Dangerous Ideas, Pt. 2

I was thinking today about the Boston Tea Party again, long after class, and I pulled out the school’s history textbook.  It talks about the Tea Party of 1773, when regular Bostonians (badly and improbably) dressed as Mohawk Indians seized the British East India Company’s three ships in Boston Harbor, and emptied the tea into the harbor.

The newspapers had been railing for months about the Tea Act of 1773, which gave the BEIC the right to sell tea directly from the plantations of China and India to England’s American colonies and elsewhere.  The Tea Act cut the merchant middlemen in the colonies out of the lucrative business of selling tea and other Indian- and-Chinese-made goods to American colonists.  And the Tea Act tariff on tea was so low that the BEIC could still undercut American merchants.

Where did the American merchants get tea?

They bought it from BEIC — the Wal-Mart and Yellow Truck line of its day.  American ships couldn’t go to the East Indies and make a profit; the BEIC did it by running specialized ships called Indiamen, and American vessels couldn’t have out-competed the BEIC on cargo, speed of trip, etc., etc., or, ultimately, on wholesale price of the goods that finally arrived in America.

So I have to wonder…

Would the average colonial American have stood up to fight against cheaper tea if the only newspapers in the colonies were loudly shouting from the roofs about what an injustice it was?  How would American have recognized that the average citizen stood to pay fewer taxes and lower taxes due to the Tea Act of 1773, when every newspaper in the colonies stood ready to proclaim that it was a lie, a damned lie, and furthermore that it was mere statistics?

How would the average colonists have wrapped their heads around the concept that the media of the time (namely, the press), was run by the same merchants and business owners that ran the big cities; who worked hand-in-glove with the smugglers who brought in tax-free rum and slaves, who worked hand in glove with the plantation owners that grew the indigo, cotton, and corn that serviced the colonies and brought in the hard currency that paid for the tea; and that this whole crew of folks — merchants, ship’s captains and ship owners, and plantation proprietors — were ALSO the only people with the right to vote.

Which meant that the wealthiest 5% of the colonies’ citizenry, and them all alone, ran the media, ran the cities, ran the farms, and ran the pocket governments and miniature private navies, and the militias, and did all the voting.

Frankly, it’s a wonder it took them until July of 1776 to vote for independence.    What a bunch of arrogant mini-princes our Founding Fathers must have been.

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  1. Hey Andrew,

    Great timing with these two ‘Dangerous Ideas’ posts; the Talons have just made it through our treatment of the American Revolution as a precursor to our study of Canadian Confederation (1867), and found a similar, “unofficial” reading of the times to fit most accurately with our current – and in certain situations, historical – appreciation for the abuses those few in power wage against the many without it.

    We spent a great deal of time looking at our current political landscape, and the amount of faith most young people have in our leaders, major media outlets, and general level of political dialogue in our cities, country, and the rest of the developed world (young people, as it turns out, are a cynical bunch). In this light it becomes increasingly difficult to ‘buy’ the narrative of America’s Founding Fathers as anything other than “arrogant mini-princes,” and our exam for the unit – an open computer response to quotes from Sam and John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Glenn Beck, political cartoons, current and from the Revolutionary period, etc – reflects this modern perspective on history, and the corruption inherent in (even democratic) power.

    I will be putting together a post to share the nature of the test later this week, or next, but in the meantime, here are some examples from the Test (redubbed, A Showcase of Learning, to suit our newly minted class constitution):


    As a connoisseur of all things political and current, it was exciting to see the classic tale of American Revolution, and the formation of our modern democracies, as a continuation of this Few/Many subjugation, rather than the triumph of throwing off of monarchical shackles, as is so often taught in our schools. We read a chapter or two of Howard Zinn’s, as part of our look at the colonial period, and as I said in introduction to his work: even if we look at this interpretation as potentially biased, it is equally as ‘fair’ as the heroic outlook on our past, as are each of our disparate interpretations of history. If we can teach history such that it is not so important that we agree upon the narrative of the past, but encourage our students to take their own stake in its telling, I think we are on the right track.

    I’ll be in touch, as we look toward our own country’s founding in the next week or so – there may be a great opportunity to discuss some of this between our two classes.



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