From the Boston Tea Party to #GrabYourWallet

Ever since the Access Hollywood tape of Donald Trump bragging about sexual assault was released in 2016, women (and sympathetic men) have been participating in a boycott with the hashtag #GrabYourWallet. The boycott is aimed at Trump brands and importantly retailers that sell Trump brands. This modern boycott hearkens back to the Boston Tea Party and its associated boycotts, the 245th anniversary of which happens on December 16.

There are parallels between #GrabYourWallet and the Boston Tea Party. Especially once you learn the real history of what was happening back in 1773. As I discovered doing research for my new book, “Political Brands” most American don’t realize that the Boston Tea Party was a reaction to a massive corporate bailout.

One thing that got American colonists angry enough to boycott were British taxes, especially since they did not have a representative in Parliament. Thus, one of the rallying cries of the rebellion was “no taxation without representation.” Before there were bullets, there were boycotts.

At the center of the battle between the English government and its obstreperous American colonists was the East India Company. In the Spring of 1773, it had a surplus of 17 million pounds of unsold tea. With its economic viability threatened, the British government came to the company’s rescue with the Tea Act, which granted the East India Company a monopoly to sell tea to the American colonies. The British Monarchy was a major shareholder of the firm. The Tea Act was one of the first recorded corporate bailouts. Perhaps the East India Company is an example of the first firm that was “too big to fail.”

In protest of the Tea Act, many Americans boycotted the purchase of tea imported by East India Company. The black market in tea thrived. Bostonians calling themselves the “Sons of Liberty,” distributed broadsides declaring, “Countrymen! That worst of Plagues, the detested tea shipped for this port by the East India Company, is now arrived in the Harbor; the hour of destruction, or manly opposition to the machinations of Tyranny stares you in the Face…”

After a contentious town meeting in Boston on December 16, 1773, the crowd descended on three ships that contained East India Company tea. The end result was 342 crates of tea ended up in the sea. An eye witness account from Captain James Bruce of the Eleanor swore “about one thousand unknown people came down the said wharf and a number of them came on board the said ship some being dressed like Indians and they having violently broke open the hatches hoisted up the said chests of tea upon deck and then and there stove and threw the said chests with their contents overboard into the water where the whole was lost and destroyed.” Massachusetts Governor Hutchinson called the tea’s destruction “high treason.”

The East India Company was able to use artificially low prices to dominate the American market. This explains a letter from Boston to the East India Company dated December 17, 1773 which stated, “Gentlemen Your tea is destroyed[.]” The letter continued to explain the attitude of the colonists to the Tea Act and how Americans would not fall for the temptation of inexpensive tea: “The Americans will not swallow cheap tea which has a poison in the heart of it. They see the hook through the bait[.]”

When American colonists picked a fight about taxing tea, they were not just picking a fight with the British Empire (where the sun never set), Americans were also taking on the most powerful company at the time, the East India Company. A few months after the Boston Tea Party, the King, who was an investor, intervened by writing to Parliament:

His Majesty upon information of the unwarrantable practices which have been lately concerted and carried on in North America, and, particularly, of the violent and outrageous proceedings at the Town and Port of Boston, … with a view to obstructing the Commerce of this Kingdom… [Parliament should] to put an immediate stop to the present disorders…

In response to the Boston Tea Party, the Parliament retaliated with the “Coercive Acts” in 1774 which closed the port of Boston until the losses to the East India Company were repaid.

Women are sometimes forgotten in the telling of Revolutionary history but they shouldn’t be. Showing sympathy with Boston, in 1774, “in Edenton, North Carolina, a group of 51 ladies, in response to the British government’s refusal to lift the tax on tea, held what has become known as the ‘Edenton Tea Party.’ They drank tea made from a local plant and signed a pledge [to not drink British tea]… until such time that all acts which tend to enslave our Native country shall be repealed.’”

On October 20, 1774, the Continental Congress voted for the Non-intercourse with Great Britain Act. The Prime Minister Lord North seemed taken aback by the colonists’ defiance given how paltry the tea tax was. In 1775, he declared it was impossible for him to have “foreseen the proceedings in America respecting the Tea: …[and] that the great quantity of Tea in the warehouses of the East India Company…made it necessary to do something for the benefit of the Company; … that it was impossible for him to foretel the Americans would resist at being able to drink their Tea at nine Pence in the pound cheaper.” The conflict escalated into the American Revolution.

Why is the Boston Tea Party relevant for us today? First, that bit about the King having an interest in a big company sounds eerie familiar to the conflict of interest presented by President Trump and the Trump Organization.

Second, it’s relevant because Americans never stopped boycotting to make political points. In 2017, a poll by Ipsos showed that one quarter of U.S. consumers claimed that they had boycotted for political reasons. The appetite for boycotts could be even bigger: In 2018, YouGov found, “the clear majority of US adults (67%) support boycotting a brand due to conflicting political views.”

Finally, #GrabYourWallet is just one of many boycotts that seeks to change either corporate behavior or government behavior, or in the case of President Trump, both. After #GrabYourWallet’s dogged efforts, Ivanka Trump closed her brand in 2018. Modern protesters can raise a cup of tea (or something stronger) to thank the boycotters of old who showed it was possible to hold the powerful accountable.

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Ciara Torres-Spelliscy is a Professor of Law at Stetson University College of Law, the Chair the AALS Section on Election Law and a Brennan Center Fellow. She is the author of the book Corporate Citizen? An Argument for the Separation of Corporation and State.

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