The British, when they still ruled the American colonies, learned to their displeasure what a bad idea it is to pick a fight with patriots.
By the time the Revolution began the colonies had been running their own affairs for a long time and, while many saw benefits in being allied with one of the great powers of their times and their world, they soon tired of “taxation without representation.”
The colonists had no say in Parliament and generally regarded it, not the king, as the source of their problems. The British, however, had spent themselves into huge debt by pursuing various wars. Parliament saw the colonies as a source of revenue with which to dig themselves out of that debt. One way was to monopolize what the colonies could import and another way was to tax those imports.
The problem for the British was the long established practice of Americans to ignore any legislation or taxes they did not like. Decades before the Revolution ignited, a British official named Edward Randolph wrote “There is no notice taken of the act of navigation, plantation, or any other laws made in England for the regulation of trade. All nations having free liberty to come into their ports and vend their commodities without any restraint…” Apparently, Randolph noted, Americans regarded themselves as “a free state and do act in all matters accordingly.”
We tend to see men like Sam Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere through the gauzy haze of a distant time, but we should remind ourselves that they were real men trying to cope with an increasingly difficult situation.
Their grievances were real and they had grown up in a place where liberty, the freedom to worship as they wanted, to publish what they wanted, and engage in commerce as they wanted was not only well established, but valued above all else. They had a good understanding of the British constitution and the rights it granted. It was Britain, far across the Atlantic, that controlled their fortunes and, through a series of abuses, Britain lost their allegiance.
The importance of tea cannot be underestimated. By 1769, Americans were importing 900,000 pounds of English tea, but by 1773 that was not longer the case, in large part due to the Tea Act of 1773. It was a tax specific to the colonies. Americans began to boycott tea. Coffee would come to be seen as a more patriotic brew to drink.
Adams, Hancock, Revere, and others had formed the Sons of Liberty, a group that on December 16, 1773 boarded three ships from England, the Dartmouth, the Eleanor, and the Beaver, and dumped 342 crates of tea into Boston Harbor.
The event would become known as the Boston Tea Party and from that event today’s Tea Party members take their name. The source of oppressive taxes, unimaginable waste, and unpopular legislation is now the federal government in Washington, D.C.
Such events and groups do not occur in a vacuum. They are preceded by earlier abuses and in the case of the colonies there was a Stamp Act that was so strongly resisted Parliament repealed it. In Massachusetts, the royal governor and other officials appointed by the king were so unpopular that they were frequently under attack. Effigies were hung from an elm in North Boston that became known as the Liberty Tree.
There can be few more foolish acts by any government in power than to ignore Americans, to force upon them legislation the majority opposes, to bring shame to the nation in various ways. Patient to a fault, Americans have a long track record of opposing oppression that runs contrary to the U.S. Constitution.
By coincidence, I have been reading Joel J. Miller’s excellent biography, “The Revolutionary Paul Revere.” Made famous by a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Revere had made a long ride the night of the Tea Party to inform the New York Committee of Correspondence about the event. Another rode to Philadelphia for the same purpose. The ride immortalized by Longfellow was “On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five.”
Paul Revere, silversmith and patriot, lived to the age of 83, dying in May 1818; long enough a life to encompass the tempestuous birth of America in its earliest years. He would live through the Revolution, the original Articles of Confederation, and in 1787, the Constitution under which Americans live today, still enjoying the blessings of liberty.
In Boston, the church bells tolled his passing. One newspaper said, “Seldom has the tomb closed upon a life so honorable and useful.”
The spirit of Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty still lives. America is home again to Tea Parties.