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What We Can Learn from America's First Tea Party About Countering Corporate Power

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Politics and Democracy page and our Organic Transitions page.

On a cold November day, activists gathered in a coastal town. The corporation had gone too far, and the two thousand people who'd jammed into the meeting hall were torn as to what to do about it. Unemployment was exploding and the economic crisis was deepening; corporate crime, governmental corruption spawned by corporate cash, and an ethos of greed were blamed. "Why do we wait?" demanded one at the meeting, a fisherman named George Hewes. "The more we delay, the more strength is acquired" by the company and its puppets in the government. "Now is the time to prove our courage," he said. Soon, the moment came when the crowd decided for direct action and rushed into the streets.

That is how I tell the story of the Boston Tea Party, now that I have read a first-person account of it. While striving to understand my nation's struggles against corporations, I came upon a first edition of Retrospect of the Boston Tea Party with a Memoir of George R.T. Hewes, a Survivor of the Little Band of Patriots Who Drowned the Tea in Boston Harbor in 1773, and I jumped at the chance to buy it. Because the identities of the Boston Tea Party participants were hidden (other than Samuel Adams) and all were sworn to secrecy for the next 50 years, this account (published 61 years later) is the only first-person account of the event by a participant that exists, so far as I can find. As I read, I began to understand the true causes of the American Revolution.

I learned that the Boston Tea Party resembled in many ways the growing modern-day protests against transnational corporations and small-town efforts to protect themselves from chain-store retailers or factory farms. The Tea Party's participants thought of themselves as protesters against the actions of the multinational East India Company.

Although schoolchildren are usually taught that the American Revolution was a rebellion against "taxation without representation," akin to modern day conservative taxpayer revolts, in fact what led to the revolution was rage against a transnational corporation that, by the 1760s, dominated trade from China to India to the Caribbean, and controlled nearly all commerce to and from North America, with subsidies and special dispensation from the British crown.

Hewes notes: "The [East India] Company received permission to transport tea, free of all duty, from Great Britain to America " allowing it to wipe out New England-based tea wholesalers and mom-and-pop stores and take over the tea business in all of America. "Hence," he told his biographer, "it was no longer the small vessels of private merchants, who went to vend tea for their own account in the ports of the colonies, but, on the contrary, ships of an enormous burthen, that transported immense quantities of this commodity ... The colonies were now arrived at the decisive moment when they must cast the dye, and determine their course ... "

A pamphlet was circulated through the colonies called The Alarm and signed by an enigmatic "Rusticus." One issue made clear the feelings of colonial Americans about England's largest transnational corporation and its behavior around the world:"Their Conduct in Asia, for some Years past, has given simple Proof, how little they regard the Laws of Nations, the Rights, Liberties, or Lives of Men. They have levied War, excited Rebellions, dethroned lawful Princes, and sacrificed Millions for the Sake of Gain. The Revenues of Mighty Kingdoms have entered their Coffers. And these not being sufficient to glut their Avarice, they have, by the most unparalleled Barbarities, Extortions, and Monopolies, stripped the miserable Inhabitants of their Property, and reduced whole Provinces to Indigence and Ruin. Fifteen hundred Thousands, it is said, perished by Famine in one Year, not because the Earth denied its Fruits; but [because] this Company and their Servants engulfed all the Necessaries of Life, and set them at so high a Rate that the poor could not purchase them."

After protesters had turned back the Company's ships in Philadelphia and New York, Hewes writes, "In Boston the general voice declared the time was come to face the storm."

The citizens of the colonies were preparing to throw off one of the corporations that for almost 200 years had determined nearly every aspect of their lives through its economic and political power. They were planning to destroy the goods of the world's largest multinational corporation, intimidate its employees, and face down the guns of the government that supported it.    


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