What the Boston Tea Party was really about?

It was the beginning of the ever present struggle between big elite corporate power vs. the interests of small colonial entrepreneurs.

As Gordon Wood, the great historian of the American Revolution remarked recently the original Tea Party was a rebellion not just against a tax but against government favoritism for a global corporation that it considered too big to fail.

With 17 million pounds of unsold tea languishing in the East India Company’s warehouses as other merchants’ teas glutted the market, there were rumors that the British government might even revoke the company’s charter and take over its management.

Instead, Parliament granted the company an exclusive license to sell tea; removed all duties; forfeited an annual payment the company had made to the government; and advanced a large loan.

Special perks and deals for big business friends while screwing the small business person… sound familiar?

In 1773, though, all these favors actually lowered the price of tea, underselling as well as excluding Dutch tea smugglers and American tea merchants. No wonder that “Poor Lord” North [King George III’s prime minister] thought he was doing the colonists a favor” by saving the company from bankruptcy and giving it a monopoly in America, as Wood explains.

A modest tea tax remained, offending colonists’ stand against taxation without representation. But Wood — crediting Benjamin Woods Labaree, the authority on the Boston Tea Party — notes that “Giving the monopoly was probably more important in arousing the anger of many small New England merchants than the tea tax.”

Moreover, the few locals who were licensed to carry the company’s tea included relatives of Massachusetts’ royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson, who ordered ships not to accommodate populist pressure by leaving the harbor without first unloading their tea.

“Samuel Adams and his radicals were looking for an issue to exploit,” Wood notes, and Hutchinson’s nepotism gave them and local merchants the hot button they needed to turn out the men who actually stormed the ships and dumped the tea.

Today, we need to be mindful of the corrupt co-conspirators bedfellow of the mega-company and entrenched political power. That’s what revolutions are made of…

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