Was the Boston Tea Party a Riot?
Recently America has witnessed a horrific tragedy in the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. To date, the officer has been fired, arrested, and charged with murder. Currently he is awaiting trial, at which point he will be prosecuted in front of a jury of his peers. This is the American judicial system punishing someone who has broken the law and violated the most central of the principles outlined in the Declaration—the right to life.
Peaceful protestors have marched around the country to demand justice. However, in the midst of justified outrage some people have themselves begun committing unjustifiable acts, assaulting and murdering police officers, burning down buildings, mercilessly beating people, and destroying their fellow citizens’ property. Out of town activists and professional agitators have poured into metropolitan centers and led rioters to destroy businesses, housing units, and even churches.
In defense of these heinous acts, some people have begun pointing to the Boston Tea Party as an example of how violent riots are part of American tradition. This historical perspective, however, is only possible if you don’t know the first thing about the Boston Tea Party, who was involved, and why it happened.
First, it was 100% peaceful with no looting, rioting, injury, or destruction of person or private property.
It is no historical accident that it was called a party and not a riot. Throughout all of the actions taken by the patriots during that night, no personal property was destroyed. The tea itself, which was owned by the government-run East India Company and being forced upon the colonists by government edict, was the only item targeted.
The ship owner himself, Joseph Rotch, explained to Governor Hutchinson that before the Tea Party the Boston assembly had given him no reason to fear the fury of the mob or the threat of a riot, noting that “his concern was not for his ship, which he did not believe was in danger, but he could not tell what would be the fate of the tea on board.”
In fact, everything was so peaceful and orderly that even crown-appointed Governor Hutchinson was forced to confess that, “the whole was done with very little tumult.”
This is not to say that the situation couldn’t have quickly or easily turned violent. John Adams notes that there were bad actors who wished, “that as many dead Carcasses were floating in the Harbor as there are Chests of Tea.” But to do so would have been wrong and injured innocent people like the ship owner Rotch who was just as much a victim of English tyranny as they were. Additionally, in the weeks leading up to the Boston Tea Party, patriot leaders had even stopped mobs from rioting.
Indeed, it was documented that, “neither revenge, nor a spirit of hostility to rights of property or persons, formed a part of the program of the popular [patriot] leaders.”And so stalwart were the patriots in their commitment to peaceful resistance that they “had been as true to the idea of order as they had been faithful to the cause of liberty.”
Secondly, the colonists had only two options remaining them in that situation, pay the unjust tax or throw the tea into the harbor.
The Bostonians, along with all the other American colonists, had no representation in the English Parliament who were passing laws like the 1773 Tea Act. This meant that the colonists had no real legal way to seek the redress of their grievances. Therefore, the famous motto became “no taxation without representation.”
John Adams recognized that the patriots would not have been right if the problem could have been addressed in a different way. The morning after the Boston Tea Party, he wrote in his diary:
“The question is whether the destruction of this tea was necessary? I apprehend it was absolutely and indispensably so. They could not send it back, the Governor, Admiral and Collector and Comptroller would not suffer it. It was in their power [i.e. the Governor’s] to have saved it—but in no other. It [the ship] could not get by the castle, the Men of War [the British warships] &c. Then there was no other alternative but to destroy it or let it be landed. To let it be landed, would be giving up the principle of taxation by Parliamentary authority, against which the Continent have struggled for 10 years, it was losing all our labor for 10 years and subjecting ourselves and our posterity forever to Egyptian taskmasters—to burthens, indignities, to ignominy, reproach and contempt, to desolation and oppression, to poverty and servitude.”
However, even with all of that at stake, the patriot leaders were careful to never let their justified anger lead them to commit unjustified acts of violence against innocent people.
Adams was not alone in his evaluation, and fellow patriot Thomas Cushing explained that the British policy concerning the forced importation of tea was, “the source of their distress, a distress that borders upon despair and they know not where to fly for relief” After months of working to find a different effectual means of resolution the Bostonians had nowhere else to go.
Indeed, one of the Tea Party participants outlined their situation and how the English government had rejected all other methods of handling it:
“The Governor, Collector, and Consignees, most certainly had it in their power to have saved this destruction, and returned it undiminished to the owner, in England, as the people were extremely desirous of this, did everything in their power to accomplish it, and waited so long for this purpose, as to run no small risk of being frustrated in their grand design of preventing it’s being landed.”
It was only, “after it had been observed to them, that, everything else in their power having been done, it now remained to proceed in the only way left,” and the tea was destroyed. But, as mentioned early, the colonists saw that, “the owner of the ship having behaved like a man of honor, no injury ought to be offered to his person or property”
The situation in American today is entirely different. Respect and decency are not being shown to innocent people or business owners. The current riots are like a destructive tornado set on destroying everything in its path.
Peaceful protests are protected by the Bill of Rights, but violent riots which destroy, loot, and victimize are antithetical to the American idea. The comparison of the violent riots to the Boston Tea Party is wildly unfounded and demonstrates that Americans should study their history before they try to weaponize it.