In the late hours of Dec. 16, 1773, a band of Bostonians costumed as Native Americans slipped aboard three ships in the city's harbor and flung out 46 tons of tea into the waters below. So much of this cargo got reportedly clumped in the shallows that young boys in paddle boats had to push out the tea toward the open sea lest it wash up on shore. And so transpired the Boston Tea Party an act of rebellion canonized in U.S. history and now invoked by right-wing American populists. TIME spoke to Benjamin Carp, a historian at Tufts University and author of the newly published Defiance of the Patriots: the Boston Tea Party & the Making of America, about the history behind the event and what its real legacy is today.
Early on in the book, you place the Boston Tea Party in a far larger global context. Can you set the scene for us?
Boston is on the edge of the world, if we are willing to shift our perspective a bit. The Native American disguises come from the frontier. The tea had come from China. The sugar with which people ordinarily drank tea came from plantations in the West Indies. And the tea was being shipped by the British East India Company, which was increasingly becoming an imperial power in South Asia. So really it is a story of world importance.
You mention that the East India Company at the time was in fiscal trouble and deemed "too big to fail" by London. What exactly was the Tea Act and why did Parliament pass it?
There's a credit crunch ahead of 1773; a series of major bankruptcies take place. The British government had spent heavily on the French and Indian War and they hadn't quite begun paying back those debts, and these combined problems led to financial hardship in both Europe and America. The solution chosen by the British government is that it doesn't give the Americans the tax relief they were asking for. Instead of repealing a tea duty that had been imposed in 1767, they give this significant tax break to the East India Company to unload its surplus of tea on the American market 17 million pounds of tea had piled up in the Company's British warehouses, unsold in Britain because of competition from smugglers.
How much of a bogeyman was the East India Company for the American colonists?
Before the 1760s, the Company wasn't much on the Americans' radar. But after they start hearing the news of the Great Famine of Bengal in 1769 [where East India Company avarice and mismanagement led to as many as ten million Indian deaths] and after they hear about the provisions of the Tea Act, which seems to favor the East India Company and its better lobbying connections over the poor American colonies, that's when they start to get really angry about it. And [they] start painting a picture of it as this fearsome monopolistic company that was going to rob them blind and pave the way maybe for their enslavement.
So the tea that gets destroyed in Boston harbor on Dec. 16, 1773 is part of this first wave of post-Tea Act cargo. What happens afterward?
When the news reaches London, there's a tremendous amount of outrage. Neither the Massachusetts nor British authorities are able to single out any particular perpetrator and so Parliament decides that it'll punish the whole town of Boston instead and revise the whole system of government in Massachusetts, which they thought was breeding a certain level of sedition they could no longer tolerate.
But when Americans in other colonies see that Parliament is willing to curtail American liberties, they rally around a series of slippery slope fears, believing that if Parliament can do this to one, they can do it all. They rally around Boston and begin meeting for the Continental Congress in late 1774.
... which leads us to the Declaration of Independence a few years later. Nowadays, a different sort of Tea Party is dominating the political agenda. What do you make of the injection of this event's legacy into current debates about spending and taxes?
First of all, complaining about taxation without representation is a very different thing from complaining about taxes by themselves. Secondly, [colonial Americans] also had fears about the East India Company monopoly extending to other products and that it would raise prices on them without allowing homegrown competition. It was not nearly about high taxes. As most people who know a bit about the Boston Tea Party will tell you, the Tea Act was actually going to lower the cost of tea for Americans.
So is the appropriation a bit disingenuous?
There's a larger context to today's Tea Party. People have talked about the ways that [Tea Partiers] are a bit disingenuous about the deficit, about some of the deep-seated cultural fears within the movement and I don't disagree with those criticisms. However, there are some interesting parallels: the existence of a financial crisis preceding it, the idea of companies too big to fail being propped up by government, the idea of an organization that is both local and national in character all these things would have been familiar in 1773.
You write about how the actual term "Tea Party" only came into use in the 1820s and 30s, when a former blacksmith's apprentice revealed he was among the Party that ransacked those ships. Fifty years on, why was there still such a code of secrecy among those who took part?
I don't have a definite answer. In 1773, these were mostly young men, the majority between 18 and 29, mostly craftsmen and artisans, and many of them had significant political experience either in previous street actions or organizations in Boston. They wouldn't have been afraid of treason charges after 1783. i think they were worried about the civil liability of the East India Company still suing the tea destroyers for its losses.
How important is it now for the myth of the Boston Tea Party that it's remembered as a kind of collective, anonymous act?
The important story to be told about the American Revolution is the way in which ordinary people can become mobilized in a volatile political situation. The Boston Tea Party is a key example of that: secret, anonymous actions will always seem romantic and almost mythic. It also seems just fun it speaks to the impulse of every seven-year-old boy to put on a costume and go destroy something. Because we don't know who was there or how many people took part, it presents a problem for historians, but the mystery is always going to be very appealing.