The Boston Tea Party wasn’t always a revered moment in the nation’s history.
For several decades afterward, it was referred to as the “Destruction of the Tea.” The event that would become known as a milestone in the fight for independence was quite controversial at the time, even among patriots.
In honor of the Tea Party’s 250th anniversary, a new exhibit at the Old State House Museum explores its lesser-discussed history and the tradition of destructive protests in American history. The exhibit, called “Impassioned Destruction: Politics, Vandalism, and the Boston Tea Party,” is held by Revolutionary Spaces, a historical society dedicated to exploring the American struggle and stewarding some of Boston’s historic sites.
“We often point to the past to serve as a guide,” Nathaniel Sheidley, president and CEO of Revolutionary Spaces, said. “But even the founding fathers disagreed on the right course of action.”
The exhibit, launched July 1 and running until 2025, focuses on violent protests throughout American history, starting with the Boston Tea Party and ending with the Jan. 6 insurrection. Sheidley realizes the inclusion of the insurrection may be controversial, but the exhibit is careful not to condone nor condemn any protest. Instead, he encourages visitors to engage in dialogue and reflect on when they feel protesters are justified in using aggressive tactics.
“These are ongoing questions for us as Americans,” Sheidley said. “‘Who speaks for me? What do I do if I’m silenced? How far is too far?’”
Some of the most destructive protests in American history include the Stamp Act protests, in which protests against the British stamp tax turned violent; the Reading Railroad Massacre, when a railroad labor strike in Pennsylvania ended in the deaths of more than a dozen people; and the lesser-known Ursuline Convent riots, when a protestant mob burned down a Roman Catholic convent in Charlestown and the Weather Underground bombings, when an extremist group targeted military and police precincts across the country in support of left-wing causes such as protesting the war in Vietnam.
The exhibit’s focus is on the violent destruction of property, though some protests also led to a loss of life. Throughout the exhibit, visitors can toss a cent into a scale to reflect on whether they think the protests were justified. Vibrant colors on the illustrated panels help visitors feel some of the tension that was inherent to these events.
Revolutionary Spaces consulted multiple historians in the development of the exhibit. Robert Allison, a history professor at Suffolk University who specializes in the American Revolution, spoke to how controversial the Tea Party was at the time.
“We have no record of the planning of the Boston Tea Party, because they knew it was a criminal act,” Allison said. “It was an act of treason.”
The unifying thread throughout each of these historical events is not only their destructive nature, but also that the protesters’ beliefs were factually inaccurate, according to Matthew Wilding, director of interpretation and education for Revolutionary Spaces. During the Tea Party, for example, there actually had been no proof that the British were planning new taxes on the tea; in fact, the British were giving a tax break to British East India Company tea imports, a decision that the colonists had no say in but would alter their underground economy of tea being smuggled in from Holland.
The Revolutionary Spaces team began brainstorming for the project a few years ago, and inspiration struck when Wilding witnessed the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“I remember being at work and watching it play out on the TV, thinking, ‘I’m not sure if this is a good idea,’” he said.
But the insurrection gave him context to other historical events that he had studied, like the Stamp Act. Often the past helps us understand the present, but in this case, he said, the present helped him understand the past and the disagreements that may have occurred behind the scenes.
“We only think about the end result, but the violent destruction of property is a tactic,” he said. “Now, whether they should use that tactic is a real question. We’re not saying any of these events are good or bad, just that they have similar criteria.”
Brooklyn College professor of history Benjamin Carp, another expert consulted for the exhibit, said that protest is a proud part of American history, but “we shouldn’t be lazy about it.”
“We have a tendency to excuse barbarous acts if we agree with the cause, and dismiss them as a mob if we don’t,” Carp said. “But if we can look at the Revolution seriously and not just in a self-congratulatory way, we can take our own problems more seriously.”