The Seattle-Boston Parallel

What are the similarities between the Seattle protests and the Boston Tea Party?

November 29, 2000

What are the similarities between the Seattle protests and the Boston Tea Party?

In Boston, thousands of people met in late 1773 to protest British trade policy. The protests culminated in the famous meetings about the tax on tea. At the Old South Meeting House, 5,000 people — about one-third of the entire population of Boston at the time — met to discuss the British government’s limits on the colony’s trade. Some later took what today’s protestors might call “direct action” to demonstrate their anger by dumping the tea from three ships into Boston Harbor — the famous “Boston Tea Party.”

The Massachusetts Bay colonists resented not just British taxes, but, even more, British interference in trade. British law aimed at preventing meaningful “globalization,” at the time meaning free trade among all areas of the world. The British wanted to force British areas to trade with other British areas, with all trade to be run through the mother country. That way, the British Empire would become economically isolated from the rest of the world.

Bostonians, however, saw no reason why they should not trade directly with French or Dutch colonies. In other words, the Boston rebels wanted freedom to trade with anybody, anywhere. That is almost completely opposed to what today’s protestors demand.

Such mass protests later spread to the United Kingdom itself. There, trade became a key target in one of the most famous set of non-violent protests in history.

In that case, mass meetings of workers and artisans protested Britain’s Corn Laws. This was perhaps the largest and hardest fought political battle in the United Kingdom in the 19th century, pitting workers and factory owners against the country’s traditionally powerful rural interests.

The “Corn Laws” put a floor on the price of staple food in the United Kingdom. Without such a floor, it appeared that Britain’s agricultural base (essentially, the old Britain) was uncompetitive with foreign grain producers in places like the United States, Argentina, and continental Europe.

From the point of view of the new Britain of factories and urban workers, however, the corn laws simply kept workers impovershed — not only because the price of food remained high, but because foreigners needed to earn British pounds in order to buy British cloth and other manufactured goods.

The one big difference between those protests — and today’s? The protesters in Boston and Manchester supported globalization. In Boston, they viewed British policy — designed to prevent the city from trading freely with the world outside the British empire — as nothing short of evil. The Boston revolutionaries understood that the British Parliament’s policies and taxes kept the workers and farmers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony poor.

And the Manchester protestors argued that globalization (even if they didn’t use that word) would help the working class to obtain cheap food. It was the privileged and wealthy landowners who fought to keep the Corn Laws in place.

To repeal the Corn Laws, then-Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel eventually destroyed his own political party. But he declared that “the great question” at the core of the debate was whether or not one was in favor of “what is calculated to increase the comforts, to improve the condition, and elevate the social character of the millions who subsist by manual labour…”

It is ironic that the sort of world that the anti-WTO, anti-IMF, anti World Bank groups want was summarily rejected — because it harms the poor — by mass action 200 years ago.

And yes, the protests in Boston were not without their equivalent of the shattered Starbucks windows. But the “Sons of Liberty” who dumped tea into Boston harbor were a lot more considerate that the anarchists dressed in black in Seattle and, more recently, Prague. The Sons of Liberty made sure that none of the other cargo on the three ships was damaged, and carefully swept the decks after their “action.” The street cleaners who came to work after today’s protesters could only wish for such courtesy.