Opinion | How History Turns Riots Into Tea Parties

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The Bostonians roundly abused the soldiers. One was informed the crowd intended to tar and feather him. They would afterward affix his head to the highest post in town. Others were pelted with stones and dirt and pieces of brick, dragged by the hair, punched in the face, struck with bludgeons. Or so they reported. The insults flew in both directions. “They returned,” according to a former judge, “compliments for compliments, and every blow was answered by a bruise.” Townspeople were abused and assaulted, women harassed. Bloodshed ensued, as might be expected between an armed force and a people who felt they had nothing to lose other than their self-esteem, their freedom and their future.

Already the British knew the drill: A bonfire would flare; a whistle would sound. And out of nowhere 400 or 500 youngsters would materialize. On the night of March 5, 1770, they pelted soldiers with ice and oyster shells, bricks and broken glass bottles. No one thought to dance naked in the street — it was winter, in Boston — but they could hardly have been more provocative. “Damn you, fire, fire if you dare,” they taunted. “Damn them, where are they, knock them down,” a soldier was heard to swear.

Ultimately someone pulled a trigger. Five townspeople lay dead. Blood stained the street. A Black American was the first victim. For the most part the soldiers would be acquitted of wrongdoing. They had acted in self-defense. More important, the scuffle turned not into the Boston Riot or the Boston Uprising, but the Boston Massacre.

Several years later, after long December days of town meetings, after endless speeches and equally protracted negotiations, over a thousand colonists headed, early on a damp evening, to Griffin’s Wharf. Three hundred and forty-two troublesome chests of East India tea sat aboard the ships on which they had sailed from England. Hatches were opened, holds entered, chests hoisted on deck. In a few hours, every leaf of tea steeped in Boston Harbor. By 9 p.m. the town was still. Boston had not known a quieter night for some time.

No one was hurt. No gun was fired. No property other than the tea was damaged. The perpetrators cleaned up after themselves. In the aftermath, the surgical strike was referred to plainly as “the destruction of the tea.” To the indignant Massachusetts governor, it constituted nothing less than a “high handed riot.”

He had a point: There is a difference between burning a draft card or toppling a statue and tossing someone else’s goods overboard. This was an assault on property rather than on a symbol. Expertly choreographed, it qualified as a blatant act of vandalism. It was difficult to dress up, though John Adams would privately declare the dumping of the tea the grandest event since the dispute with Britain had begun. He thought it sublime.

To the occupiers it proved to be a particular mortification. The king demanded an immediate prosecution. It did not seem too much to ask: After all, thousands had watched the tea rain into the water, even if only several dozen men had actually boarded the ships. No one, however, seemed to have seen a thing. In all of Boston only one witness could be found — and he refused to testify unless transported out of the colony.

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