Events

Saturday, December 18, 2010

16 December 1773: Boston Tea Party (and just how is that related to its namesake today?)

Yes, the anniversary of the famous, original "Boston Tea Party," when riled-up Massachusetts colonists protested against the Tea Act by dumping tea into Boston Harbor, is upon us again. The protests were about policy, not the amount of the tax, as such.  Here is what allegedly happened that night:
They (the Lebanon Club) determined, whether assisted or not, to destroy the tea at all hazards. They repaired to Boston, where they were joined by others; and twenty-four, disguised as Indians, hastened on board, twelve armed with muskets and bayonets, the rest with tomahawks and clubs, having first agreed, whatever might be the result, to stand by each other to the last, and that the first man who faltered should be knocked on the head and thrown over with the tea.

They expected to have a fight, and did not doubt that an effort would be made for their arrest. “But” (in the language of the old man) “we cared no more for our lives than three straws, and determined to throw the tea overboard. We were all captains, and every one commanded himself.” They pledged themselves in no event, while it should be dangerous to do so, to reveal the names of the party—a pledge which was faithfully observed until the war of the Revolution was brought to a successful issue.
Thus, David Kinnison's first-hand account, published in 1850.  Who was he? Can we trust him?  What is distinctive or problematic about his reminiscences?  The document comes from Boston 1775, where J. L. Bell answers those questions and offers his characteristically thorough annual coverage of the Tea Party, as such, including, most recently:
• Dec. 14: "It's Tea Party Season!" (a list of events)
• Dec. 15: "The Revolution May Have Been Astroturfed," a sort of a review of a review essay by Caleb Crain ("Tea and Antipathy") that appeared in the New Yorker, including reflections on the historiography and the way that historians today move between scholarly and popular modes of communication, such as blogs
• Dec. 16: "Why Parliament Kept the Tea Tax"
• Dec. 17:  "David Kinnison:  The Last Survivor?" on how the self-proclaimed last surviving participant became a celebrity in mid-nineteenth-century America
• Dec. 18:  "David Kinnison's Tea Party": excepts from his account, published in 1850, along with commentary and analysis
• promised for Dec. 19: further considerations on the accuracy of Mr. Kinnison's account.
[Dec. 19] And, here's that update. Verdict: "David Kinnison: 'not credible.'" The guy was a fraud. And nice irony, in urging MassMoments to correct its entry, Bell notes that it cites a source that in fact reveal's Kinnison's fraud.  Well played, Mr. Bell. Whoops, MassMoments.
Given that masses of malcontents have taken up the "tea party" label again in the age of President Obama, it was not surprising that some of the anniversary coverage this year focused on the similarities or differences between the two movements.

NPR offered links to both straight historical information and an earlier comparative political analysis:
At the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, for instance, people call in looking for information about the present-day Tea Party.

The ships and museum, says spokesperson Shawn P. Ford, are tourist attractions that commemorate the event of Dec. 16, 1773 — when men, disguised as Mohawk Indians, tossed crates of British tea into Boston Harbor to protest the royal government's tea tax.

Today's Tea Party, Ford says, "has nothing to do with us. When I do get calls about the Tea Party movement, it is a simple misunderstanding."

Misunderstanding, yes. Simple, not always. Kathy Laughlin makes sure her students know the difference. Laughlin, who teaches Advanced Placement U.S. history at William Byrd High School in Vinton, Va., says she has been teaching her students about the Boston Tea Party as part of a "Road to Revolution unit" this school year.

She pre-empted questions about the contemporary Tea Party. "I explained that the current movement deals with big government and excess taxes much like the colonials did, but that the colonials truly had no representation in the legislature that was instituting their taxes," Laughlin says.

Laughlin goes on to explain to her students that today's Tea Partiers have representation; they are just not pleased with the representatives. "Therefore," she says, "the present movement's goal is to unseat incumbents and elect ultra-conservative members to congress.
. . . . . . . . . .
There is one valid point of comparison between today's Tea Partiers and the 18th-century Revolutionaries, says Jack Rakove, a professor of American history at Stanford University and author of several critically acclaimed books on the Revolutionary era.

The Tea Act of 1773 that sparked the Boston Tea Party, Rakove says, was born of the crown's collusion with corporate Britain — the East India Trading Co.

So if Tea Partiers are up in arms over the American government being in cahoots with the corporate world — say, over the Bush and Obama administrations' handling of the Troubled Assets Relief Program that bailed out many faltering financial institutions — the present-day dismay would have legitimate roots in the ire of yesteryear. "That wouldn't be implausible," Rakove says.

But where the comparison between Now and Then breaks down, says Rakove, echoing high school teacher Laughlin, "is the basic issue of representation."

Tea Partiers today have representation in government, Rakove says. The Boston Tea Party participants did not.

The Boston Tea Party was staged in response to the British Parliament handing down laws and meting out taxes willy-nilly to colonists who had no vote, no say-so in their own destiny. "That was the gut issue of the American Revolution."

But still, the debate is being played out in classrooms and in Google searches across the country — and at the Boston Tea Party museum in Boston. The museum, which is under renovation, is scheduled to reopen in the summer of 2011. "As of this moment and time," says Ford, the museum spokesperson, "we have no plans to incorporate the Tea Party movement in any of our interpretations."
Here in the Happy Valley, we actually dealt with the modern rather than historical "tea party" this past week.  The area, including our Five College Consortium, has a reputation for being dominated by leftist political views.  There's nothing wrong with that, of course (or, with a conservative bent, for that matter), provided it does not compromise intellectual integrity or academic freedom.  Some of us have been having a lot of discussions about this sort of thing of late, for it often seems that there is a kind of unspoken orthodoxy. Some faculty and students simply cannot conceive that someone of intelligence and moral character could hold an opposing view on issue x, y, or z—mind you, we're not talking about views that are totally beyond the pale, such as white supremacism, but simply a variant position on any given political issue of the day.  That's not healthy in itself, and it certainly won't help already sheltered students to make it in the real world.  (It is typified in the sorts of inane conversations I used to have. Colleague:  "Well, I don't know anyone who voted for George W. Bush!" I: "Uh, well, that's nice, but more than half the electorate nonetheless did.")

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to see that Mount Holyoke College (which, along with Smith, is one of two women's colleges in the consortium) invited Seattle activist Keli Carender, organizer of the first tea party protest in 2009, to give a major public lecture, "The New Discontent: The Tea Party Movement from the Ground Up." The sponsor was the Weissman Center for Leadership, whose mission is to "provide substantial resources to students as they become effective agents of change in their chosen professions and communities," preparing them to "understand better the ways in which women can and do take action and create positive change in the world."

Director James Harold gushed, 
We are very excited to have Ms. Carender at the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts.  She illustrates the innovative ways in which women leaders can change the world. We welcome a serious discussion of the political positions of the Tea Party movement, which promises to greatly shape the future of conservative politics in this country.
Certainly, one is entitled to ask whether this invitation is not another case of liberal pandering or bending over backwards to appear open-minded—the more so, as Carender, the pierced, tattooed Seattle stand-up comic, is, unlike many Republican activists, an easy cultural fit here, her politics aside (1, 2). Still, there is no question that the event itself is a legitimate one and the topic a fit one for political analysis and open debate.  There were protests, but against Carender's ideas, rather than her presence.  Students respectfully debated her in a seminar and at the lecture. That is exactly as it should be.



In any case, anyone is free to go or not to go, as she or he chooses. I myself did not face that excruciating dilemma, for I was at the Garrison Keillor benefit performance for the Emily Dickinson Museum (post to follow soon) here in Amherst.

Given a choice between the Seattle founder of a national political movement who questions global warming, mocks welfare recipients, and thinks President Obama is a socialist, and a reclusive New England iconoclast who stayed close to home, meditated on art and the human condition, and wrote for herself and friends, I know which one for me will in the long run better represent "the ways in which women can and do take action and create positive change in the world."

To each his (or her) own.  As Emily said (Fr. 888):
When I have seen the Sun emerge
From His amazing House -
And leave a Day at every Door
A Deed, in every place -

Without the incident of Fame
Or accident of Noise -
The Earth has seemed to me a Drum,
Pursued of little Boys
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