Everything You Know Is Wrong: The Boston Tea Party
By Max McNabb
What people call history is really myth. History is a tale told by bloody conquerors, failed novelists, and small town football coaches earning their keep in public schools. It’s a system of power. He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past. Court historians regard the myth as sacrosanct. They never question its veracity and are quick to deride anyone who voices doubt.
Americans spend their school years struggling to memorize names and dates. In the decades afterward, they take pride in the scattering of facts they manage to retain. So, of course, they get pretty upset when you show them most of those precious facts were lies.
But for those with an open mind, those last few willing to question anything and anyone, discovering the truth is exhilarating. Truth is what we’re after. We’ll chase it down whether it sets us free as Jesus said it would, or destroys us like Oedipus. In each installment of Everything You Know Is Wrong, I examine unquestioned facts—historic, scientific, social, and religious—to reveal the truth beneath the myth.
Postage stamps celebrate the Boston Tea Party as a popular uprising against oppression. Most Americans were taught it was a glorious protest against Britain’s high taxes on tea. The truth is a shocker, guaran-TEA-ed to prove that everything you think you know is wrong.
British tea originated in India. The tea trade was an enormous part of the East India company’s business. The British Crown granted the company a monopoly over trade with China and India. It was mercantilism, the use of the state to fulfill private objectives. This government interference soon resulted in artificially high tea prices.
Britain’s crony capitalism fueled a black market. John Hancock began smuggling Dutch tea into the colonies, a very profitable criminal enterprise for the Founding Father. Hancock became the wealthiest smuggler in America. Dutch tea was of an inferior quality to the British product, but it was much cheaper. Americans chose to buy cheap Dutch tea rather than the expensive, though superior, East Indies tea. Merchants in the colonies boycotted British tea.
In response to the five year boycott, Parliament cut the tax on East Indies tea in 1773. Duties were removed from tea arriving in Britain, so it could be sold in America at lower prices than smuggled Dutch tea. A monopoly on this cheap British tea was granted to certain merchants in the colonies.
Smugglers were losing serious money. As the great economic historian Gary North writes, “That the largest signature on the Declaration of Independence was signed by the richest smuggler in North America was no coincidence. He was hopping mad.”
Parliament had been cutting taxes in the colonies for the last nine years, partly due to pressure brought on by a secret society. Organized in 1765, the Sons of Liberty fought the stamp tax. They tarred and feathered tax collectors until the British ended the tax. Samuel Adams, a ringleader of the Sons, had also been a failed tax collector.
Gary North informs us that British imperial taxation in 1775 was around one percent of national income. Switzerland boasted the greatest freedom of any nation in the world. Britain, however, wasn’t far behind. And American colonists, with the exception of slaves, enjoyed more freedom than any of the empire’s other subjects.
When tea taxes were cut, Samuel Adams brought the Sons together. In December, 1773, Paul Revere and other Sons disguised themselves as Indians. They boarded ships in Boston harbor. They dumped British tea into the water, protesting a low tea tax and cheap prices.
Let that sink in.
Yeah, you read it right the first time. The Boston Tea Party was a protest against lower taxes. The ships weren’t even owned by the Crown. Like the tea they carried, the vessels were private property.
Don’t get me wrong, the East India company was evil to the core. The company caused the Bengal famine of 1770, which starved ten million people to death. There was a shortage of grain because the company was forcing farmers to grow opium. They ravaged Bengal with land taxes up to 50% of the value of crops.
It all comes back to tea. The company needed the opium for export because the Crown had a Chinese problem. For the majority of history, China was the wealthiest, most sophisticated nation in the world. Britain began trading with China for tea. The Chinese didn’t want British manufactured goods. Instead, they demanded silver as payment for their tea. Gold and silver was pouring out of the empire, threatening future solvency. Britain come up with a solution: get them addicted to opium.
The opium cultivated in Bengal was mixed with tobacco and shipped to China. In its natural state, opium is a non-addictive medicine, a pain reliever and antidepressant. The Brits refined their opium, concentrated it. Enhanced opium got the Chinese hooked. Addictions in China only began in the 18th century. By the end of the 1800s, an estimated 25% of the male population in China had a monkey on their back.
The Chinese lost more silver in three opium-crazed decades than Britain paid for tea in the previous 125 years. China’s economy was destroyed. The Son of Heaven, China’s emperor, finally made opium illegal. So the Brits went to war, twice. The company kept pushing their drugs.
Crony capitalism and state-protected monopolies are vile. The East India company was the biggest drug cartel in the world. They deserved to have their tea dumped in the harbor. King George deserved to be kicked off his throne. Unfortunately, though, the revolution that pushed the British out of America wasn’t free of unintended consequences.
In the aftermath of the Tea Party, the British government closed the port of Boston. Fleets of warships carrying redcoats invaded the colonies. Martial law in Beantown. Meanwhile Samuel Adams got the Committees of Correspondence to work drumming up support for revolution.
Poor farmers had no more love for the wealthy East Coast elite than for King George. To quote The Patriot, the poor were asked to choose between one tyrant three thousand miles away, or three thousand tyrants one mile away.
Patrick Henry’s rhetorical talents helped sway the public. Much has been made of Henry’s famous “Give me liberty, or give me death” speech. One more example of everything you know is wrong. No notes of the speech exist. William Wirt “reconstructed” it in 1817, almost forty-five years later. Whatever Pat actually said, it probably wasn’t “Give me high taxes on imported goods so my smuggler buddies can get filthy rich, or give me death.”
Wars cost money. Lots. To pay for the Revolution, the tax burden tripled. Debt skyrocketed. The Continental Congress printed a flood of Continental notes. The fiat currency, paper money, caused hyperinflation, commodity prices rising over 480% by November, 1777. The new government instituted price controls. Starvation at Valley Forge resulted. Life got very hard for average Americans.
Congress borrowed funds, but after the war they couldn’t repay the loans. The soldiers of America’s battered army came home to bankrupt states—those lucky enough to return home at all.
Taxes would never again be so low as they’d been in 1775. New taxes were established. The Whiskey Tax burdened small farmers who raised grain. In 1794, farmers in western Pennsylvania armed themselves. They fought against the tax in what became known as the Whisky Rebellion. George Washington and Alexander Hamilton powdered up their wigs and led an army of 15,000 conscripts against the farmers. The rebellion came to an abrupt end.
The Sedition Act of 1798 was passed under the administration of John Adams, brother of the Sons of Liberty leader. The Act killed freedom of speech. It became a crime to say or write anything considered “false, scandalous, or malicious” against the government, Congress, or the President. Every member of the Supreme Court held the Act constitutional, even as Americans were imprisoned for free expression. So much for liberty, Pat.
Alexander Hamilton was the Founding Father of the American central bank. Hamilton was an agent of British banking interests. When Washington appointed him Treasury Secretary, Hamilton set about breathing life into his pet monster, the Bank of the United States. Monopolies, whether the tea or banking variety, depend on government for their existence. Biographer William Graham Sumner wrote that the purpose of Hamilton’s bank was “the interweaving of the interests of wealthy men with those of their government.” The bank caused 72% inflation in its first five years. It resulted in the curse of all central banks: cycles of boom and bust.
Moral of the story: be careful who you kill for. Violent revolutions have a tendency never to work out the way people want. You may overthrow the king, but don’t be surprised if the new boss isn’t the same as the old boss.