Before discussing the modern Tea Party movement and its faults and failures, it would be good to elucidate some points about the original Boston Tea Party, which occurred on December 13, 1773, almost exactly 240 years ago.
The British government had given a monopoly on tea to the East India Company. No other company could legally import tea to Britain or the colonies. However, this monopoly was only for the import of tea, and not for the wholesale or retail trade in tea. And in fact, the East India Company was forbidden to do these two things, and had to work through middlemen.
Without having a monopoly on wholesale and retail distribution, the monopoly on importation was nearly impossible to enforce, and many people were buying tea from foreign companies in order to take advantage of the lower prices brought on by competition. Since the East India Company was losing money, the government instituted a tax on all tea sold in Britain, and gave a portion of the money that was collected as a rebate to the East India Company. Crony capitalism at its finest. A later law spread this tax to the British colonies. However, taxing the colonies was widely viewed both in America and Britain as illegal, as the colonies had no representation in the Parliament.
The result of these policies was that no one anywhere wanted to buy East India tea if it could be avoided, and warehouses in England were chock full of the stuff. The East India Company wanted to get rid of the tax. However, the bulk of the tax in the colonies was now being used not as a reimbursement to the company, as was originally intended, but to pay the cost of having British soldiers “protect” the colonists, in this case from the freedom and self rule they had enjoyed only a few years prior. As a solution, the British government gave the East India Company the right to distribute their product directly to the American colonies. The tax would still have to be paid by consumers, but without a middleman the East India Company had a substantial market advantage and could undercut its competitors. The government and the company also tried to hide the fact that American consumers would ultimately be paying the tea tax by having it assessed on the receipts received in England, rather than at the point of purchase.
When three ships bearing East India tea arrived in Boston, it sparked widespread protests, and the ships were not allowed to unload, but since the governor had a financial stake in the project, he was unwilling to let the ships return to Britain with their cargo. A temporary stalemate thus ensued. However, if certain deadlines were not met, the governor could effectively seize the tea from the ships by force and take them to a customs warehouse. In the end, this would allow the tea to be sold and the taxes paid. To keep this from happening, men dressed up as Indians boarded the ships, and threw all 342 chests of tea into the harbor.
- The Boston Tea Party represented theft against a private company, and was therefore illegal.
- The Boston Tea Party was not against paying taxes. If they did not want to pay the tax, they could simply stop drinking tea. The protest was against having those taxes collected and received by the British government.
- The enterprise was not without some personal risk, as the people involved could all go to jail.
- The immediate result was to unite public opinion in England against the colonists. Even many people in America were appalled by what had happened. The Tea Party was not popular anywhere.
- The ultimate result was to get the tax repealed, and to break the back of British power in America.
Consider carefully, then, if the modern Tea Party movement really deserves that name, especially when we consider that it was stopped in its tracks by mere bureaucratic harassment by the IRS regarding tax-exempt status. While we are not at all advocating destroying public or private property, it is hard to believe that the original Tea Partiers would have let the IRS stop them from exercising their legal rights to inform the public and get out the vote. And when we consider that the Obama administration was able to use the IRS to subvert the 2012 presidential elections, then complaints about the IRS seem petty indeed. Men like Tom Paine and Sam Adams would have found a way to be a factor in 2012, tax-exempt status or not.
In the end, what the modern Tea Party movement provides comes across as pretty thin gruel compared to the original Tea Party. People talk about sacrificing for liberty, but if it is not followed by action and the willingness to take some risks, it is just cheap talk.
Just something to keep in mind for the 2014 midterms.