raised in my classrooms during the previous semester. They are good springboards to classroom discussions/debates about the Revolution, American history, and history itself. 

The Boston Tea Party took place 250 years ago (Dec. 16, 1773).   It is correctly identified as the match that lit the powder keg known as the American Revolution.   Yet it is quite baffling for historians because it clashes with the materialist framework many historians use to explain the Revolution.  


According to this framework, the elite families who led the Revolutionary movement did so because Britain’s imperial reforms curtailed their commercial, economic, and political interests.   Parliamentary taxes and – more important – British tax-enforcement measures at sea, at port, and in court mobilized American elites, who in turn mobilized common folks to oppose Parliament.   The poor thus rallied to help the rich and powerful.


The Boston Tea Party is a perfect illustration of this Revolutionary pattern because it was an act of defiance against the Tea Act, which eliminated the tax on tea brought to America by the British East India Company, which lowered the price of tea for all consumers.   When looking at the Tea Act through a materialist prism, the Tea Act seems like a measure that served the economic interests of common people, while victimizing only wealthy merchants in the tea trade.   The East India Company’s special tax break allowed it to cut prices for consumers, and thus undersell American tea importers (who did not get the tax break) and thus price them out of the market.   The attack on the East India Company ships and the dumping of the tea into the Boston harbor was carried out and cheered by common folks, but served the interests of rich tea merchants at the expense of the poor.


Both lower- and upper-class Americans offered a fairly coherent and sensible constitutional explanation for their actions during the Boston Tea Party – arguments about corruption in high places, abuse of power, and Parliament’s violation of self-government in the colonies.   Yet historians are reluctant to take both groups at their word.   Historians instead assume that elite Bostonians hid their true (economic) motives behind populist slogans about corruption and self-government.   Common folks play the role of impressionable fools in this storyline, duped into looking past their own (economic) interests – cheaper tea, in this case – as they rushed to support the agenda of their social superiors.  


Historians deploy this Marxist explanation repeatedly to make sense of the baffling habit of lower-class people to side with their wealthier countrymen in various national projects.   Karl Marx’s influence on the study of history, sociology, and economics has led most Westerners to conceive of elites and “common people” as groups with different and opposing circumstances, interests, sentiments, and allegiances.   One should keep in mind, however, that this adversarial understanding of class and class-conflict was foreign, as a general rule, to the minds of pre-modern people.   Elite families in early-modern England and America enjoyed support, deference, allegiance, and trust from below.  Common people in local communities saw the elite status of their social superiors as legitimate, and these elite families for the most part reflected the interests, fears, concerns, and values of their localities.


An important factor to keep in mind, in this respect, is that Americans – rich and poor – were not alone in understanding the imperial reforms (including the Tea Act) as primarily constitutional measures, purposefully designed to overturn the structure of government in the British Empire.   Parliament too saw the imperial tax measures as a way to enhance the governing role of Parliament in the localities, and to limit the role of local assemblies and local courts of law.   The disputes over the imperial reforms, from the Sugar Act to the Tea Act and the Coercive Acts, were not financial, but constitutional.   When considering the Boston Tea Party, therefore, there is good reason to be skeptical of the portrayal of wealthy Massachusetts merchants as duplicitous, and of poorer Bostonians as dupes.   The colonists articulated their fears and motives quite clearly in the run-up to the Boston Tea Party.   Taking them at their word allows us to understand this elite-led event as they did – as a communal resistance movement, rather than an elitist one.

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