Constructing an American Mythology: The Boston Tea Party in High School Textbooks

Friday, January 5, 2018: 3:50 PM
Washington Room 3 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Michael Kneisel, Kent State University
The account of the Boston Tea Party has been consistently oversimplified in American high school textbooks. Analysis of the motivations and realities of the Tea Party has evolved significantly over the last several decades. As recently as the 1960s, the Tea Party has been depicted as a generally harmless protest carried out by some of America’s founding fathers (although specific individuals were not named). More recent research has revealed that the participants were not elites, but common citizens. These people also fully realized that they were participating in a criminal conspiracy, an act of economic terrorism, and subsequently never spoke about it afterward. The depiction of the Boston Tea Party in textbooks has not reflected this research.

Looking at a sample of textbooks published over the last hundred years, it becomes apparent that the story of the Tea Party has always been, and still serves as, an integral element in educating students about the American Revolution. However, as a constructed myth, it was “born perfect” and thus has been extremely resistant to alteration or reinterpretation.

Comparing the static nature of the textbook accounts with the historiography and research from the last thirty years demonstrates that the real meaning and impetus of the Tea Party have been suppressed in the high school history curriculum. This is due to various factors, both economic and ideological. Textbook publishers are pressured to create works that appeal to the largest possible audience, which means catering to populous states like Texas. The inclusion of potentially controversial material would jeopardize sales, so the publishers strive to present information that will not offend possible customers.