The Tea Party Myth

One of the fundamental underpinnings of the American system is the concept that we broke away from Britain over issues like “taxation without representation”, or the idea that the American colonies were somehow excessively taxed. One of the grounding rods of this myth is the infamous Boston Tea Party, which is said to have been a protest against high taxes levied on imported tea.

The problem, as with so many aspects of our perception of the American past, is that this event was mythologized and altered drastically in order to fit into the American independence narrative. Instead of a protest against high taxes, the original Tea Party was one against lowered taxes. What really happened was that the British East India Company (EIC), a major business with connections directly to King George III of England, was losing money at an alarming rate due to Dutch and other importers who were selling their goods at a lower price than the EIC. Thus, the directors of the EIC petitioned the King for aid, which came in the form of an import duty exemption granted to their company. Thus, the EIC were permitted to import tea into the colonies on a duty-free basis, which meant their price would undercut all others (and probably drive them out of business).

The actual Tea Party itself was by no means arranged by flag-waving patriots. Instead, it was instigated by leading figures such as Paul Revere and John Hancock. The latter was especially interested in rejecting British tea, as he’d made a fortune smuggling in Dutch tea and selling it to the colonists. He knew he’d lose business if the EIC tax exemption was allowed to proceed, and used the classic tactic of whipping up a convenient mob to do his dirty work.

To be fair, the Tea Party was also about the colonists’ lack of control over the decision making process involved in the tea tax (also known as the Tea Act of 1773). As colonists rather than British citizens living in England, they had no direct representation in Parliament and this was a legitimate sticking point that eventually resulted in the Revolutionary War and American independence.

The Tea Party itself, however, was made into a myth about higher taxes causing economic hardship among common citizens, and about a spontaneous demonstration by “patriots” against evil gentry oppressing the lowly. This isn’t even remotely true, yet it’s become a rallying cry for today’s Tea Party. What they’re missing is that the event for which their movement was named involved a company (the EIC) that was “too big to fail” in its day, and special legislation (the Tea Act) rushed through Parliament in order to benefit a small group of corporate executives. The parallels with the TARP act passed under the Bush administration in 2008 are too obvious to ignore. So today’s Tea Party has it all right…except totally backwards.

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