I’ve been spending a lot of time in the 18th Century, prepping for the Frontier Partisans Podcast series on Pontiac’s War (1763–64). If, as medievalist Dan Jones says, history is always a conversation between past and present, I guess I’ve been palavering with the ghosts of the founders of the American Republic that now seems to be awash in a storm-tossed sea.
Rullman and I spent a good hour-and-a-half last week ruminating over coffee about what course of action is the right one to take in these deeply bizarre times. If the ship of our Republic has hit the shoals and is taking on water — which can hardly be denied — should we work to right it, or should we abandon ship? And if we abandon ship, to what shore do we steer a lifeboat; from what quarter can we expect rescue?
I think we concluded that the structure of the ship remains sound — the fundamental principles upon which the Republic was founded continue to be viable. It is the crew — it is us — who have failed to lay in provisions, lost our navigation points, got drunk on wealth, comfort and hubris, and allowed it to drift into trouble. If that be true, it argues for a return to First Principles — on which more to come in a later post.
For the moment, being that it is December 16, let us recall a tipping point, a moment when protest in the American Colonies hit the point of no return. That would be the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773.
Bancroft Prize-winning historian Woody Holton has a new book out, titled Liberty Is Sweet. I haven’t read it yet — I’ve ordered it from the library. Yesterday I listened to the Journal of the American Revolution’s Dispatches podcast featuring an interview with Holton. He propounded a thesis on the origins of the conflict that led to the American Revolution that I find compelling.
Conventional analysis has it that when the British won the French and Indian War, which concluded with a peace treaty in 1763 handing Canada to the British Empire, it freed the colonies of the French threat that had loomed over them for over a century. The colonists felt empowered to resist British attempts to recoup the costs of that war through taxation, and grew rebellious. Holton sees it a little differently: In his view, it was the British Parliament that rebelled against the status quo: Not only did they seek to recoup the costs of war, but they felt empowered by the elimination of French power in North America to assert greater control over colonies that had existed since 1607 under conditions often described as “benign neglect.” Under this thesis, the colonists were not rebelling, so much as seeking a restoration of conditions c.1762, when the British government treated them with a delicate, hands-off policy.
The thesis explains a lot when it comes to King and Parliament insisting upon asserting its authority to tax tea. Here’s how it played out:
A giant corporation is in financial trouble. It’s overextended itself and cannot manage its debt load. A recession brought on by long and costly wars has shrunk its market. The company is so integral to the functioning of the nation — and so many members of its government are heavily invested in it — that it simply cannot be allowed to fail.
So, the government steps in, with a policy that will have unforeseen consequences that shake the world.
That thoroughly modern and familiar scenario was the catalyst behind an event that led directly to the American War of Independence: The Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773.
The East India Company was, at its founding in 1600, a modern innovation — one of the world’s early joint stock companies. It was a “chartered company,” granted a charter from the government of England for monopoly on trade from the Indian subcontinent and eventually China
The Company wasn’t just a trading concern. It had its own military forces (imagine Amazon with an army, navy and air force) and over the course of a century would establish its rule by force, bribery, and diplomacy across most of what is now India.
In 1773, the Company was in trouble. It owed a massive debt to the government of Great Britain. Markets had shrunk in a contraction after the Seven Years War (known in America as the French & Indian War) which was, in effect, a world war. It was awash in a massive overstock of Chinese tea, some 17 million pounds of unsold surplus.
Meanwhile, Great Britain was locked in a years-long roil with its American colonies over taxes Parliament had imposed to recoup the cost of defending its possessions from the French. The British government considered such taxes merely asking the Colonies to foot their fair share of the bill for victory in the French & Indian War; many colonists saw the taxes — imposed without colonial representation — as acts of tyranny.
By 1773, Parliament had rescinded almost all of the objectionable taxes — except for the 1767 Tea Act. The Tea Act granted the British East India Company license to export their tea to the American colonies at a subsidized rate that undercut colonial merchants, with a minimal tax remitted to Great Britain. Win-win-win. The East India Company could offload their massive tea surplus and pay down some debt, the British government could gently assert its right to tax the colonies, while the colonists could enjoy Chinese tea on the cheap.
The colonists weren’t having it. Several cities turned away East Indiamen ships and made them return to Britain. Others refused to offload the tea, which was simply left to spoil. In Boston, Massachusetts Lt. Governor and Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson refused to allow three tea ships to return to Britain, while the anti-tax Sons of Liberty refused allow the tea to be offloaded.
On December 16, a party of Sons of Liberty dressed up as Mohawk Indians boarded the ships at Griffin’s Wharf and dumped 340 chests of tea — worth about $1 million in today’s dollars — into Boston Harbor. It was an orderly act of property destruction — no tea was stolen, the ships were left undamaged and Sons of Liberty protesters even reportedly swept the decks clean after their action.
The proverbial then hit the fan.
The British government was furious at the destruction of Company property and imposed harsh measures known as the Coercive Acts to bring Boston to heel and enforce repayment for the tea. For all intents and purposes, they imposed martial law on the city, and brought in troops to maintain order and enforce the Acts.
There was no turning back from this moment. Protest had triggered repression; repression triggered rebellion, which would soon become revolution. A powder train was laid that would explode less than two years later in the villages west of Boston known as Lexington and Concord. The echoes of that explosion resound to this day.
When a government resorts to coercion against its own people, it is courting resistance and rebellion. We have come to tolerate a degree of coercion in our day-to-day lives that Americans of 1773 would have found shocking and inexplicable. We live in a globalized economy where companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google and the telecoms wield power that the East India Company could scarcely imagine, with all their ships, armies, and cannon. And we have allowed ourselves to become dependent upon them. Our own government seems as distant and out-of-touch — yet intrusive — as a transatlantic Parliament once seemed to colonial Americans. You have to wonder when we’re going to hit a tipping point that pushes us from our current state of tension into more serious conflict. It’s tempting to romanticize that sort of conflict, but it is well to remember that our original revolution was exceptional; most reward authoritarian actors. We may not be so lucky a second time if our current turmoil actually leads to revolution.
Can the ship be saved if we jettison deadweight cargo? Maybe. The principles articulated out of the now-ancient rebellion that hit its point-of-no-return 248 years ago this day remain sound. If we can get off the shoals and seek a point of navigation by which to steer in these strange and troubled times, perhaps the best star to chart by is our own, returning to First Principles and truths that remain self-evident. I fear that if we abandon those, we will truly be lost to the depths.