Sam Adams on the Boston Tea Party Tax Rebellion

When I attend the Anarchist Bookfairs in San Francisco, one of my favorite things to do is to leaf through the collections of old, yellowing, radical pamphlets and booklets. It’s fun in its own right, if you’re a weirdo like me, but occasionally I’ll also find something worth sharing here, like a Catholic Worker booklet with an essay on tax resistance by Ammon Hennacy for instance.

Last time, I picked up a collection of writings by American revolutionary Samuel Adams that was published in by the American communist publisher International Publishers (remarkably still in business!)

Sam Adams was at the center of the radical wing of American revolutionists who were pushing tax resistance, boycotts, shunning and intimidation of tax collectors and tax compliers, and actions like the Boston Tea Party, in order to forcefully assert American independence from the taxing power of a British parliament in which Americans were not represented.

Though it is fashionable these days to assert that the Boston Tea Party wasn’t about taxes (because the tea that went overboard had actually been at least partially subsidized and exempted from levies as a way of foisting it off on the colonies), Adams astutely saw that such policies were part and parcel of the unjust taxation of America:

[B]y acts of Parliament, the colonies are prohibited from importing commodities of the growth or manufacture of Europe, except from Great Britain, saving a few articles. This gives the advantage to Great Britain of raising the price of her commodities, and is equal to a tax.

Here is Adams speaking out against the tax on tea:

We cannot surely have forgot the accursed designs of a most detestable set of men, to destroy the Liberties of America as with one blow, by the Stamp-Act; nor the noble and successful efforts we then made to divert the impending stroke of ruin aimed at ourselves and our posterity. The Sons of Liberty on the , a Day which ought to be for ever remembered in America, animated with a zeal for their country then upon the brink of destruction, and resolved, at once to save her, or like Samson, to perish in the ruins, exerted themselves with such distinguished vigor, as made the house of Dogon to shake from its very foundation; and the hopes of the lords of the Philistines even while their hearts were merry, and when they were anticipating the joy of plundering this continent, were at that very time buried in the pit they had digged. The People shouted; and their shout was heard to the distant end of this Continent. In each Colony they deliberated and resolved, and every Stampman trembled; and swore by his Maker, that he would never execute a commission which he had so infamously received

We cannot have forgot, that at the very Time when the stamp-act was repealed, another was made in which the Parliament of Great-Britain declared, that they had right and authority to make any laws whatever binding on his Majesty’s subjects in America — How far this declaration can be consistent with the freedom of his Majesty’s subjects in America, let any one judge who pleases — In consequence of such right and authority claim’d, the commons of Great Britain very soon fram’d a bill and sent it up to the Lords, wherein they pray’d his Majesty to accept of their grant of such a part as they were then pleas’d, by virtue of the right and authority inherent in them to make, of the property of his Majesty’s subjects in America by a duty upon paper, glass, painter’s colours and tea. And altho’ these duties are in part repeal’d, there remains enough to answer the purpose of administration, which was to fix the precedent. We remember the policy of Mr. Grenville, who would have been content for the present with a pepper corn establish’d as a revenue in America: If therefore we are voluntarily silent while the single duty on tea is continued, or do any act, however innocent, simply considered, which may be construed by the tools of administration, (some of whom appear to be fruitful in invention) as an acquiescence in the measure, we are in extreme hazard; if ever we are so distracted as to consent to it, we are undone.

Nor can we ever forget the indignity and abuse with which America in general, and this province and town in particular, have been treated, by the servants & officers of the crown, for making a manly resistance to the arbitrary measures of administration, in the representations that have been made to the men in power at home, who have always been dispos’d to believe every word as infallible truth. For opposing a threatned Tyranny, we have been not only called, but in effect adjudged Rebels & Traitors to the best of Kings, who has sworn to maintain and defend the Rights and Liberties of his Subjects — We have been represented as inimical to our fellow subjects in Britain, because we have boldly asserted those Rights and Liberties, wherewith they, as Subjects, are made free. — When we complain’d of this injurious treatment; when we petition’d, and remonstrated our grievances: What was the Consequence? Still further indignity; and finally a formal invasion of this town by a fleet and army in the memorable year .

Our masters, military and civil, have since that period been frequently chang’d; and possibly some of them, from principles merely political, may of late have look’d down upon us with less sternness in their countenances than a Bernard or a …: But while there has been no essential alteration of measures, no real redress of grievances, we have no reason to think, nay we deceive ourselves if we indulge a thought that their hearts are changed. We cannot entertain such an imagination, while the revenue, or as it is more justly stiled, the tribute is extorted from us: while our principal fortress, within the environs of the town, remains garrison’d by regular troops, and the harbour is invested by ships of war. The most zealous advocates for the measures of administration, will not pretend to say, that these troops and these ships are sent here to protect America, or to carry into execution any one plan, form’d for the honor or advantage of Great-Britain. It would be some alleviation, if we could be convinced that they were sent here with any other design than to insult us.

How absurd then must the addresses which have been presented to some particular gentlemen, who have made us such friendly visits, appear in the eyes of men of sense abroad! Or, if any of them have been so far impos’d upon, as to be induc’d to believe that such addresses speak the language of the generality of the people, how ridiculous must the generality of the people appear! On the last supposition, would not a sensible reader of those addresses, upon comparing them with the noble resolutions which this town, this province and this continent have made against slavery, and the just and warm resentment they have constantly shown against every man whatever, who had a mind sordid and base enough, for the sake of lucre, or the preservation of a commission, or from any other consideration, to submit to be made even a remote instrument in bringing and entailing it upon a free and a brave people; upon such a comparison, would he not be ready to conclude, “that we had forgot the reasons which urged us, with unexampled unanimity a few years ago — that our zeal for the public good had worn out, before the homespun cloaths which it had caused us to have made — and, that by our present conduct we condemned our own late successful example! — Although this is altogether supposition, without any foundation in truth, yet, so our enemies wish it may be in reality, and so they intend it shall be — To prevent it, let us adhere to first principles.

Adams led those opposed to the tax on tea to declare “That whoever shall directly or indirectly countenance this attempt [to send and collect duties on East India Company tea to America], or in any wise aid or abet in unloading, receiving, or vending the tea sent or to be sent out by the East India Company while it remains subject to the payment of a duty here is an enemy to America.” and to decide “that a committee be immediately chosen to wait on those gentlemen, who it is reported are appointed by the East India Company to receive and sell said tea, and to request them from a regard to their own characters and the peace and good order of this town and province immediately to resign their appointment.”

Here’s his description of the Boston Tea Party:

My Dear Sir, I am now to inform you of as remarkable an event as has yet happened since the commencement of our struggle for American liberty. The meeting of the town of Boston, an account of which I enclosed in my last, was succeeded by the arrival of the ship Falmouth, Captain Hall, with 114 chests of the East India Company’s tea, on the last. the people met in Faneuil hall, without observing the rules prescribed by law for calling them together; and although that hall is capable of holding 1200 or 1300 men, they were soon obliged for the want of room to adjourn to the Old South meeting-house; where were assembled upon this important occasion 5000, some say 6000 men, consisting of the respectable inhabitants of this and the adjacent towns. The business of the meeting was conducted with decency, unanimity, and spirit. Their resolutions you will observe in an enclosed printed paper. It naturally fell upon the correspondence for the town of Boston to see that these resolutions were carried into effect. This committee, finding that the owner of the ship after she was unloaded of all her cargo except the tea, was by no means disposed to take the necessary steps for her sailing back to London, thought it best to call in the committees of Charlestown, Cambridge, Brookline, Roxbury, and Dorchester, all of which towns are in the neighbourhood of this, for their advice and assistance. After a free conference and due consideration, they dispersed. The next day, being the people met again at the Old South church, and having ascertained the owner, they compelled him to apply at the custom house for a clearance for his ship to London with the tea on board, and appointed ten gentlemen to see it performed; after which they adjourned till . The people then met, and Mr. Rotch informed them that he had according to their injunction applied to the collector of the customs for a clearance, and received in answer from the collector that he could not consistently with his duty grant him a clearance, until the ship should be discharged of the dutiable article on board. It must be here observed that Mr. Rotch had before made a tender of the tea to the consignees, being told by them that it was not practicable for them at that time to receive the tea, by reason of a constant guard kept upon it by armed men; but that when it might be practicable, they would receive it. He demanded the captain’s bill of lading and the freight, both which they refused him, against which he entered a regular protest. The people then required Mr. Rotch to protest the refusal of the collector to grant him a clearance under these circumstances, and thereupon to wait upon the governor for a permit to pass the castle in her voyage to London, and then adjourned till the afternoon. They then met, and after waiting till sun-setting, Mr. Rotch returned, and acquainted them that the governor had refused to grant him a passport, thinking it inconsistent with the laws and his duty to the king, to do it until the ship should be qualified, notwithstanding Mr. Rotch had acquainted him with the circumstances above mentioned. You will observe by the printed proceedings, that the people were resolved that the tea should not be landed, but sent back to London in the same bottom; and the property should be safeguarded while in port, which they punctually performed. It cannot therefore be fairly said that the destruction of the property was in their contemplation. It is proved that the consignees, together with the collector of the customs, and the governor of the province, prevented the safe return of the East India Company’s property (the danger of the sea only excepted) to London. The people finding all their endeavours for this purpose thus totally frustrated, dissolved the meeting, which had consisted by common estimation of at least seven thousand men, many of whom had come from towns at the distance of twenty miles. In less than four hours every chest of tea on board three ships which had by this time arrived, three hundred and forty-two chests, or rather the contents of them, was thrown into the sea, without the least injury to the vessels or any other property.