David and Tim Barton: The Boston Tea Party was not a “riot.” Don’t you know they called it a “party?”

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Thousands of white evangelicals get their history from David Barton (founder) and Tim Barton (president) of an organization called Wallbuilders.

In light of the recent peaceful protests and riots in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the Bartons want to make sure that white evangelicals think that the birth of the United States was not violent. We addressed this false claim here.

If the Boston Tea Party was a happy little “tea party,” and not an act of vandalism, the Bartons can make the case that the Floyd protests and riots were somehow outside the mainstream of American history, especially the American founding. This attempt to manipulate the American past to fit a pro-Trump, pro-Christian Right agenda is evident in a recent article, published at the Wallbuilders website, titled “Was the Tea Party a Riot?

Here is the opening argument:

Peaceful protestors [sic] have marched around the country to demand justice. However, in the midst of justified outrage some people have themselves begun committing unjustifiable acts, assaulting and murdering police officers, burning down buildings, mercilessly beating people, and destroying their fellow citizens’ property. Out of town activists and professional agitators have poured into metropolitan centers and led rioters to destroy businesses, housing units, and even churches.

In defense of these heinous acts, some people have begun pointing to the Boston Tea Party as an example of how violent riots are part of American tradition. This historical perspective, however, is only possible if you don’t know the first thing about the Boston Tea Party, who was involved, and why it happened.

The piece is riddled with historical problems. For example, the Bartons do not seem to know that the Tea Act did not raise the price of tea in the colonies, nor was it a tax. They make several appeals to 19th century American history textbooks and pull random quotes from these textbooks that fail to advance their arguments. It almost seems like they are pulling these quotes just so they can add another footnote to the article in order to give the impression that the piece is well-researched. They fail to engage any of the best scholarship on the tea party and their primary sources are taken out of context.

Finally, their historical analogy doesn’t make sense. Those who carried out the Boston Tea Party were vandals. They destroyed someone else’s property. Isn’t this what some of the rioters did in the wake of the Floyd murders? It was wrong in 1776 and it’s wrong in 2020.

The Barton’s conclude:

The situation in American today is entirely different. Respect and decency are not being shown to innocent people or business owners. The current riots are like a destructive tornado set on destroying everything in its path.

Peaceful protests are protected by the Bill of Rights, but violent riots which destroy, loot, and victimize are antithetical to the American idea. The comparison of the violent riots to the Boston Tea Party is wildly unfounded and demonstrates that Americans should study their history before they try to weaponize it.

Perhaps the Bartons should read Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Stacy Schiff‘s recent New York Times piece “The Boston Tea Party Was More Than That. It Was a Riot.”  Here is a taste:

Several years later, after long December days of town meetings, after endless speeches and equally protracted negotiations, over a thousand colonists headed, early on a damp evening, to Griffin’s Wharf. Three hundred and forty-two troublesome chests of East India tea sat aboard the ships on which they had sailed from England. Hatches were opened, holds entered, chests hoisted on deck. In a few hours, every leaf of tea steeped in Boston Harbor. By 9 p.m. the town was still. Boston had not known a quieter night for some time.

No one was hurt. No gun was fired. No property other than the tea was damaged. The perpetrators cleaned up after themselves. In the aftermath, the surgical strike was referred to plainly as “the destruction of the tea.” To the indignant Massachusetts governor, it constituted nothing less than a “high handed riot.”

He had a point: There is a difference between burning a draft card or toppling a statue and tossing someone else’s goods overboard. This was an assault on property rather than on a symbol. Expertly choreographed, it qualified as a blatant act of vandalism. It was difficult to dress up, though John Adams would privately declare the dumping of the tea the grandest event since the dispute with Britain had begun. He thought it sublime.

To the occupiers it proved to be a particular mortification. The king demanded an immediate prosecution. It did not seem too much to ask: After all, thousands had watched the tea rain into the water, even if only several dozen men had actually boarded the ships. No one, however, seemed to have seen a thing. In all of Boston only one witness could be found — and he refused to testify unless transported out of the colony.

The patriots swabbed the decks afterward and history reciprocated, turning a riot into a tea party. The tidying is necessary to the exercise. The acts of defiance are meant to shine as sterling symbols of patriotism. Over time they take refuge under their principles: We prefer to remember not that we were making a mess but that we were making a point. In a protest movement, we like to be able to distinguish the villains. Or as Samuel Adams put it after what he was never to know as the Boston Tea Party: “Our enemies must acknowledge that these people have acted upon pure and upright principle.”

Read the rest of the piece here.