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‘Boston Harbor a Teapot Tonight’

December 15, 2023

Tomorrow marks the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, when a group of Massachusetts patriots—who for weeks had blocked the unloading of a shipment of tea, in protest against British administration of the colonies—boarded the three ships carrying the tea and dumped out all 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. Although there were similar “tea parties” in cities up and down the American coast at the time, Boston’s has taken a rightful place in the minds of Americans as one of the great opening acts of our Revolution.

Bostonians are commemorating the anniversary this weekend with a celebratory reenactment. But it’s a good time for all of us—including those in states that weren’t even dreamt of in 1773—to honor the courageous leadership of patriots like Samuel Adams, James Otis, Paul Revere, and others who risked everything for a nation that cherishes equal justice and individual freedom as its foremost ideals.

It has lately become fashionable in intellectual circles to downplay the American Revolution—to act as though it was a minor squabble over a petty tax—and to portray the nation’s founders as exploitative schemers, or downright “slaveocrats,” but the reality is that the government of British America truly was tyrannical, and that those who rebelled against it did so in the name of true and lasting principles.

When, for example, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, it immediately followed up by passing the Declaratory Act, a law that declared that Parliament had the power to legislate for the American colonies “in all cases whatsoever”—a breathtaking assertion of absolute power. The British military occupied Boston, to the tune of one soldier for every three colonials, immunized these soldiers from any criminal prosecutions in America, and quartered them in private homes, not just because beds were scarce, but as a form of surveillance: the soldiers were there to spy on Americans. Parliament expanded the power of Vice Admiralty Courts, which meant depriving Americans of trial by jury and exposing them to confiscation of their assets—and paid the judges a portion of whatever they confiscated from Americans. In retaliation for the Tea Party, the British closed the Port of Boston—an astonishingly severe form of punishment threatening ruination to Massachusetts, unless and until the people submitted to the arbitrary edicts of royal rule.

We look back at the Tea Party today as a quaint moment in our storied past, but in fact the 1770s was an anxious, often terrifying era for those who lived through it. Forced to subsist off the charity of other colonies, thousands of Bostonians began to flee the city; of the 15,000 people who had lived there in 1770, only about 2,700 remained by June 1775. British soldiers took the opportunity to loot the city, chop down the Liberty Tree, and board their horses in the Old South Meeting House.

In the years that followed, the British would burn Norfolk, Virginia, Falmouth, Massachusetts, New London and Danbury, Connecticut, and in addition to Boston, occupy Philadelphia and New York (which they probably also burned)—and the king would declare Americans “outside of his protection.” When the Declaration of Independencesaid that the king “plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people,” it was not a mere exercise in rhetoric. These things really happened.

Fortunately, however, Americans were not willing to accept such treatment. Placing their reliance on the self-evident truths of individual freedom, they stood firmly for their rights—including taking to the field against the strongest military force in the world. In the end, they won not just glory for themselves, not just safety and happiness for their own posterity, but also a vindication for all mankind of the rights of humanity. Today we should raise a glass—of tea, if you like—in honor of those brave men and women, and pledge to each other that we will make ourselves worthy of their example.

Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Legal Affairs at the Goldwater Institute.



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