On this day in 1773, a group of colonists disguised as Indians boarded British merchant ships and dumped into the Boston Harbor an estimated £10,000 worth of tea as a protest against British colonial policies. John Adams declared this event, that we celebrate today as the Boston Tea Party, to be the “grandest event which has ever yet happened since the controversy with Britain opened.” What led once loyal colonists to protest the World’s leading power? How should we think about the Tea Party two hundred thirty-seven years later?
The American Revolution began as a tax revolt. After defeating France in the Seven Years’ War (which began in North America as the French and Indian War), Great Britain gained control over vast areas of land in the Americas, but also incurred massive debts. For the first time, Parliament looked to the American colonies as a source of revenue, and so began the long train of abuses against the American colonies. The American Revenue Act (sometimes called the Sugar Act) expanded import and export duties and created new government mechanisms to enforce trade laws. The Stamp Act was the first direct tax levied on America, requiring all newspapers, almanacs, pamphlets, and official documents—even decks of playing cards!—to have stamps as proof of payment of taxes.
These new policies outraged the colonists. The problem with the policies was not the amount of taxation—the taxes were actually quite low—but the process by which the British government imposed and enforced these taxes. As loyal colonists, the Americans recognized Parliament’s authority to legislate for the empire generally. But, the power to tax was a legislative power reserved to the colonists’ own assemblies rather than a distant legislature in London. The English Bill of Rights of 1689 had forbidden the imposition of taxes without legislative consent, and since the colonists had no representation in parliament they complained that the taxes violated their traditional rights. Thus the American’s rallying cry became: “No taxation without representation!”
The British rejected the Americans’ argument for self-government. The Declaratory Act of 1766, asserted Parliament’s absolute sovereignty over the Americans, including the power to make laws for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” “No taxation without representation” meant no taxation without the approval of the British Parliament. It never literally meant—not for the Americans or even for the overwhelming majority of British citizens—representation in that body. The colonists, like all British subjects, enjoyed “virtual representation” of their interests by the aristocrats that controlled Parliament.
After repealing the earlier taxes, the British government passed a new series of revenue measures (called the Townshend Acts) in 1767, which taxed goods such as paper, glass, lead, and tea—and once again affirmed the power of British courts to issue undefined and open-ended search warrants (called “writs of assistance”) to enforce the law. Asserting that the sole right of taxation was with the colonial legislature, Virginia proposed a formal agreement among the colonies banning the importation of British goods—a practice that quickly spread to the other local legislatures and cut the colonial import of British goods in half. So Parliament eventually repealed those duties, too, except for the tax on tea.
Our forefathers did not destroy the tea cargo because of a simple tax dispute. At issue were the principles of self-government, consent, and natural rights. These principles are enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and continue to define us as a nation and inspire us as a people.
In 2010, we have our own intolerable act—Obamacare, a massive bureaucratic expansion of government over one-sixth of the American economy and many aspects of our lives and medical decisions. But there is a key difference between the situation now and that of 1773. Those early patriots had to establish their independence and to start anew. But, our task is different. “It is not about fixed bayonets but fixed principles; not about bullets but ballots. Our task is not to overthrow; it is not revolution; it is renewal and restoration of those self-evident truths of constitutional government at the heart of America.”