Submit or triumph
Last updated 12/12/2023 at 9:54am
I was a youngster in 1975-76, when the American Bicentennial celebrations were underway, and I was obsessed. I dove into the American Revolution with all the passion you might expect a 10-year-old to bring to, say, “Star Wars,” or some such. I have always been a history nerd.
I watched Disney’s “Johnny Tremain” in school, the kids cheering when the Minute Men ambushed and gunned down the Redcoats. Don’t imagine that happens anymore. I read the covers off of Esther Forbes’ novel, then moved on to her biography of Paul Revere.
My parents indulged me with repeated trips to Knott’s Berry Farm’s replica of Independence Hall, where I sat rapt, listening to an audio re-enactment of the debates over the Declaration of Independence. I held secret meetings of the Sons of Liberty in the loft of our cabin in Wrightwood, California.
Somehow, a half-century has roared by, and we’re coming up on the 250th anniversary of the events that created our nation.
On December 16, 1773, tax protests in Boston hit a tipping point that led inexorably to armed conflict, which would break out on April 19, 1775. The watershed event would go down in history as the Boston Tea Party.
Things had actually calmed down in the American colonies, after several years of protests over taxes imposed by the British Parliament without the consent of colonial legislatures. Parliament had (mostly) backed down. Then the British government tried to solve several problems at once — and made a major miscalculation. As the Massachusetts Historical Society recounts:
“In the spring of 1773, the East India Company had a large amount of surplus tea on hand. To aid the failing company, thwart the smuggling of Dutch tea, and reassert its authority to levy taxes on the colonies, Parliament authorized the Tea Act on 10 May 1773. Tea sold in America would carry no duty for the East India Company; instead, the tea would be taxed at the point of entry in colonial ports.”
The government expected no trouble over this. The amount of the tax was insignificant. The tea — which Americans consumed by the gallon — would be sold at a discount rate. Why would anybody protest over such a good deal?
The ploy was too clever by half, and American activists in every colony saw through it. There was a unified movement to refuse to allow the tea to be offloaded anywhere. On December 16, 40 men dressed up as Mohawk Indians marched down to Griffin Wharf in Boston, boarded three merchant ships, and dumped 342 chests of fin Bohea Tea into Boston Harbor.
This was no riot. The men who conducted the operation were mostly trained militiamen, and acted with discipline. No damage was done to the ships; the locks on the cargo holds that were broken to get at the tea were replaced, and the one man who tried to stuff some tea into his pockets was severely chastised.
When news of the Boston Tea Party made its way back across the Atlantic Ocean in a few weeks, King George III and his Parliament blew a gasket. This kind of disrespect of government authority could not be tolerated.
King George wrote to his minister Lord North:
“The die is now cast. The Colonies must submit or triumph.”
Parliament passed what they aptly titled the Coercive Acts to bring the colonies to heel. They shut down the port of Boston and sent troops to occupy the city under what was essentially martial law. The Americans called the legislation the Intolerable Acts. And they began to gather arms and to drill in anticipation of an armed confrontation.
It wasn’t long in coming. The colonies did not submit, and — after many years and terrible hardship — they triumphed, and the United States of America was born.
It’s worth commemorating such historical moments for their own sake — moments that created the world we live in. We history nerds love these occasions when the connection with the past feels particularly strong.
But beyond mere commemoration, anniversaries are opportunities to glean lessons from history.
When a government tries to trick or bribe its constituency into compliance, it’s stepping out onto a slippery slope. People don’t like being taken for fools, and if they’re already leery of a government’s actions, chicanery and false pretenses only make things worse.
Demanding respect and submission under threat or actual use of force may work in the short term. You can coerce and cow people into obedience for a time. But doing so sacrifices legitimacy, and grievances fester, exacerbated by humiliation. The result can be explosive. A government that forces a submit-or-triumph choice upon its own people is borrowing trouble.
That’s worth pondering on in our own troubled times — perhaps over a mug of hot tea. There are plenty of choices in Sisters, and at least you won’t be paying a sales tax on it.