Sunday, December 16, 2012

Boston Tea Party... Was It An Act of Terrorism?

Recent reports have come out that Texas schools are teaching students that the Boston Tea Party was an act of terrorism equivalent to that of something Al-Qaeda would perform. The students are read a “news report” and then they are asked to determine if it meets the definition of “terrorism.” It reads as follows:
"A local militia, believed to be a terrorist organization, attacked the property of private citizens today at our nation’s busiest port. Although no one was injured in the attack, a large quantity of merchandise, considered to be valuable to its owners and loathsome to the perpetrators, was destroyed. The terrorists, dressed in disguise and apparently intoxicated, were able to escape into the night with the help of local citizens who harbor these fugitives and conceal their identities from the authorities. It is believed that the terrorist attack was a response to the policies enacted by the occupying country’s government. Even stronger policies are anticipated by the local citizens."
There are a number of conflicting statements in this “news report” that make it difficult to evenly dissect and determine a straightforward answer. Since the students are required to break down this report and determine its meaning, I will do the same.
First we need to define what terrorism even is before we can determine if the Boston Tea Party should be considered that. Webster’s definition of terrorism states, “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” The key word in this definition we need to examine is ‘systematic.’ We need to see if these men had a systematic approach to violence and terror or were more in line with a protest organization. Since the Sons of Liberty are being highlighted in this report let us examine briefly their history. The Sons of Liberty were a group of colonist whose interests mainly involved protecting the rights of colonists. Although it is unknown how and when they were founded, it is believed they started to loosely organize around 1765 as a result of the Stamp Act. By 1766 the Sons of Liberty were in all the colonies and “served as headquarters for the patriot leaders.” (Miller, Origins of the American Revolution, p. 130) There are times between 1765 and 1773 that the Sons of Liberty were known for violent acts (i.e. terrorizing stamp masters as a protest against the Stamp Act) however their involvement in the destruction of personal property was minimal and more important they rarely involved violence or death of individuals. The Sons of Liberty were mainly a protest organization whose purpose was meant to raise the British crowns awareness of how their liberties were being violated and enact change. Sadly some of these protests turned violent however it was only as a last resort when frustrations of the situation were at an all-time high and although not an excuse it is something we have seen here at home and around the world.
In 1773 tensions had been growing for weeks in Boston over the Dartmouth and her load of tea to be delivered. The citizens of Boston led those very same Sons of Liberty had no desire to see the tea offloaded and taxes paid on it because it violated the very principles they had fought for back during the Stamp Act in 1765. “The idea of destroying the East India Company’s tea had probably been a last resort in the mind of many patriots.” (Labaree, The Boston Tea Party, p.141) The Dartmouth originally came to port on November 28th, more than two weeks from when the Boston Tea Party occurred. During that entire time some local citizens who were angry at the tax on tea were trying to find some means to have the tea returned to England. The Townsend Act caused problems for everyone as the Governor of Boston could not simply send the vessel back once it entered a part of the port. Plus there was no way Governor Hutchinson was going to give in to the people’s demands. The tax had to be levied once it entered port and the tea offloaded. Local citizens, led by the Sons of Liberty, refused to let that happen and placed men near the ship threatening to cause harm if the tea were unloaded. By mid-December thousands of Bostonians flooded into Old South in Boston. Their overwhelming presence convinced the captain to demand clearance to leave the port of Boston immediately. The ships representative, accompanied by Samuel Adams and nine other men, went to the home of Richard Harrison. His decision on December 15th was to deny their request; he stated that his hands were tied. This angered the mob that had been growing and it was apparent that action needed to be taken.  On December 16th the duties either had to be paid and the tea taken ashore or drastic measures by the people of Boston had to be taken. It seemed that with their backs to the wall they went to their last resort, the dumping of the tea. It is hard to say when the detailed planning for the dumping of the tea occurred but it seems obvious that it started before the 16th of December. After this lengthy process of demanding the ship be returned to London and working through the proper channels but to no avail; can one really say that their last resort was an act of terrorism? I believe no. First the destruction of the tea was not the first choice of the committee that original met on this matter in November and even when the idea was presented it was immediately dismissed. Acts of terrorism by terrorist groups are well thought out decision to cause chaos and fear and little effort is made before that to reach a compromise or peaceful means. Secondly more people were there than simply the Sons of Liberty, “many members of the Boston committee also belonged to other groups – the North End Caucus, the Long Room Club, and the Grand Lodge of Masons” (Labaree, p. 143). All these groups participated in the dumping of the tea which means to state that it was a “terrorist organization” would be inaccurate as there were other groups involved in the event and according to some accounts a handful showed up to the area unaware of any plan in the works but participated nonetheless.
There are interesting aspects of the way in which the news report is worded that create an inaccurate perspective and therefore distort the way in which students will analyze it. If this news report is referring to the Boston Tea Party which occurred in 1773 then why does it reference America as “our nation’s busiest port?” Now just reading this without any other context might make one believe the individual writing this is English and is referring to America as our nation. However later in the report it states that this was all a result of policies enacted by the “occupying country’s government.” Since America has not declared independence there is only one of two ways to look at this; either the perspective of the writer is a patriot and sees the colonies as independent already, which would mean they would support the dumping of the tea, or this is written historically incorrect. Either way it highlights a major flaw in the writing and makes it difficult to identify the intent behind what is actually going on.
Words can also be a tricky thing when steering one’s mind to a particular conclusion. This “news account” seems to be a form of propaganda. What if the article read this way?:
A group of men attacked the property of private citizens today at our nation’s busiest port. Although no one was injured in the attack, a large quantity of merchandise was destroyed. Dressed in disguise and apparently intoxicated, they were able to escape into the night with the help of local citizens. It is believed that the event was in response to the policies enacted by the occupying country’s government.
If students were to read the account in that manner that it’s possible you might come to the conclusion that a group of drunken idiots were angry toward the government and went out and did something stupid. More importantly one’s first thought would not necessarily be that it was premeditated attack. Bias, or propaganda, within a news account is something every student needs to be taught more than anything. In fact what would you think of the “news account” if it had started with “A group of local patriots…?” How would you feeling about what they did then?

Once the dust settles on a situation and emotions subside, you tend to get a better understanding of how people felt. These reactions to the dumping of the tea will help us put into perspective the mindset of many American colonists at this time and more importantly show how few would see this as an act of terrorism but rather praise it as an act of patriotism. The following is a report from the Boston Gazette which reflects the sentiments of many Bostonians:
On Tuesday last the body of the people of this and all the adjacent towns, and others from the distance of twenty miles, assembled at the old south meeting-house, to inquire the reason of the delay in sending the ship Dartmouth, with the East-India Tea back to London; and having found that the owner had not taken the necessary steps for that purpose, they enjoin'd him at his peril to demand of the collector of the customs a clearance for the ship, and appointed a committee of ten to see it perform'd; after which they adjourn'd to the Thursday following ten o'clock. They then met and being inform'd by Mr. Rotch, that a clearance was refus'd him, they enjoye'd him immediately to enter a protest and apply to the governor for a pass port by the castle, and adjourn'd again till three o'clock for the same day. At which time they again met and after waiting till near sunset Mr. Rotch came in and inform'd them that he had accordingly enter'd his protest and waited on the governor for a pass, but his excellency told him he could not consistent with his duty grant it until his vessel was qualified. The people finding all their efforts to preserve the property of the East India company and return it safely to London, frustrated by the sea consignees, the collector of the customs and the governor of the province, DISSOLVED their meeting.--But, BEHOLD what followed! A number of brave & resolute men, determined to do all in their power to save their country from the ruin which their enemies had plotted, in less than four hours, emptied every chest of tea on board the three ships commanded by the captains Hall, Bruce, and Coffin, amounting to 342 chests, into the sea!! without the least damage done to the ships or any other property. The matters and owners are well pleas'd that their ships are thus clear'd; and the people are almost universally congratulating each other on this happy event. – December 20, 1773
It doesn’t seem the dumping of the tea cause fear in the hearts of the people which is a clear indicator of a terrorist attack. This account was even reprinted in the London Evening Post the following month which means that even those in England read it as an act of patriotism, rather than an act of terrorism or treason as domestic terrorism could so easily be seen as. John Adams, who defended the British soldiers of the Boston Massacre and verbally spoke out against mob violence, stated “there is a dignity, a majesty, a sublimity, in this last effort of the patriots that I greatly admire.” There was even a song sung by colonists about the Boston Tea Party, it was a rallying cry for their fight against the British crown, “Rally Mohawks! Bring out your axes, And tell King George we’ll pay no taxes On his foreign tea.”  

Common American historical context looks at this event as an act of patriotism and sense we earlier defined terrorism we should do the same for patriotism. Patriotism is a “devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country.” You cannot say that these men were patriots for England, they clearly were not defending England’s best interest; instead they were defending the rights of those in the colonies. If you are a colonist in America in 1773 then you might be able to see how they were defending you and your rights, you might actually call them a patriots. So it seems that this argument is based on a matter of perspective more than anything. Gerald Seymour actually said it best in his book Harry’s Game, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” As Americans we see these men as patriots, freedom fighters. They were not murders, plunderers, or men seeking to destroy of lives of others, as a matter of fact the patriots were very careful to avoid damaging the ships that the tea were on and any other personal property on board. These patriots risked their personal freedom and reputations to stand up for what they believed in; they stood up for liberty. Many outside this country do not fully appreciate our history and the sacrifices that were taken to reach independence and create a government for the people and by the people. It is not something we should apologize for or see as evil; it is what made us the greatest nation on earth and it’s those ideals that continue to sustain us as citizens of this nation.
Terrorism, especially in our day and age, is a dangerous word to throw around. One hundred years ago or even during colonial times it did not have the same connotation as it does today. These men of Boston do not even remotely compare to the terrorists of today that kill dozens of people with a bomb attached to themselves or thousands of people by driving a plane into a building. I question the motives behind something like this being introduced to the students of today. Is it meant to weaken our founding fathers, our revolution, and our history? Is it meant to undermine the Tea Party Movement and associate their cause with terrorism? Or is it simply an exercise to get student to think more abstractly? Frankly I am nervous that they are not being taught of the heroism and courage of our founding fathers and how they had to stand up against tyranny and oppression by the British government and therefore fight for independence. On this anniversary of the Boston Tea Party I stand up and salute those individuals, those patriots; who protested against taxation without representation, who protested unfair treatment, and who saw a chance to make a stand for liberty and freedom in the American colonies.


  1. Good blog, with references! Always adds credibility. Enjoyed this and your other posts on Twitter.

  2. I think in principle it is quite a creative question the Texans have come up with there. The Boston Tea Party has become an iconic incident, and it is instructive to think about it in a non-standard way. I imagine that there are a large proportion of people with a Mexican heritage in Texas who might well not buy into the standard model easily.

    But I thank you for reproducing the actual text. It does sound like it has been done in a bit of a ham-fisted way.

  3. I totally understand what you mean when it comes to examining an event in history from a different perspective. I appreciate your comment. I was a high school teacher for a few years and looked to always find different ways students could look at history. One thing I always made sure I did was not mess with the foundations of our country's identity. I believe the events and even myths of our nations history are pivotal in forming the identity of a country.

    As long as a teacher could bring this discussion around to the importance of the event in 1773, I believe there could be value.


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