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The myth of the Boston Tea Party

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As the country celebrates Independence Day, many Americans will view monuments that have been toppled, defaced, or entombed in protective fencing. Businesses across the nation have been vandalized or boarded up, creating a surreal landscape for many this holiday.

Most protesters did not engage in rioting or looting. Yet the only thing more maddening than random destruction is an increasingly common media rationalization that the rioters are the new Boston Tea Party patriots continuing a tradition of property damage as a form of political speech. These rioters have as much in common with the Boston Tea Party as the antifa movement has with the antifederalists.

The rationalization is not new. After violence in Ferguson in 2014, Yale University hired Black Lives Matter figure Deray Mckesson to lecture on “transformative leadership.” His course included reading about looting as being a “righteous tactic.” He defended property damage as a tradition dating to the Boston Tea Party. Many in the media have raised the analogy, including Don Lemon, who recently chastised anyone judging the rioting because “this is how this country started.”

Even some academics have given these crimes the license of history or patriotism. Northwestern University professor Steven Thrasher wrote that “property destruction for social change is as American as the Boston Tea Party.” These statements misrepresent history. Consider five conflicts.

First, the Sons of Liberty did not commit “property destruction for social change.” The embrace of them as a model by the left is as comical as it is incorrect. They were the ultimate capitalist movement. Some of the men were merchants or smugglers upset with the sale of huge amounts of tea by the East India Company. One would think the current activists would be least likely to embrace a group of militant capitalists engaged in the most famous act of cultural appropriation in history.

The Sons of Liberty, dressed as Mohawk Indians, wanted to destroy the tea itself. The taxation of tea did not trigger this confrontation. Tea had been taxed, along with other items, since 1767 under the Townshend Revenue Act. In 1770, those taxes were lifted, except on tea, to enable the East India Company to sell over 540,000 excess pounds in storage by bringing it to the market in the colonies. The Boston Tea Party was more like supporters of American steel dumping Mexican steel in a Texas port. Targeting tea had as much of an economic as a political purpose.

Second, the Sons of Liberty were not looters. They did not take the tea home with them. Conversely, the looters seen carrying televisions out of stores were not desperately seeking a harbor to toss away cursed symbols of tyranny. They were stealing televisions. While academics like Keele University professor Clifford Stott may assure some that “looting is an expression of power,” it is primarily a crime for personal gain.

Third, the Sons of Liberty did not advocate wanton property destruction. In fact, they would have been the first to condemn the current vandalism. We know that because they had said so. Before boarding the ships, they agreed not to cause any damage beyond destroying the tea, as the ships were owned by Americans. Samuel Adams, one of the leaders, insisted that the Sons of Liberty carry out their mission “without the least Injury to the vessels or any other property.” After they broke a padlock to access one of the ships, they returned the next day to replace it.

That is in stark contrast to Black Lives Matter figure Hawk Newsome, who defended rioting since “this country was built upon violence.” He asked, “What was the American Revolution? What is our diplomacy across the globe?” He added, “If this country does not give us what we want, then we will burn down this system and replace it. All right?” The Sons of Liberty would say that is not right, as they did in the Boston Tea Party.

Fourth, the Sons of Liberty did not start the American Revolution. There is a popular myth that they were praised for their actions and galvanized the nation to rebel against the British Crown. Many patriots, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, condemned their actions. It was the heavy handed response to this and other actions that fueled the call for independence. If England had not ratcheted up oppressive measures, the Boston Tea Party could have worked to its advantage, as many wanted to reconcile with the British Crown, including many of the Framers.

Fifth, the Sons of Liberty wanted freedom and representation. We now have a Constitution that affords us the rights that were denied to them. Yet violence and vandalism is being committed today despite the legal and legislative options for reforms. Indeed, after the killing of George Floyd, an array of reforms were proposed. The crimes of looting and rioting have made reforms more difficult instead of more likely.

Samuel Adams declared, “Among the natural rights of the colonists are these. First a right to life, second to liberty, and third to property. Together with the rights to defend them in the best manner they can.” He would not have been in the mob shattering windows. He and his compatriots more likely would be standing in front protecting the building.

The vast majority of protesters have been peaceful. They have forced us all to think about racial inequities and personal prejudices. However, the destruction of property and monuments are the type of capriciousness that the patriots condemned. There are many contemporary causes for anger and rage. They are worth discussing today. But leave the Sons of Liberty and the Boston Tea Party out of it.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.

Tags Americans Constitution Culture Democracy Government Politics Protests

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