Teabagging and The Boston Tea Party

Originally, I had been planning on writing a series of posts about the Boston Tea Party to launch on the anniversary of the event this December.  However, some folks I don’t much agree with in politics have launched an anti-tax campaign today that begged for a response.  Since I could tie it in with tea, well, why not?

The basic idea of their protest is that they will send teabags to their elected representatives if the representative doesn’t change tax policy in a way they’d like.  They are calling this act of protest teabagging.  Now, it seems they are unaware that this is a slang term for a particular sexual practice (FYI: this link goes to the Wikipedia article defining the behavior in question).

To make the strangeness of the whole supposedly grassroots “movement” (urged on by folks at FOX News) even greater, one of the leaders of this movement was involved in a sex scandal not too long ago.  And, it is being promoted most by the sort of ultraconservative folks who might be likely to protest the very behavior that might be confused with the name of the protest they’re promoting.  All very odd, and (in my opinion) handled perfectly in this humorous, if slanted, MSNBC story .

The weirdest thing, however, is what is being protested and the imagery they’re using to do it.  It’s a protest, on April 15th, of US tax policy.  Apparently, tea was chosen as the medium to evoke images of the Boston Tea Party (and not, one supposes, sexual activity).  However, even though it’s one of the big events that everyone who goes through public school, most people don’t really have an accurate idea of what really went on then.  That’s what this series is going to be about.

No Taxation Without Representation

If you ask most people about the Boston Tea Party, after they talk about the iconic image of colonists dressed as Mohawks throwing tea off the ship, the next thing they’re likely to say is “no taxation without representation.”  But what does that actually mean?  The issue wasnt, as is commonly thought, that the colonists were annoyed that they didn’t have a say in Parliament back in England.  It was actually more nuanced than that.

In the minutes of the “Council of Boston” of November 29th, 1773, a unanimous acceptance of a committee report read, in part:

Previous to the consideration of the petition before the Board, they would make a few observations occasioned by the subject of it.  The situation of things between Great Britain and the Colonies has been for some years past very unhappy.  Parliament, on the one hand, has been taxing the Colonies, and they, on the other hand, have been petitioning and remonstrating against it, apprehending they have constitutionally an exclusive right of taxing themselves, and that without such a right, their condition would be but little better than slavery.”  (Source–Tea Leaves: Being a Collection of Letters and Documents Relating to the Shipment of Tea to the American Colonies in the Year 1773, by the East India Tea Company.  1884.  A. O. Crane)

The question, then, wasn’t whether or not the colonists had a voice in London’s Parliament, but rather that they had a conflict with the constitutionality of the tax.  The colonists believed, under their colonies’ charters, that it was their exclusive right to tax themselves.  They had political structures in place for making these kinds of decisions, and had been using this system for years.  The tax in question, imposed from London, applied exclusively to the American colonies–no other location across the British empire had to pay it, thus it seemed to fall within the power of the colonial deliberative assemblies.

The imposition of a tax from London undermined the idea that their political system had any power at all.   In a letter from Thomas Warton of Philadelphia to Thomas Walpole of London on 30 October, 1773, the danger was stated this way:

I may say with great truth, that I do not believe one man in a hundred was to be met with who approved of the sending the tea, while the duty was to be paid here.  Yet a great number of people acknowledged the right of the East India Directors to export their teas to America, and declared that nothing less than a confirmed belief that the admitting this mode of taxation would render the assemblies of the people mere cyphers [meaning “a person or thing of no importance”], could have induced them to proceed in the manner they have done…

(In addition to the issue of the tax rendering “the assemblies of the people mere cyphers,” they felt that an easy solution would be had by opposing the tax.  The Act of Parliament prevented the East India Company from unloading the ships until the tax was paid, and the directors of the company knew that the American colonists were boycotting (and/or smuggling) tea.  The colonists assumed, therefore, that the directors wouldn’t send any tea until the tax issue was resolved.  When the company did send the tea after all, the colonists had to come up with other means to prevent the gutting of their political system.  More on those attempts in later parts of this series.)

Although “no taxation without representation” is a catchy slogan even after almost 236 years, it would have been more accurate to say something like “no taxation from political bodies without the proper constitutional jurisdiction.”  In modern times, it would be something like if the US Congress were to pass a law requiring reisdents of Seattle, and only Seattle, to pay a city-level tax directly to the Federal government, every time they bought a cup of coffee.  It’d seem just plain weird, and you wouldn’t really blame the city council from getting a little uppity about it.

That’s basically what happened in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and other major cities throughout the colonies.

And to conclude this part while pulling it back to today’s protests, it does seem plain weird to use a situation where elected officials were having their power undermined from an “outside” power as the symbol for protesting how duly elected officals are representing their constituents.  But that’s just me.

I think you should get involved, though:  buy some good tea, invite some friends over to drink it with you, and discuss real political issues.

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