Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Boston Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street

Think Progress has a piece showing that Occupy Wall Street is closer to the original Boston Tea Party than today's Tea Party. This is a rather silly statement. I will address their point but first I will go over the background.

After the French and Indian War, England decided to take more active control of the American colonies. It also decided to recover the costs of defending the colonies. This led to a series of unpopular acts. One of them was the Townshend Act. Prior to this, colonial governors were paid by the colonies. The Townshend Act changed this, paying the governors directly by the British government. It also established a duty to pay for these salaries.

The colonists objected to this change, mainly because it was imposed on them by Parliament. The colonists, led by the Whig Party, argued that Parliament only had the authority to tax people who could vote for it. Since the colonists could not vote for Parliament members, taxes levied on the colonies should be passed by the colonial government. Note - the Whig Party lasted until the mid-19th century when it combined with the Abolitionists to form the Republican Party.

While this was going on, the East India Company was having problems. It held a monopoly on tea sold in England but Parliament had raised tea taxes. This caused a drop in demand for tea (and an increase in smuggling). The East India Company was importing tea faster than they could sell it and had warehouses full of it.

In order to help the East India Company out, Parliament gave them a monopoly on selling tea to the Colonies. Because they eliminated the middleman, they could undersell smugglers while still paying the Townshend Duties. The East India Company ,in turn, contracted with agents who wold have local monopolies on tea sales. Tea ships were dispatched to New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Charleston.

Because the tea still had the tax, the ships were turned back everywhere except Boston where the governor's sons were the agents who could sell the tea. Unwilling to see the tea sold with the tax, a band of patriots dressed as indians and threw the tea into the harbor.

For a longer account, see Wikipedia. Now, onto Think Progress's points. Their original post has explanations for these points:

1.) The Original Boston Tea Party Was A Civil Disobedience Action Against A Private Corporation.

2.) The Original Boston Tea Party Feared That Corporate Greed Would Destroy America

3.) The Original Boston Tea Party Believed Government Necessary To Protect Against Corporate Excess.

4.) The Original Boston Tea Party Was Sparked By A Corporate Tax Cut For A British Corporation.

5.) The Original Boston Tea Party Wanted A Stronger Democracy.

My response:

1) The Boston Tea Party was a protest against parliament in general and the Townshend Act in particular. There was also fear that granting a monopoly for tea to the East India Company would lead to other monopolies being granted. This was still a protest against Parliament's expanding powers.

2) The Boston Tea Party was a tax protest. If they had worried about corporate greed then they would have allowed the taxed tea to be sold since it was priced lower than smuggled tea.

3) The Boston Tea Party had nothing to do with corporate excess. It was a protest against Parliament.

4) The Boston Tea Party was sparked by crony capitalism. The whole deal was put together to help the East India Company. The East India Company did not pay taxes on the tea. The taxes were a sales tax paid by the consumer.

5) I'm going to agree with the last point, that the Sons of Liberty were for a stronger democracy, but not in the way that Occupy Wall Street means. The Sons of Liberty felt that they could only be taxed by legislatures that they voted for. Occupy Wall Street organizers have rejected voting as a tool of democracy and now insist that protests are "participatory democracy".

A few other points should be offered. It is ignorant to say that "the Original Boston Tea Party wanted...". The Boston Tea Party was an event, not a party. The participants were the Sons of Liberty. The correct usage would be "The Sons of Liberty wanted...".

The modern corporation had not evolved yet. The East India Company was closer to a partnership than a corporation. There were also government monopolies which simply do not exist today. Modern corporations just do not relate to any 18th century body.

The biggest problem with Think Progress's list how disingenuous it is. Every one of their points misstates history. It says a lot about the (lack of) quality of how American history is taught that they can get away with such an egregious misrepresentation of history. It says even more that employees of the New York Times were passing this along.

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