The Real Boston Tea Party was Against the Wal-Mart of the 1770s


CNBC Correspondent Rick Santelli called for a “Chicago Tea Party” on Feb 19th in protesting President Obama’s plan to help homeowners in trouble. Santelli’s call was answered by the right-wing group Freedomworks, which funds campaigns promoting big business interests, and is the opposite of what the real Boston Tea Party was. FreedomWorks was funded in 2004 by Dick Army (former Republican House Majority leader & lobbyist); consolidated Citizens for a Sound Economy, funded by the Koch family; and Empower America, a lobbying firm, that had fought against healthcare and minimum-wage efforts while hailing deregulation.

Anti-tax "tea party" organizers are delivering one million tea bags to a Washington, D.C., park Wednesday morning – to promote protests across the country by people they say are fed up with high taxes and excess spending.

The real Boston Tea Party was a protest against huge corporate tax cuts for the British East India Company, the largest trans-national corporation then in existence. This corporate tax cut threatened to decimate small Colonial businesses by helping the BEIC pull a Wal-Mart against small entrepreneurial tea shops, and individuals began a revolt that kicked-off a series of events that ended in the creation of The United States of America.

They covered their faces, massed in the streets, and destroyed the property of a giant global corporation. Declaring an end to global trade run by the East India Company that was destroying local economies, this small, masked minority started a revolution with an act of rebellion later called the Boston Tea Party.


That is how I tell the story of the Boston Tea Party, now that I have read a first-person account of it. While striving to understand my nation's struggles against corporations, in a rare book store I came upon a first edition of "Retrospect of the Boston Tea Party with a Memoir of George R.T. Hewes, a Survivor of the Little Band of Patriots Who Drowned the Tea in Boston Harbor in 1773," and I jumped at the chance to buy it. Because the identities of the Boston Tea Party participants were hidden (other than Samuel Adams) and all were sworn to secrecy for the next 50 years, this account is the only first-person account of the event by a participant that exists. As I read, I began to understand the true causes of the American Revolution.

I learned that the Boston Tea Party resembled in many ways the growing modern-day protests against transnational corporations and small-town efforts to protect themselves from chain-store retailers or factory farms. The Tea Party's participants thought of themselves as protesters against the actions of the multinational East India Company.

Although schoolchildren are usually taught that the American Revolution was a rebellion against “taxation without representation,” akin to modern day conservative taxpayer revolts, in fact what led to the revolution was rage against a transnational corporation that, by the 1760s, dominated trade from China to India to the Caribbean, and controlled nearly all commerce to and from North America, with subsidies and special dispensation from the British crown.

Hewes notes: “The [East India] Company received permission to transport tea, free of all duty, from Great Britain to America…” allowing it to wipe out New England–based tea wholesalers and mom-and-pop stores and take over the tea business in all of America. “Hence,” wrote, “it was no longer the small vessels of private merchants, who went to vend tea for their own account in the ports of the colonies, but, on the contrary, ships of an enormous burthen, that transported immense quantities of this commodity ... The colonies were now arrived at the decisive moment when they must cast the dye, and determine their course ... ”

A pamphlet was circulated through the colonies called The Alarm and signed by an enigmatic “Rusticus.” One issue made clear the feelings of colonial Americans about England's largest transnational corporation and its behavior around the world: “Their Conduct in Asia, for some Years past, has given simple Proof, how little they regard the Laws of Nations, the Rights, Liberties, or Lives of Men. They have levied War, excited Rebellions, dethroned lawful Princes, and sacrificed Millions for the Sake of Gain. The Revenues of Mighty Kingdoms have entered their Coffers. And these not being sufficient to glut their Avarice, they have, by the most unparalleled Barbarities, Extortions, and Monopolies, stripped the miserable Inhabitants of their Property, and reduced whole Provinces to Indigence and Ruin. Fifteen hundred Thousands, it is said, perished by Famine in one Year, not because the Earth denied its Fruits; but [because] this Company and their Servants engulfed all the Necessaries of Life, and set them at so high a Price that the poor could not purchase them.”

After protesters had turned back the Company's ships in Philadelphia and New York, Hewes writes, “In Boston the general voice declared the time was come to face the storm.”

The citizens of the colonies were preparing to throw off one of the corporations that for almost 200 years had determined nearly every aspect of their lives through its economic and political power. They were planning to destroy the goods of the world's largest multinational corporation, intimidate its employees, and face down the guns of the government that supported it.

The queen's corporation

The East India Company's influence had always been pervasive in the colonies. Indeed, it was not the Puritans but the East India Company that founded America. The Puritans traveled to America on ships owned by the East India Company, which had already established the first colony in North America, at Jamestown, in the Company-owned Commonwealth of Virginia, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi. The commonwealth was named after the “Virgin Queen,” Elizabeth, who had chartered the corporation.

Elizabeth was trying to make England a player in the new global trade sparked by the European “discovery” of the Americas. The wealth Spain began extracting from the New World caught the attention of the European powers. In many European countries, particularly Holland and France, consortiums were put together to finance ships to sail the seas. In 1580, Queen Elizabeth became the largest shareholder in The Golden Hind, a ship owned by Sir Francis Drake.

The investment worked out well for Queen Elizabeth. There's no record of exactly how much she made when Drake paid her share of the Hind's dividends to her, but it was undoubtedly vast, since Drake himself and the other minor shareholders all received a 5000 percent return on their investment. Plus, because the queen placed a maximum loss to the initial investors of their investment amount only, it was a low-risk investment (for the investors at least—creditors, such as suppliers of provisions for the voyages or wood for the ships, or employees, for example, would be left unpaid if the venture failed, just as in a modern-day corporation). She was endorsing an investment model that led to the modern limited-liability corporation.

After making a fortune on Drake's expeditions, Elizabeth started looking for a more permanent arrangement. She authorized a group of 218 London merchants and noblemen to form a corporation. The East India Company was born on December 31, 1600.

By the 1760s, the East India Company's power had grown massive and worldwide. However, this rapid expansion, trying to keep ahead of the Dutch trading companies, was a mixed blessing, as the company went deep in debt to support its growth, and by 1770 found itself nearly bankrupt.

The company turned to a strategy that multinational corporations follow to this day: They lobbied for laws that would make it easy for them to put their small-business competitors out of business.

Most of the members of the British government and royalty (including the king) were stockholders in the East India Company, so it was easy to get laws passed in its interests. Among the Company's biggest and most vexing problems were American colonial entrepreneurs, who ran their own small ships to bring tea and other goods directly into America without routing them through Britain or through the Company. Between 1681 and 1773, a series of laws were passed granting the Company monopoly on tea sold in the American colonies and exempting it from tea taxes. Thus, the Company was able to lower its tea prices to undercut the prices of the local importers and the small tea houses in every town in America. But the colonists were unappreciative of their colonies being used as a profit center for the multinational corporation.

Boston's million-dollar tea party

And so, Hewes says, on a cold November evening of 1773, the first of the East India Company's ships of tax-free tea arrived. The next morning, a pamphlet was widely circulated calling on patriots to meet at Faneuil Hall to discuss resistance to the East India Company and its tea. “Things thus appeared to be hastening to a disastrous issue. The people of the country arrived in great numbers, the inhabitants of the town assembled. This assembly, on the 16th of December 1773, was the most numerous ever known, there being more than 2000 from the country present,” said Hewes.

The group called for a vote on whether to oppose the landing of the tea. The vote was unanimously affirmative, and it is related by one historian of that scene “that a person disguised after the manner of the Indians, who was in the gallery, shouted at this juncture, the cry of war; and that the meeting dissolved in the twinkling of an eye, and the multitude rushed in a mass to Griffin's wharf.”

That night, Hewes dressed as an Indian, blackening his face with coal dust, and joined crowds of other men in hacking apart the chests of tea and throwing them into the harbor. In all, the 342 chests of tea—over 90,000 pounds—thrown overboard that night were enough to make 24 million cups of tea and were valued by the East India Company at 9,659 Pounds Sterling or, in today's currency, just over $1 million.

In response, the British Parliament immediately passed the Boston Port Act stating that the port of Boston would be closed until the citizens of Boston reimbursed the East India Company for the tea they had destroyed. The colonists refused. A year and a half later, the colonists would again state their defiance of the East India Company and Great Britain by taking on British troops in an armed conflict at Lexington and Concord (the “shots heard 'round the world”) on April 19, 1775.

That war—finally triggered by a transnational corporation and its government patrons trying to deny American colonists a fair and competitive local marketplace—would end with independence for the colonies.

The revolutionaries had put the East India Company in its place with the Boston Tea Party, and that, they thought, was the end of that. Unfortunately, the Boston Tea Party was not the end; within 150 years, during the so-called Gilded Age, powerful rail, steel, and oil interests would rise up to begin a new form of oligarchy, capturing the newly-formed Republican Party in the 1880s, and have been working to establish a permanent wealthy and ruling class in this country ever since. 


Scott Milinder (not verified) 15 years 9 weeks ago

You have hit the bullseye of what should be an alternative frame to the Tea-Baggers. Even though they are a clear minority and looked more than goofey at times, they are out there capturing the rage that many feel, astroturf or not. I think the democrats and progressives missed an opportunity to co-opt the right-wing anti-tax message. 95% of America taxpayers received a tax cut on April 15. We should be have been shouting that from the rooftops that and re-framing these protests in the fashion you suggest.

Though progressives really showed little evidence of counter-protest, I believe our movement needs to speak to working people more effectively and be better, more authentic channels for this anger, which will only grow as the world economy worstens (and it will terribly - sad to say.)

captfoster2 (not verified) 15 years 9 weeks ago

While Fox most certainly went out of it way to promote this 'Tea Party" mentality, what they ultimately did accomplish was allow the most racist, loudest, and ignorant of our society to collect in one place to spread their vitriol of hate and nastiness.
Fox did not even have the courtesy to explain the facts to their viewers, just allowed an unmitigated time to rant and chant. Most of which was not even about taxes but about things that most of the hundreds of dozens of people that showed up have no idea about what to say!
By trying to mainstream the fringe among us is dangerous and Fox, in my opinion is as guilty of any violence that stems from this outrage as much as the person that may commit it.

Andrew (not verified) 15 years 9 weeks ago

Thom, very interesting article, thank you. But your description of the Tea Party actually confirms libertarian free-market beliefs. The Tea Party was protesting a GOVERMENT-created monopoly. That is exactly what libertarians today want to insure doesn't happen again and why they believe in the free market. That's why they don't want a nationalized economy. And that is why they don't want taxes used for government intervention in the market. As you say, the government used laws and regulations to bailout the East India Company and it created a morally hazardous power. As much as I enjoyed the article, I'm confused how it does anything except provide more evidence for free market arguments. Maybe you should try to get it published in Reason or Cato's blog. I think they would appreciate what a great pro free market argument it is.

AZAFVET (not verified) 15 years 9 weeks ago

Yesterday, Huffington Post published an article detailing with how much the taxpayers of each state has to make up due to the the $100 billion dollars lost through corporate off shore tax shelters. The faux Tea Party yesterday certainly missed the point of the original as Thom's piece describes where they should be protesting these Corporations that are failing to pay.

Ryan (not verified) 15 years 9 weeks ago

Andrew- I think you're reading a little bit too much into it and drawing conclusions that aren't really there. I could see the argument purporting free enterprise, but not free market, and there's quite a distinction to be noted between the two. Also, the protest was against a monopoly that just so happened to be helped into being by the government. It was a revolt against the colonies being unable to compete because of the size and advantage of the corporation. It wasn't simply an anti-government sentiment. I would hope that in light of the most recent economic events, you can see the need for regulation in various aspects of the market as a whole.

Textynnn (not verified) 15 years 9 weeks ago

The hitch pin of this whole situation is that the EITC had a full blown army, provided free of charge, to force the colonies to submit to their control of the market ,as well as, their ability to level dominance to the point of causing wide spread poverty. This is the same problem we have here in America. The huge corporations own our government through lobbing and entwined interests of our leaders . They continue to force trade laws on us that are causing poverty and destroying avenues of financial independence among us, the children of these same colonists.

However, in this century we do not have such a recourse as these early protesters. The US Army with modern war technology can not be gotten around. This army has been openly displayed to Americans in a message to intimidate them. The US army's allegiance is to the big corporations that control our government. The message has been clear with media lap dogs making sure we know all about homeland terrorists and how great tasars work and how many FEMA camps are ready to go. Lock and Load boys, Lock and Load.

Anyone destroying Walmart or Haliburton's property or standing in their way in any way would not escape death or imprisonment period. The modern day Tea-Party yesterday didn't cause any punitive actions on the aggressors as did the loss of the merchandise in the original tea party. Similarly, our disdain and the consequent detriment to our lives is of no interest to those in power and will simply be forgotten. I haven't even heard that anyone in power even had anything to say about it or what they thought it meant. It seems to be much to do about nothing in their view. What's new? Liberal media has set out to cast disparagement. Which was well earned in many instances. The racism ruined it.

Similarly, we are supposed to be being helped by tax relief. I can tell ya from most people's point of view this is just more of the same. What's so great about getting temporary tax cuts on wages that don't cover a minimum standard of life. Oh boy, and anyone who has been unemployed for a while probably won't be receiving any tax cuts because they had no income. The same people suffering the most will get zip. AGAIN. How many ways can one government say they don't give a damn and won't be doing anything.?? We need jobs with living wages. We need to be able to compete in the economy which we live in. It's simple. Is our government interested in this? Apparently not.

Mary (not verified) 15 years 9 weeks ago

I am curious to hear your viewpoint on a few issues if at all possible. I have a sister who is very right-wing and actually appears to be losing her sensibilities a little bit. She claims the original Boston Tea Party was actually a revolt partially against the Bank of England, and now England is in worse shape than the U.S. I don't follow her train of thought on that one at all, nor do I understand her claim that the revolt was against the Bank of England. Her big issue on our current economic situation is that The Fed caused the economic crisis, is unconstitutional because the responsibility to coin money is that of Congress and no one else, and the government should be coining our money and lending it to the taxpayers interest-free. I am so sick of hearing about this. Every time any issue comes up on the economy, she reverts to these claims and can see no practical solutions outside of this. Does anyone out there have any thoughts on this? It seems to be a fairly widespread belief amongst these people that it is all The Fed's fault, nothing to do with Bush's "Ownership Society" failure or anything actually relevant or practical. Has anyone else heard this from The Right recently? Is this another bit of propaganda Fox News is perpetuating or where is it coming from? Cheers, Thom and fans - love the show!

Textynnn (not verified) 15 years 9 weeks ago

Yes Thom i would like to hear more about this Fed thing. I do not understand why we are supposedly paying interest on money that is just being created on Printing machines. The Fed is getting interest on this money as if they earned it through goods or services. Printing is not all that expensive so we must just be honoring this newly pressed money as real money. How can this be??? How can this work???

I thought that was what the Tea Parties were going to be about. I was surprised after the fact when it was really about other things. HuffingtonPost had a picture saying that a sign saying the Fed caused this Depression was one of the most inflammatory or whatever they called that article. When I wrote and said simply that I thought they did have something to do with it, they wouldn't even post it. Well I don't think the Fed caused the current Recession/Depression by themselves, but it seems kinda weird we are paying huge taxes to them just for a print job.

Glen Tomkins (not verified) 15 years 8 weeks ago

Mercantilism returns

What we call "mercantilism" wasn't really a coherent, thought-out general theory of economics, but rather the work of many thinkers who were individually basically trying to justify one particular commercial arrangement. Economics as an actual social science, an academic discipline that seeks objective understanding, as opposed to simply justifying the path to wealth of one particular patron, began with the work of Adam Smith and others of his era, as a reaction to these mercantilist apologists.

But wealthy patrons, and the attraction of justifying their ways to man, did not disappear from the face of the earth just because Smith et al completely discredited the mercantilists two centuries ago. They're back! Sure, the signature theme of the Chicago School, free trade, would seem to put them on the side of Adam Smith contra the mercantilists. But somehow, in the actual practice of applying their theories to particualr situations, and the tribe of Friedman has been very aggressive at applying themselves, fr a fee, wherever there are wealthy interests that are in danger of not having absolute economic and political control of events, every other political and economic arrangement ends up being highly non-free except the ability of their patron to exploit everyone else on the map. I'm sure these people would have been very much at home working for the East India Company.

The Chicago School of Economics is mercantilism on steroids, mercantilism militant. As usual, the label on the bottle is highly misleading.

dmbeaster (not verified) 15 years 8 weeks ago

A somewhat rough analogy. There was little difference between big business and government in that time period -- the crown deliberately sanctioned monopolies in order to enhance its own cut from the deal. The government was basically a partner in the East Indies Company and adopted laws and tax policy to promote its partnership with private investors. Tax policy and crown monopolies ended up being aspects of the same thing.

So a revolt against the East Indies Company and associated tax policies on tea was clearly an act primarily against the crown as opposed to primarily an attack on a large corporation. The WalMart analogy falls apart if the attempt is made to distinguish the Boston Tea Party as not an attack on government and only on a large corporation.

BigDuck (not verified) 15 years 8 weeks ago

@Andrew: You're trying to turn an anti-monopoly concern into an anti-government one. Of course the British government was involved. All monopolies are either created, enabled, and/or enforced by government. Whether in 18th century Britain, Mussolini's Italy, or modern America, corporations use the government to further their ends, even if they are not in the best interests of the population.

We allow people to drive cars, but we have speed limits and stop signs to reduce harm. We allow guns, but we frown on using them to make bank withdrawals. Similarly, we'd like some changes in law to enable the obvious benefits of corporations while reducing their harm.

@dmbeaster: "little difference between big business and government in that time period" -- or during the last administration. I'm glad you agree that government was the problem in our economic disaster. I think you could say that we had our tea party last November 4th, when we threw Republicans, not tea, into the harbor.

Compare the pictures of the tiny tea party crowds with Obama's enormous campaign rallies, the Grant Park victory rally, and of course, the 1.8 million in Washington for the Inauguration.


Jimes's picture
Jimes 13 years 51 weeks ago

o no

TimFromLA 13 years 42 weeks ago

Well? So much for No More King by Schoolhouse Rock

invisigoth's picture
invisigoth 11 years 44 weeks ago

in a historical debate with a tea partier after posting this story on FB. His reply...

Context is an integral to understanding. For example, Thomas Hartman is an ultra-liberal talk radio host and writer who has penned a number of books arguing alternate views of various historical events. So, clearly historical accuracy is ...not his primary agenda.

Another example might be viewing the Boston Tea Party as an isolated incident or as some turning point where Americans finally pushed backs against corporate greed, rather than looking at it in the larger context of events prior to and afterward.

The Boston Tea Party was undertaken by a group called the Sons of Liberty who formed in opposition to British taxation without representation, initially in the form of the 1765 Stamp Act; Then against the Townshend Acts; This group's actual motto was, "no taxation without representation.". The Tea Act came in 1773 (which both removed duties from East India co. Tea and imposed a small tax on colonists) and after the Boston Tea Party, Britain responded with the Coercive Acts/ Intolerable Acts which effectively eroded colonial self-rule and imposed what was essentially British martial law.

While the Boston Tea Party, while very much lashing out at a multinational monopoly, it was also one more example in a long list of British infractions against colonial liberty. The East India Co. Was suffering some fiscal problems and facing probable bankruptcy at the time. The Tea Act was a government bailout of the corporation much more akin to the TARP bailout or the "Cash for Clunkers" bailout. All ate equally deplorable actions in which the government legislates to directly enrich large corporations.

Hartman's essay isolates the incident from its historical context only to further his political agenda.

(p.s. Lexington and concord had nothing to do with the East India Co. And everything to do with escalation of militia activity in response to the large increase of British forces placed in and around the Boston Area to enforce the intolerable acts.)

I agree with you, Todd regarding greed and corporate corruption. I'd like to add to the list partisan ism and governmental corruption.

I just chimed in to clarify a slanted history lesson. Then again, maybe ignorance is bliss I dont think he read the entire story from Thom. I dont have time right now to retort; anyon ecare to have fun with this?

rohuj's picture
rohuj 7 years 9 weeks ago

Very nice article. I am doing a research paper for my US History class about the Gilded Age and a lot of the information here will be useful as background info. The University of Houston has another article on this which covers the Gilded Age, I will post the link below if your readers find that useful.


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