The distinguished British historian Andrew Roberts has just written, alas, an attack on the Boston Tea Party that is much beneath him. The Tea Party, it turns out, was an entirely self-interested operation, with nary a shred of idealism about it:
It was in no sense a spontaneous activity: some accounts of it portray a tightly controlled, almost military, operation. The ‘Sons of Liberty’ were essentially the henchmen of the rich smuggler-barons, who were faced with ruin if the tea were offloaded and sold, since there was no public demand for another boycott of British goods as there had been after the Stamp Act of 1765. If the tea had been unloaded, it would have been bought and drunk.
What is sad about this hatchet-job is that it is so unoriginal. Set aside the astonishing continuity between contemporary British polemics against the American Patriots and the essay of a Tory of our times. But this is such a rote job of historical polemic—Group X claims to be motivated by ideals. But, they actually are activated by self-interest. Cui bono! We need not pay attention to their ideals at all. We know that it is all grasping and venial.
And this is always a shabby evasion. Of course, it is part and parcel of the entire radical slander on the West—to seize on material interests, and to say that the ideals have no importance, or fail to realize that the ideals shape perceived self-interest. The entire debate about British abolition of slavery, for example, consists in good measure of responses to the accusation that, because British self-interest came to include abolition of slavery, we can ignore the importance of the ideals of British anti-slavery. The framework derives heavily from Marxist thought, and critical theory is the latest iteration of the translation of a polemical rhetorical trope into the language of academic theory.
But let us not pretend that this is solely a sin of the left. Imperial masters always harp on the self-interest of their rebel opponents. Robin Hood is always just a deer-thief. For a more recent conflict, take the contention that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was nothing but a bunch of venal thugs and terrorists. Mostly, yes—but Bobby Sands died in a hunger strike in the Maze, and a British Tory would be ill-advised to write a history of the IRA that gave not a smidgeon of credit to his ideals, and to those of the IRA. I am not fond of socialists or communists, but Clement Attlee’s personal character was remarkably saintly, and I think it was folly rather than evil that thrilled some portion of those who sang these words:
Arise, you prisoners of starvation!
Arise, you wretched of the earth!
For justice thunders condemnation.
A better world’s in birth.
A good historian ought to be able to discern some attachment to ideals even in the IRA and the Communist Party—and to obscure the patriotic idealism of Americans, their extraordinary attachment to liberty, in the run-up to the American Revolution requires a good historian, such as Roberts usually is, much effort to set aside his natural talents.
So much is prologue. A proper answer to Roberts requires mockery and sympathy. Mockery, first—because his entry into Tory apologetics is so inept that it invites skewering. To wit:
We all know that sort of historian—
Man Muckrake’s the name, Ph.D—
Who seeks out discrediting motives
Of men who are nobler than he.
He rakes up the dust on the floorboards—
Man Muckrake looks no way but down—
Cries, Heaven is only a fable!—
Never sees the celestial crown.
That rebel?—just in for the money.
That martyr?—hysterical dupe.
That poet?—unkind to his daughters.
That hero?—a bit of a stoop.
He’s Strachey, felinely dissecting;
He’s Hill, saying class makes the mind;
He’s Beard, on the debts of the Founders;
He’s Roberts, to liberty blind.
Man Muckrake ignores the old poem
While he sweeps up irrelevant facts:
I’m willing to pay a fair price for the tea,
But never a three penny tax.
Our latest Man Muck is a Tory—
God bless ‘em, I guess we need some—
But he shows by his smug condescension
Why we got rid of ours on day one.
He’s blind to our love for our freedom—
What’s that got to do with some tea?
We all know that sort of historian—
Man Muckrake’s the name, Ph.D.
Then, sympathy. Because the proper response to Roberts’s acute lack of sympathy to the Patriots is to extend sympathy to American Tories, many of whom did suffer at Patriot hands, and whose suffering is a part of the American story that should be remembered. We Patriots did, for example, tar and feather a fair number of Tories.
Tar and Feather
Pour hot tar on a man stripped nude
And hear him shriek with pain.
Lay white feathers on the boiling pitch
Then laugh and laugh again.
Charivari has no law!—
Serves justice with a smile.
The world’s turned right and upside down:
Let bad men suffer a while.
The pink flesh chars but that’s the price
He’ll pay for our natural rights.
Treat freeborn Yankeemen like slaves
And we’ll seize you in the night.
Women and womanly men just say,
We should not fear, amen!
Should!—the tyrants only stop
When they must fear free men.
We’ll know the truths we’re fighting for
By words that the wise men write;
By suffering months at Valley Forge
Earn liberty’s birthright.
And we’ll torture a Tory villain or two
For our posterity.
Lay the tar and feathers on!—
So all men may be free.
Frankly, if I’d been asked to write a polemic against my Patriot forebears, I think one that recognized their ideals, but addressed the price others paid for those ideals’ achievement, would have been more effective.
I eagerly await a response from Roberts—ideally, in the form of a verse extolling the participants of the Boston Tea Party, or detailing the sufferings imposed on Americans by the British soldiery. It’s not so difficult for a historian to get beyond the usual polemics.
Photo by Cornischong — Wikimedia Commons