It Was Never About Liberty
If the U.S. is to represent freedom and equality, we must break with traditions, not uphold them
Americans all know the story of the Boston Tea Party: On December 16, 1773, a mob of patriots known as the Sons of Liberty, disguised in charcoal blackface and Indian dress, boarded a fleet of ships in Boston Harbor and destroyed a shipment of English tea. But what motivated the Sons of Liberty to cast a million (2018) dollars worth of tea into the water? It was the Tea Act, a tax increase that increased the cost of tea in the colonies. Right?
Well, no. It’s true the Tea Act prompted the Boston Tea Party, but not because it raised the price of tea — in fact, the Tea Act reduced the price of tea imported by the East India Trading Company. This is a part of the story most Americans don’t know; the Sons of Liberty were less patriots, motivated by English tyranny, than they were merchants, motivated by reduced revenues when British tea became cheaper than the smuggled Dutch tea they sold tax-free. John Hancock, who financed the Sons of Liberty and fomented the Boston Tea Party, was a shipping magnate of enormous wealth, much of it earned by smuggling tea. The Tea Act hit him where it counted — his wallet.
The Boston Tea Party is but one episode in a long American tradition: Justifying acts of profit-seeking by cloaking them in the rhetoric of freedom. In response to some capitalist-fueled injustice (a school shooting, or mass incarceration, or cuts to social services in exchange for military funding) many of us cry “This is not what America is.” In fact, throughout American history, freedom and liberty have taken a back seat to revenue and profit. Americans who truly value liberty must understand it is breaking with our traditions, not honoring them, to put human rights ahead of profit.
In dressing as Indians and applying blackface, the Sons of Liberty evoked two populations denied basic human rights in Colonial America. By 1773, indigenous Americans had been pushed off of land along most of the East Coast, replaced by European colonists. Often this was done via treaty, but treaty negotiations were always backed by threat of violence, and where treaties failed, colonists used force.