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Tea Party Report

Taking liberties with American history

A genuine mob had gathered between the Old South Meeting House and the Shake Shack in downtown Boston. I worked my way to the edge of the crush as the rabble poured down Milk Street to the harbor, baying for satisfaction. It was good-spirited, of course—just some patriots and tourists rallying for a reenactment of the Boston Tea Party on the occasion of its semiquincentennial last December—but you could sense, in the parade’s thickness and ambient inebriation, the potential for death and destruction.

Down at the wharf, crowded bleachers flanked a jumbo LED screen that broadcast the action taking place across the water. The destruction commenced. Tiny figures in colonial attire, spotlit yellow and magenta, scuttled over the decks of replica ships, hacking at wooden chests of tea. Dark leaves cascaded over the rails. After the tedious work of half an hour—in 1773 it had taken roughly three—the last crate drifted inland with the tide.

Then the Royal Governor’s messenger arrived and proclaimed the harbor closed, yelling, “God save the king!” Undaunted, the onlookers booed and then chanted their retort: “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” Then His Majesty’s Tenth Regiment of Foot came marching in and blocked the quay. From my front row spot in the press corral, I could see the whites of their eyes. And I felt, I admit, a twinge of alarm when the redcoat commander gave the order to fix bayonets. A twinge, perhaps, not unlike the one our forefathers felt when facing British steel.

Like professional sports, historical reenactments are presented as a sacred and somehow apolitical ritual of national unity.

The Destruction of the Tea is but one of the hallmarks of the Revolutionary pageant that Bostonians take it upon themselves to reenact. The Boston Massacre, commemorated each March, marked its semiquincentennial anniversary in 2020 with a costumed street brawl shortly before the Covid-19 lockdown. In the coming years, reenactors will also restage the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, culminating with the semiquincentennial of the Declaration of Independence in 2026, when the city will pull out all the stops to extol what little may remain of these nominally United States.

This is a reprise of the Freedom Trail the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the bicentennial fest of the 1970s. In fact, you have never seen history like this. Because these proceedings, planned in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the presidency of Donald Trump, are drunk on revisionism.

While the tea went in the drink, a woman in period ruffles informed the crowd that the original Sons of Liberty had smudged their faces with lamp soot to disguise their features. That’s one way to put it—another is that they dressed as Mohawk Indians in a seminal act of redface. In 2023, they just wore wigs and tights. Understandably, the organizers stopped short of representing what would have been a truly offensive spectacle, but to phrase the truth so politely felt like dissembling. The MAGA contingent, albeit not much in evidence that night, wouldn’t balk at styling the Founding Fathers as something closer to Navy SEALs than minstrels. Which tells you something: when celebrating our national myths, many liberals agree with those on the right that it’s rude to pick at certain scabs of American racism. On these historic occasions, patriotic sentiment runs deep.

The festival to commemorate the Boston Tea Party began earlier that afternoon when a troupe of reenactors assembled in Faneuil Hall to present “A Protest in Principle: A Retrospective on Revolution.” From the press seats on the balcony, behind a monstrous carved eagle, I watched as Boston’s chief of economic opportunity and inclusion, Segun Idowu, took to the podium. He acknowledged that the building in which we were gathered had been built by a wealthy slave merchant that still bears his name (at least for now), “reminding us,” Idowu said, “of where we have come from and how far we have left to go.”

Winding back the clock, Idowu recounted the tense bicentennial of 1973, when Richard Nixon still reigned. Next, actors staged an abridged version of the 1873 commemoration of the Boston Tea Party, a series of speeches by Black and woman suffragists who pointed out the deferred promise of liberty and justice for all. Then, a troupe of bewigged orators transported us to 1773, performing a highlight reel of meetings held to determine what was to be done with the “detested tea” moldering in the Dartmouth’s hold. The rowdy audience cheered when Paul Revere took the floor, hissed and chortled when British loyalists tried to speak, and treated the hapless Mr. Roach, the Dartmouth’s owner, with disrespect usually reserved for the villains of pro wrestling.

The next event, the “Meeting of the Body of the People,” was a few cobblestone blocks away at the Old South Meeting House. I wove through gaggles of tourists guided by enthusiastic men in tricorn hats. A Bruins game had just let out, and I pressed against a flow of hockey fans in jerseys searching for a bar (perhaps the Sam Adams tasting room, adjacent Faneuil Hall, or the Democracy + Distraction Beer Garden across the road) in which to blot out their 2–1 loss to the New York Rangers.

I passed a wheel-shaped marker for the Boston Massacre set into the pavement. The first martyr of the American Revolution is traditionally considered to be Crispus Attucks, a ropemaker and sailor of mixed African and Indigenous ancestry, who, angry about British soldiers competing with American dockworkers, allegedly grabbed a Redcoat’s bayonet and was killed. The reenactment in 2020 didn’t name the victims. Five actors, one of them Black, placed white roses on the marker.

A MAGA head might groan at the most dramatic creative liberty taken during the reenactment of the Boston Tea Party on December 16. The gathering at the meeting house was narrated by an actress playing Phillis Wheatley, the first person of African descent living in the New World to publish a book. It turns out the Dartmouth’s cargo included the first printing of her collected poems (safely offloaded before the Sons of Liberty did their duty). The actor noted that Wheatley, not being white, a man, or a property owner, wouldn’t have been allowed in the meetinghouse that fateful night when loyalists and colonists debated for their livelihoods. In fact, enslaved as a domestic by a merchant’s wife, she was herself considered property.

Wheatley’s story is worth saving from the depths. But we should rescue all of it. Yes, the poet was barred from democracy, shunned from elite society, and while she was eventually freed, Wheatley died poor. One Wheatley poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” describes the poet’s good fortune at being taken to the New World, where she was introduced to Christ. Black progressives criticized her as having “Uncle Tom syndrome,” although for contemporary writers, Wheatley concealed many brilliant barbs in the house style of whiteness.

Simply writing Wheatley into the room is a form of well-intentioned revisionism, but this liberal impulse to raise up unheard voices begins to resemble the conservative insistence that America was never a racist country. By all means, let’s hear unheard voices. But let’s not omit how deeply their subjugation marks the history of the United States. Add a marginalized poet, subtract redface, and what you have isn’t history, but a do-over: a wishful reenactment.

But then, if history came unvarnished, it might not feel so good to chant “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” Like professional sports, historical reenactments are presented as a sacred and somehow apolitical ritual of national unity. Actual history can’t be such a thing; it is an inherently political renegotiation. We’re relitigating history all the time, revising past events to suit our present wishes.

World War II was the great war, Vietnam was the tragic one, the war on terror is only good if you like your wars endless. In this reductionist lineage, the American Revolution, animated by the struggle against tyranny, figures as our original good war. Here are the noble politics that “Make America Great Again” and constitutional originalists imagine they refer to. For MAGA, as for the proto-Trumpist conservatives who christened themselves the Tea Party in 2009, the Destruction of the Tea is a rallying point for a largely white, male, landowning caucus.

From the Minutemen on the Arizona border to the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers on the D.C. streets, a sweetened notion of the American Revolution provides a fig leaf for extremism. A not insignificant number of January 6 rioters cite fringe concepts like sovereign citizenship to claim that, being more American than the American government, they’re unbound by its laws. A happy version of history admits the possibility of “true” and “false” patriots, as if bigotry and violence are civil differences of opinion. Flak vests and rifles are real enough. For some, though, patriotism can be a LARP.

On January 6, less poetic but brutally effective orators likewise compelled the masses to act against their own class interests.

Before hitting the Freedom Trail back in Boston, I ducked into a Starbucks, where, amid the swirl of living history, a group of Tea Party reenactors ordered coffee. Revolutionary fervor made us a nation of java drinkers, and it stuck. Yes, choice in consumption, as ever, is our patriotic right and duty, which makes property crime our greatest protest. At the Old State House, adjacent the site of the Boston Massacre, a historical exhibition on view in December placed the Tea Party in the company of other incidents of property destruction as protest. These included the Weather Underground’s 1974 bombing of the Gulf Tower in Pittsburgh, a comparatively polite act of terrorism, intended to punish a multinational oil company. It’s an apt parallel to the action taken against the British East India Company, another callous multinational. (Recently reconstituted as a much-diminished lifestyle brand, the EIC is an official semiquincentennial sponsor, along with Liberty Mutual and the bar Cheers.) In fact, the Underground took pains to avoid casualties. The same can’t be said of the most recent protest in the exhibit: the January 6 riot. As with pro wrestling, the fun stops when people get killed.

There’s another, deeper affinity, though, between January 6 and December 16. “The Boston Tea Party is remembered in the popular imagination as a protest against taxes,” writes Peter Andreas in Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America. “But it actually had more to do with smuggling interests than tax burdens.” Colonial businessmen had considerable investment in the illegal Dutch tea trade. The march to the wharf, then, was part of a campaign by colonial elites looking to supplant British ones—a tussle between factions of the ruling class. The working class, plenty antagonized by the British for their own reasons, got swept up in the excitement. As Howard Zinn points out in A People’s History of the United States, “We have here a forecast of the long history of American politics, the mobilization of lower-class energy by upper-class politicians, for their own purposes.” But the Founding Fathers worried that the mob, thus inspired, might then turn against their property. The folksy rhetoric of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, a pamphlet on the philosophy of just government, helped solve this problem: as Zinn writes, it was “specific enough in its listing of grievances to charge people with anger against the British, vague enough to avoid class conflict among the rebels, and stirring enough to build patriotic feeling for the resistance movement.”

On January 6, less poetic but brutally effective orators likewise compelled the masses to act against their own class interests. Trump tweeted that the rally in D.C. was going to “be wild,” in terms applicable to both riots and keggers, while “America’s Mayor” Rudy Giuliani called for “trial by combat.” (Giuliani later clarified he’d been referencing “that very famous documentary about fictitious medieval England,” meaning Game of Thrones.) These wet dog whistles primed the crowd for a melee in the vague style of a Boston Towne street fight, all in the name of freedom. Yes, it was not Trump who had been wronged but the people. It was not Trump the Democrats wanted to jail but all of us. But when the shit hit the rotunda walls, these elites were nowhere to be found, observing their supporters from the safety of their bunkers. Trump neglected to pardon any of the rioters as a lame duck; he has promised to do so if reelected.

From the jump, the mythology of January 6 was instrumentalized to advance certain talking points. Many of those indicted have spoken of being true patriots, fighting today’s tyrants. A few say they regret their actions. Trump’s critics, meanwhile, continue to extol the riot as an outpouring of white nationalism and ideological hate from an aggrieved and heavily armed minority. This spring, both Donald Trump and Al Sharpton, presumably for different ends, compared pro-Palestinian protesters occupying university buildings to the Capitol rioters, reducing both events to bouts of vandalism, shorn of historical context, with no higher cause. If we learn from history—a big if—it would be wise to keep January 6 in perspective, acknowledging the ways that, aside from skewing heavily white and male, those charged for their conduct at the capital largely reflect the country as a whole with respect to military experience, education, and income. Some leaders, some bigots, some brawlers, some suckers, some tourists. Hope and rage for all.

Or else, imagine the semiquincentennial reprise of the siege, in January 2271: revelers in tactical gear and Hawaiian shirts stewing on the Capitol grounds, waving American flags; booing and hissing as caricatures of Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi scurry to safety; cheers of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” when the first window breaks and the crowd files inside the House chamber; cries of “Huzzah!” when an actor portraying the QAnon Shaman ascends the dais. He adjusts his raccoon-skin cap and tells the story of Ashli Babbitt, shot by police in these very halls—the Second American Revolution’s first martyr—a veteran, and a woman. Rows of helmeted Capitol Police reenactors stand uneasily behind steel barricades, staunch on the wrong side of history. The fear on their faces looks real.