I recently “experienced” the Boston Tea Party with my wife and two youngest children. We attended a community meeting at which “Samuel Adams” spoke. Then, we boarded a tea ship and pitched tea into Boston Harbor. We also listened to others debate the merits of being a colony or being independent, heard “the shot heard ‘round the world,” and watched men die on Lexington Green.
The experience was powerful and thought-provoking. Where would I have stood? What would I have done?
And what am I doing now?
Samuel Adams had a mission that night in 1773. Efforts to secure certain concessions from England had been unsuccessful. A stronger message needed to be sent. This meant prompting the crowd to take decisive (and illegal) action.
The Boston Tea Party forced people to choose sides. Many a law-abiding colonist was troubled by the illegal and modestly violent act. Their sympathy for the cause of greater colonial freedom was counterbalanced by the means used by the revolutionaries. But when England responded in punitive fashion, the balance tipped for many of these same colonists. They began to see England, not as a protector, but as a threat.
The conflict drove a wedge between families and friends. And the colonies themselves, although united in common cause, were sharply divided in ways that still affect our political culture.
Samuel Adams’ political descendants are as numerous as the stars. Some modern Adamses assure us of our righteousness; others condemn us. These latter firebrands we often seek to silence. Failing that, we shut them out.
Silencing or ignoring the Adamses with whom we disagree has consequences. For private citizens, these may be limited to a lack of understanding of segments of our society, with prejudice a common result. It’s a cost that many of us freely and comfortably pay.
But for those of us sworn to serve the people, that act can be both politically dangerous and, more critically, destructive of our ability to fulfill our pledge. Because unlike Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty, the very principles by which we have sworn to govern ourselves preclude any severing of ties of one “nation” within this country from another.
We are more like the newly-independent colonies after the war than we are like revolutionaries. South Carolinians may not have liked (or even understood) folks from Massachusetts, but their survival depended on finding a way to stand together. In our cities today, the communities within our greater community sometimes do not like (and certainly sometimes do not understand) each other, but our survival as municipalities depends on our ability to unite them.
It is true that we can rally like-minded people to our side by casting our opponents as adherents to an evil doctrine. We can even win political battles that way… as long as our people and our allies can gain the strategic advantage.
But the oath of office we take does not speak of division. It speaks of upholding laws and, by implication, the principles that underpin them.
A stunning principle of our nation’s founding is that a vast and diverse people can live together in peace. E pluribus unum, out of many, one. One country out of many colonies. One nation out of people from many nations.
Uniting our people cannot be done by force of arms, nor by incendiary words. It only can be done by the courageous act of choosing to listen, seeking to understand, and finding that which unites us all as Americans.
Ironically, this was precisely the lesson I learned after the “tea party” was over. My fellow “revolutionaries” and I, from many nations and peoples, gathered together informally to reflect on our experience… and drank tea.