Two hundred forty years ago today, December 16, 1773, to protest a tea tax that implied unlimited power on the part of Britain to tax the colonies, members of the Sons of Liberty boarded British ships and dumped 340 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. This protest was the first significant act of defiance in the American Revolution and is known as the Boston Tea Party.
Prior to this Tea Party, many colonists considered themselves proud Englishmen and believed that the increasingly tyrannical government was a corruption of Britain’s legacy of liberty, a problem that could be solved within the framework of British government. After all, their English forebears had produced the Magna Carta, the body of common law, and Parliament—elements of representative government that checked the power of the king.
But, with the passage of the Stamp Act (which taxed all formal documents), the Quartering Act (which gave British soldiers power to demand food and lodging from colonists), and like measures, colonists increasingly doubted the possibility of internal reforms. The final straw was the Tea Act of 1773, which granted the East India Company a monopoly on tea trade and preserved British taxes on tea, while implying that more taxes were to come.
Following the Boston Tea Party, Britain tightened its grip on the colonists by passing the Coercive Acts, which closed the port of Boston and denied Massachusetts the same self-government standards that the other colonies had. Soon thereafter, the Shot Heard Round the World was fired (by which side is unknown) at Lexington and Concord, and the Revolutionary War had begun.
During the war, the Founding Fathers, who were inspired by British philosopher John Locke’s ideas on individual rights, conceived of a new nation based on the principle that individuals possess the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Following the war, in 1789, the revolutionaries—Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and others—established a constitutional republic as the protector of these rights. The United States of America consequently became the freest and most prosperous nation in the history of the world.
Fast forward to the present. Again, liberty-minded Americans, opposing the expansion of rights-violating government policies, are looking to better aspects of the nation’s past. Rather than consistently protecting individual rights, government has been increasingly violating them for the alleged sake of the collective. These violations have caused (among other things) major financial crises—which the government has sought to “fix” with further rights violations in the form of bailouts funded by more taxation (direct or indirect). In 2009, CNBC analyst Rick Santelli famously condemned the government’s practice of punishing the fiscally responsible to reward the “bad behavior” of others. Santelli identified himself as “an Ayn Rander,” rightly drawing the connection between Rand’s advocacy of individualism over collectivism and that of the Founders. Santelli called for a new Tea Party and launched the movement that now—however inconsistent in its advocacy of individual rights—goes by that name.
Several months later, speaking at a Charlotte Tea Party rally, historian John David Lewis contrasted the individualism predominant in the Founders’ era and the collectivism rampant today:
Our so-called leaders . . . don’t see autonomous moral beings at all. They see only serfs, sniveling and whining, begging their masters for the scraps needed to survive, acting as a collective mob rather than as thinking individuals.
Look at yourselves . . . Do you see in your face, and in the face of the person next to you, the slave of a group, with no moral status, no rights and no liberties, who is bound from birth to serve? Or do you see an autonomous being with the right to live for his own sake?
Will you knuckle under and become a helpless dependent? Or will you stand tall and defend your right to your own life, your own liberty, your pursuit of your own individual happiness, and your own property?
It is time to stand up, to say no to the creed of dependence, to assert ourselves, to assert our own moral status, to defend our right to our own lives and property, and to make our voices heard.
Today let us celebrate the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party by defying the claim that individuals must sacrifice their liberties, their values, and their wealth to the collective. And let us praise the modern Tea Party movement to the extent that its participants uphold the individual rights of all Americans.
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- Ayn Rand: America’s Comeback Philosopher
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- The Boston Tea Party Opera: An Ode to the Spirit of American Independence
Wikimedia Commons Images: Boston Tea Party, Modern Tea Party