December 16 is the 243rd Anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. The British taxed tea, the colonists got mad, dressed up like Indians, and tossed the tea into the ocean—that’s a fair summary of what most Americans know about the Boston Tea Party. It was, we are told, a mere tax protest that shows how Americans like to hang on to their hard-earned money.
If this is the extent of our knowledge of the Tea Party, we are missing the key point of this protest and its lessons for today.
Although the Tea Act of 1773 actually reduced the price of tea, the colonists felt compelled to take action to prevent Parliament from setting a revenue precedent. Under commercial rules, a ship entering a colonial harbor was not permitted to leave without offloading its cargo. If the tea was offloaded, a duty would be paid; if it was not offloaded within twenty days, the cargo would be seized by customs officials who would retain a portion of the merchandise to satisfy the duty. The Tea Party occurred on the nineteenth day that the ships bearing tea had been in the harbor. The colonists destroyed the tea so it could not be seized by the customs officials and the duty technically “paid” to form the basis of a precedent.
Because it was unwritten, the British constitution necessarily relied more on custom or precedent than the current United States Constitution. Precedent certainly carries much weight in the American system, but those unhappy with precedent may also turn to the Constitution’s text and history when arguing for the overturn of precedent. With no text, and therefore no discussion or debate prior to adopting the text, British subjects necessarily were limited to the custom of the realm as evidenced by prior course of conduct. Accordingly, when subjects feared that Parliament or the king was inserting a dangerous innovation into the constitutional order, they were duty-bound to create a “record” with protests and often refusals to abide by the unconstitutional act. If they did not create a record, a subsequent king or Parliament could build further on the precedent to infringe upon the rights of the people.
As our government establishes precedent after precedent for the expansion of its power, perhaps it’s time we started making a record. If we continue to sit by silently, officials will only build on precedents and augment their powers.