These Riots Are Nothing Like the Boston Tea Party

3 ½ min

Amid the aftermath of George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, a lot of misinformation has been spread concerning the riots and their place in history.

One particular item I’ve noted is a comparison of the present protesters and looters with the men who engaged in what later became known as the Boston Tea Party of 1773. But such a comparison shows a profound lack of knowledge of American history.

The Boston Tea Party was not some random act of politically inspired violence. It was a premeditated action that directly targeted offending parties who were carrying out a specific injustice against the American colonists.

In 1767, the British Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, a series of laws which effectively outlawed the New York government from conducting business until they complied with the Quartering Act of 1765. These acts also taxed glass, lead, painter’s colors, and paper, while reducing taxes and duties on the British East India Company so as to undercut the price of smuggled tea from Holland.

In 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act, an instance of crony capitalism benefitting the East India Company by, in effect, giving them a de facto monopoly. This was in part an attempt by Prime Minister Lord Frederick North’s administration to legitimize Britain’s attempts to tax the colonists. It also threatened the businesses of legitimate, law abiding colonial tea importers who did not receive the East India Company’s favored status.

This was the impetus for the Boston Tea Party. In total, three ships were boarded and over the course of three hours, 45 tons of tea were dumped into Boston harbor. Aside from the tea, the only other property damaged was a padlock.

Unlike the riots in Minneapolis and elsewhere, the Sons of Liberty’s tea dumpers engaged in a limited action, only destroying property belonging to an offending party in the East India Company, and depriving their offending government of unjustly imposed taxes. The Americans also lacked any political representation in Parliament by which they might otherwise redress their grievances and engage peacefully within an existing political framework to right the wrongs committed against them.

If you feel bad for the East India Company, you once again portray your lack of historical knowledge. The East India Company was not some private business like the ones being torched across America today. Instead, it was formed by a royal charter issued by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600 and, for a large part of its later history, this massive company fielded three armies and a navy all of its own, functioning as the colonial arm of the British government throughout Asia. 

To compare the Sons of Liberty’s destruction of the tea owned by this state-sponsored front for conquest with the actions of rioters in Minnesota is an immense disservice both to history and to those hurt by today’s riots. Samuel Adams and the rest did not go on to torch neighborhood businesses after they dumped tea in the harbor. In fact, it is reported that the Tea Party’s participants even swept the ships’ decks clean before they departed.

But in Minnesota, a Native American Youth Center was set aflame, the lifelong dream of an Ecuadorian immigrant went up in a puff of smoke as his restaurant was consumed, and a Latina owned building burned down, putting an end to the Spanish-language La Raza radio station housed within. African Paradise restaurant was not only a minority-owned business, it also fed people for free once a week, but now it may not reopen after damage sustained from the riots.

In order for a George Floyd-related protest or action to be even remotely comparable to the Boston Tea Party, it would have to be a premeditated, targeted attack on the institutions or persons engaged in the oppression being resisted. The riots we currently see are spontaneous, indiscriminate acts of destruction which directly harm the very people that the protesters are trying to help.

Separate the protesters from the rioters. There is cause to be angry, but there is not cause to destroy your neighbor’s life’s work and livelihood when he did nothing to harm you. Be mad, but be mad at the right people.


[Image Credit: Flickr-Lorie Shaull, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Image Credit: [Image Credit: Flickr-Lorie Shaull, CC BY-SA 2.0]
Anders Koskinen

Anders Koskinen

Anders Koskinen is an Editorial Associate at Intellectual Takeout. He earned his BA from the University of Minnesota in December 2016 where he graduated with a double major in Journalism and Political Science.

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"voltaire" and "non troppo" put their bias on display by ignoring and/or twisting the article's point. voltaire makes a straw man argument ("The article ... displays a complete lack of understanding of institutions of structural racism"). An article should not be criticized for not doing something it never claimed it was going to do. non troppo then criticizes the article for condemning the destruction of property when perpetrated by civil rights protesters, but approving it for British Colonial subjects. How one can reach this conclusion after a thorough reading of the article displays a remarkable failure of intellect. The article is historically accurate, and points out the reasons why you cannot draw a fair comparison between the Boston Tea Party and the George Floyd riots. The Boston Tea Party was not a riot: there was no arson, there was no violence perpetrated against innocent people, there was no looting or vandalism of private property owned by innocent people, (the tea was indeed looted and destroyed, but was also arguably not really private property for the reasons outlined in the article). Most saliently of all, the Boston Tea Party was a calculated attack against a specific point of contention (the tea) in order to send a clear and decisive message to those in power. The violence and destruction of private and public property alike at the hands of the George Floyd protesters involves no such calculation, nor prior planning, and is not targeted specifically against the ones in power. It is a haphazard attack against anything that happens to be close by and convenient. A youth center? A restaurant? A radio station? What's the message we're supposed to take away from that? I applaud the protesters and fully understand the motive behind some of the targeted acts (such as graffiti or vandalism of government buildings). But stealing a pair of sneakers because an unarmed man was murdered by a cop does not enhance your message.


You left out the part of businesses being destroyed and windows smashed out of stores that sold British tea, and the riots beforehand including the Boston massacre.


The article is tin eared to say the least, and displays a complete lack of understanding of institutions of structural racism. This is certainly intellectual takeout. The empty calories are palpable. This article lacks rigor and is, quite frankly, lazy writing.


non troppo
This is wrong in one important aspect: the likeness of destruction of property belonging to secondary parties - condemned for civil rights protesters - approved for the British Colonial subjects. Without the credible threat of harm, no protest will be taken seriously. This is yet another racist hypocrisy.