Recently, I became acquainted with the concept of hauntology – a philosophy of history originating with the philosopher Jacques Derrida. It has been called the logic of ghosts because it upsets the easy progression of time as always moving forward in measured sequence and proposing instead that the present is simultaneously haunted by the past and the future. It is the logic of the specter, the shade, the blurring of distinctions among conventional categories that keep us safe but also isolated. Hauntology is the unsettling knowledge that our actions are neither cut off from history or immune to the forces of evolution.
From this perspective, the tea party takes on significance beyond its meaning in the moment.
All around this movement are shades of ghosts past and in particular the shade of those original Massachusetts colonists which gave the tea party its name. On December 16, 1773, dozens of colonists made a statement against British rule by destroying tea that bore a tax imposed by Britain (similar to duties it charged in Britain) but not authorized by local representatives. In New York and Philadelphia, the tea was sent back to Britain rather than pay duties and in Charleston, Virginia, the tea was left to rot because colonists refused to unload it. But in Boston, there was an outright revolt with a group of colonists throwing the tea overboard.
The spectacular show of resistance served to unite the various British political parties and in a display of solidarity they forced the closing of the Boston harbor and instituted a series of laws called the Coercive Acts, referred to by the colonists as the Intolerable Acts. And in turn, these coercive measures served to unite the colonists – for the most part. Samuel Adams argued the actions of the group who threw the tea overboard were a principled stand and not a lawless mob; Benjamin Franklin thought there should be reimbursement for the destroyed tea. At minimum, there was ambivalence among the colonists about the destruction of property, yet a seed of pride in their defiance. It took over a half a century for the seed to grow into what today we refer routinely to as the “Boston Tea Party” instead of simply “the destruction of the tea.” A party is far more celebratory than simply destroying things.
From most historical perspectives, the Boston tea party served to accelerate the political will to separate from Britain and led to the convening of the First Continental Congress which felt compelled to respond to the Coercive Acts. Britain, already reeling in debt because of its sustained military engagements, would now face a new insurgency and the eventual unraveling of its Empire. What was crystal clear at the time was that the “other” was in the wrong.
Read Part III of this five-part series: Serving the Ghosts of Defiance and Resentment