Reading Notes:
Boston Tea Party


Consider the Boston Tea Party. 16 December 1773. Sam Adams and his “Mohawks” unload the Dartmouth, the Beaver, and the Eleanor into Boston Harbor. William J Bernstein, in A Splendid Exchange, makes me sit up in my chair when I read his account of this mythically well-known event. This is not what I was taught in school!

After tracing the recounting the background of the Tea Act, which allowed the East India Company to sell tea directly to customers in the North American colonies (and which promised a sharp reduction in the sale price of tea), Mr Bernstein writes,

The middlemen cut out by the act, local smugglers and tea merchants, were not as happy with the new legislation. When news of its passage arrived in Boston in September 1773, these two groups took action against the “unfair foreign competition” from the EIC. Ignoring the inconvenient fact that the act would save their countrymen a substantial amount of money, merchants and smugglers couched their arguments in the familiar protectionist language of national interest.

How things have changed since the middle of the last century, when Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager composed their magisterial text, The Growth of the American Republic — the rare schoolbook that is written for educated adults.

The powerful East India Company, being in financial straits, appealed to the British government for aid and was granted a monopoly on all tea exported to the colonies. The Company decided to sell tea through its own agents, thus eliminating the independent merchants, and disposing of the tea at less than the usual price either in America or England. It was this monopoly aspect that aroused the colonial merchants and threw them into reliance with the radicals. “America,” wrote one of them, “would be prostrate before a monster that may be able to destroy every branch of our commerce, drain us of all our property, and wantonly leave us to perish by the thousands.” These fears were groundless, but none the less powerful. Burke, in his speech on conciliation, gauged well the American temper. “In other countries, the people … judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; here they anticipate the evil … They augur misgovernment at a distance, and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”

Same story, reverse spin. It’s a lesson in the history of history. Morison and Commager wrote when it was still possible to believe (as Burke here is shown to believe) that Americans are special, a people apart, sharper and more vigilant than others in the protection of their liberties. I don’t think that this was still the case in 1962, when the Fifth Edition of The Growth of the American Republic was published (just in time for my first year at Blair Academy); if it had been, perversely, the Civil Rights Legislation of the 1960s would never have passed through Congress.

Nowadays, belief in American exceptionalism is considered crudely naive; we may have inherited a very special project, in the management of this our Republic, but there is nothing special about us. (In fact, the things that made our ancestors “special” in the Eighteenth Century are now working against us.) For Mr Bernstein, Americans no less than all other human beings since the dawn of the species confront the same immemorial triple question: Trade, raid, or protect?

The Growth of the American Republic, by Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager (Oxford, 1930, 1962)
A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, by William J Bernstein (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008)

3 Responses to “Reading Notes:
Boston Tea Party”

  1. Fossil Darling says:

    Sam Adams? Did he found the brewery???

  2. Fossil Darling says:

    LXIV notes:

    If America were just New York City, there would never have been a problem; we NEVER pay retail…

  3. Mike Prov1 says:

    East India was Walmart…makes sense now.