Tuesday, April 21, 2009

On history: The Boston Tea Party

Coming off the previous week, it seemed everybody and his brother was trying to invoke the "spirit of the Boston Tea Party", whether it be pro-equality activists in Boston, or conservatives nationwide protesting the cutting of their tax rates, having an African-American president, or something. The BTP strikes a strong chord, it would seem -- it was also evoked in 2004 as Howard Dean opted out of spending restrictions at the height of his campaign. Continuing on a rather interesting discussion at BMG though, I have to admit that the whole BTA thing never much resonated with me. Exploring why is an interesting look at how to consider history.

As I alluded a while ago, historians usually place themselves along a spectrum with the "great men" idea on one extreme, and "longue durée" on the other. For centuries, the West was fixated by the "great men" idea that history was shaped by the Julius Caesars and Winston Churchills of the world. Strong personalities stood astride history, and leaping from one biography to another was the essential point of our story. In reaction, there arose first in France the idea of the longue durée school, which basically holds that history is the product of broad, slow-moving trends. To those historians, Caesar was not so much an extraordinary man as an above-average man at an extraordinary moment. Biographies aren't nearly as important as demographic data, and social movements. It's an intense debate that often gets emotional.

If you want to approach it from a geological parallel, longue durée measures tectonic shifts, while "great man" chronicles the earthquakes.

To take a "Great Man" view that powerful individuals shape history, you can make good book that had John Kerry been president in 2002, we'd not have invaded Iraq, a decision that set the course of a good piece of history for the next little while.

On the other hand, "longue durée" folks aver that Churchill was big in World War II, but he didn't create the American-British friendship himself, didn't move Britain off the coast of Europe...heck, he didn't even deliver one of "his" most famous speeches.

Over time, I do lean toward the longue durée way of thinking, and the Boston Tea Party is a great way to examine why. Granted, Great Men are needed for national holidays, statues, to put on money, and all the things that go into the building of an essential national mythology. Plus, it's much easier to write history textbooks and tv series that way -- all reasons why you can see some hysterical reactions to questioning anyone's national mythology. To see one such example as applies to the Boston Tea Party, look here.

One can't deny the aftermath of the protest...the British overreaction to the Tea Party, the Patriots' exploitation of that overreaction to spread colonial hostility to the British, and the adding of several more flakes to what snowballed into the American Revolution. What I can and will deny, however, is that there was anything special about the Boston Tea Party as such that created the moments and forces that eventually shifted the course of history, or that anything happened then and there that would not have happened elsewhere eventually. Basically, I hold that the forces at play would have pushed history forward whether it had been tea in Boston or tobacco in Hampton Roads, Virginia. We would have had an American Revolution, with or without the Boston Tea Party. Here's why...

  • Economic realities: The American colony was a money loser for the British, what with defending the transplants against Native Americans and the French. London wasn't going to long tolerate paying for it...but the colonists weren't about to pay for it themselves. Stalemate. This was the basis of the entire crisis, in my opinion. Sure, the lot of English-speakers muddled through during the Seven Years'/French and Indian War out of self-preservation against a common enemy, but this arrangement wasn't going to last long in peacetime.
  • Colonial overreaction: Charles Townshend was not the coolest-headed person to walk the Earth, and it was the package of punitive measures collectively remembered as the Townshend Acts that got many American colonials off the fence. He was backed by a bevy of similar-minded MPs in London who likely would have rotated him out of office had he gone soft on the colonials. Any series of protests anywhere in the 13 colonies would have evoked this overreaction -- it just happened to be the Boston Tea Party that sparked it in our history.
  • The pamphletting class: The BTA is remembered so fiercely thanks to a group of men who were creative and genial protesters skilled at advertising themselves. During the tea party, the "protesters" got the chuckling help of the ship's crew in finding and disposing of the tea, and it was an open secret who was involved. The Native American disguises were basically a joke. However, one thing the Patriots took seriously was the dissemination of their ideals, and the heroic light in which pamphleteers such as Thomas Paine would paint such events. It just happened that the Boston Tea Party was one such protest.
  • Decolonization: Colonies don't last. America may have been the first to rebel from modern European colonization, but the Hyksos had problems with their colonies four thousand years ago. The Americans quickly became too distant and different to remain partners in the British operation. Heck, even in much, much more recent times, colonies such as Algeria and Ireland rebelled despite being more closely intertwined with their colonizer. It just happens that here we're talking about Boston.

It was going to happen sometime, somewhere, and go from there. The Boston Tea Party was an amusing way to strike the match, but at the cost of about $1 million in today's dollars, not sufficient in isolation to create any problems. It may be useful to consider a modern parallel: imagine a secessionist Governor Perry destroyed $1 million of private property of a quasi-federal agency, say the Postal Service. Do you think Texas's ports would be blockaded, and specific taxes levied against it? No, Obama would sue, maybe suspend the transfer of some federal funds. Obama has a cooler head than Townshend, Texas is pretty much a break-even state for the feds, and it is completely integrated into the country to the point of supplying much of American socioeconomic, cultural, and political activity. Any Texas secessionist movement is too nascent to supply much in the way of propaganda in any case.

With American history full of movements that rely so much more on the greatness and courage of its people -- labor rights, women's rights, civil rights -- can't we retire the Boston Tea Party to the curiosity section of our history shelves? That way, we can at least invoke noble, pivotal protests for our latest pet peeves -- "Freedom (from Taxation) Rides" or "Seneca Falls II", anyone?

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