In which we see History as a story of intended acts having unintended consequences—and ask how much sympathy we should have for the miscalculators.
So look: we’ve been discussing this growing tension between the colonies and the British government, specifically Parliament. We talked about the French and Indian War and the costs it generated. We talked about the taxes and the boycotts. I think we should pause here for a minute and ask: Who’s right?
Paolo? Glad to see your raise your hand.
Why is that?
—I think they’re right: the taxes are wrong if they don’t get a say.
Hmmm. I did tell you, did I not, that there were parts of England without representation? They weren’t protesting.
—That doesn’t make it right.
No, I suppose not. Jonah?
—I kinda think the British have a point. I mean, you gotta pay for the French and Indian war, right? Everybody’s gotta pitch in.
Well, yes. But the colonists had pitched in. They contributed resources and men to the war.
—But the British helped them out with the French and the Indians.
Oh really? I thought the colonists helped the British out.
—Well, they were all in it together, weren’t they?
That’s the point, isn’t it?
—What’s the point?
That they were all in it together.
Which is why the British need to recognize colonial rights.
—I think we’re talking in circles.
How about that, Yin. Let’s change the subject. I want to introduce a couple people here. One is William Legge, also known as the Second Earl of Dartmouth (or “Dartmouth” for short). Dartmouth was the Secretary of State for the British Colonies in the early 1770s. Another is Frederick North, the Earl of Guildford, who was known as Lord North. He was the British Prime Minister straight through the 1770s. As far as I can tell, these weren’t bad guys, as guys running empires go. The growing suspicions of some colonists notwithstanding, they were not people who were trying to reduce the Americans to a state of utter despotism (to use the language of the time). In a way, the colonists were flattering themselves to think so: they in fact weren’t all that important compared to events taking place in London—or, for that matter, Paris or Kingston, the capital of Jamaica. The King’s ministers were people who saw themselves with a job to do, and one part of that job was managing imperial finances. The colonists had made trouble for them, for sure. But with a little imagination, they believed, they could work around such difficulties and come up with satisfactory solutions. They’re like a lot of people you’ll meet in your life: distracted adults who don’t really care about you—they don’t hate you or wish you ill, but you’re just not that important.
—I know a few of those.
And one day, you’ll be one of them, Em. Anyway, America is only one of Lord North’s problems. Actually, one of his biggest in 1773 was in India.
Yes, Sadie, India. Over the course of the preceding decades, the British had established a strong commercial presence there. Sort of a similar story to the Americas: colonization on the cheap, in this case by giving a license to a corporation, the British East India Company. I can’t get into all the details now, but as a result of some conflicts and the company’s use of professional soldiers, the company actually gained control over the diwan, or right to collect taxes in a key part of that country. This made the British East India Company very rich, but also very unstable. And around 1772 it crashed and the British government had to bail it out. Which meant, among other things, that the government was now sitting on a vast pile of a particular luxury item: tea.
—Right. The colonists were big tea drinkers.
Good, Yin; you remember. The tea surplus gave Lord North an idea: What if we took the tea, which right now is a dead loss, and sold it to the colonies at a discount? We could put a tax on it, too (it became a law: the Tea Act, passed in 1773), and it would still be a bargain: Starbucks double lattes, a buck apiece! Who wouldn’t like that? Gotta love it, right, Sadie?
—I guess so.
You guess so? What’s not to like?
—Well, there’s a tax on it.
Well yeah. But it’s so cheap!
—But you said the other day it wasn’t just about the money. It was about who made the decisions.
Oh c’mon, Sadie. Don’t be such a stick in the mud. Dollar lattes!
—Where had the colonists been getting their tea from before this?
Ah, now, Adam, that’s an excellent question. Some of them had been buying it, the good stuff, from the British East India Company at full price. But where else and how else would they get tea?
Anyone? Here’s a hint: why was the Gaspee, the British ship I mentioned in the last class that was set on fire, doing off the coast of Rhode Island in the first place?
—Looking for people who were breaking the law.
Yin scores again! Which people breaking were the law?
And again! This girl does her homework! What this means, in effect, that there were at least two groups of people who were unhappy about those dollar lattes. The first were the people Sadie mentioned: those who were opposed to paying taxes on tea as a matter of principle. And the other, you might say, were unprincipled people whose illegal business was threatened by a legal business that suddenly could offer more of a bargain than the smugglers could (which of course was one reason Lord North was so pleased with himself). I’m talking about people like a merchant you may have heard of named John Hancock. He was a very rich man, most of that money inherited. But he was involved in all manner of shady business. As I mentioned to you when we discussed the Stamp Act, one of the weirder aspects of the American Revolution is the way it brought together political theorists, rich merchants, and street gangs, all of whom had a shared interest in challenging British authority.
—That is weird.
Gets weirder still, Sadie. The ships carrying all that tea began arriving in American ports in the fall of 1773. In Boston, the people I just mentioned were ready and waiting. And on December 16, 1773—
—The Boston Tea Party.
—Gosh darn it, Kylie! You stole my punchline!
—Gosh darn it, Mr. K? You’ve got to be kidding.
—Of course he’s kidding, Ethan.
So what was the Boston Tea Party?
—A political protest?
Not a colossal act of vandalism?
—If you say so.
But what do you say? What would you call a group of hoodlums who dress up as Indians and toss a fortune in luxury tea into Boston harbor?
—I’d call it one good time.
Does that make you a Patriot, Emily?
—Well, I’ve never thought of myself as patriotic.
Well, we’re living through interesting times, Em. Are you really inclined to cast your lot with the mob? Do you really think that’s safe?
—Did anyone get punished for the Tea Party?
That’s not the point, Sadie. Sure, Emily here can party hearty and dump tea. Knock yourself out. But do you really think this mob is stable? That it won’t turn on you?
—I don’t think a mob would ever have a reason to turn on me.
Well, we can’t be sure now, can we, Sadie. Your buddy Emily is running with a dangerous crowd. What do you think the British are going to do now? Huh, “Good Time” Emily? Huh?
—Somehow, Mr. K., I’ve got this idea that you’re going to tell me.
You’re right. Because let me tell you something: You are in big trouble, young lady. Because the game has changed.
Because it’s not about the money anymore.
—But wasn’t that already true?
For the colonists, yes. But not for the British. Yes, there had been the Declaratory Act, which told them they must obey after the Stamp Act was withdrawn in response to protests. But the Declaratory Act had been toothless. For the Brits, it was primarily about the money: how are we going to get what we need? Let’s try and do it this way. Oh. This way didn’t work. So we’ll try that way. Oh. That way doesn’t work, either. Let’s try something else. And then the Tea Party happens, and it isn’t about the money anymore.
—So what is it about, then?
Obedience. Knowing your place. And paying for your mistakes—“paying” not only in the financial sense, but in political and moral ones, too. Get ready for the hangover, “Good Time” Emily.
—Tomorrow, Mr. K. Tomorrow
Next: Revolting intolerance