Comparing the Modern Tea Party to the Original

tea partyIn light of the recent anniversary of the original Tea Party, shouldn’t we consult history to clarify what the Boston brouhaha of 1773 was really about? Here are some things we would do well to remember today:

  • There was little that was “conservative” about the event. A mob seized and destroyed private property. Conservative interests at the time deplored it, and the respectable descendants of the Revolutionary generation did their best to forget it when they wrote up their official accounts of the Revolution.
  • It was not all about taxes. The colonists who dumped tea in Boston harbor did not oppose taxation by representative governments. They routinely voted in town meetings to support the poor and pay for common goods such as roads or public schools. From time to time they dug into their pockets to pay off public debts created by expensive wars. They did not worry much about the likelihood of taxes going to “freeloading” poor people or immigrants, because they knew that government is rarely controlled by the poor or the newcomer. Far more likely—far more dangerous—was an alliance between government and the already wealthy and well-connected.
  • It was about the power of private interests. As colonists saw it, Parliament had been corrupted by the influence of money. First, opulent West Indies planters had promoted the Sugar Act to boost their profits. Wealthy Britons had supported the Stamp Act in order to cut their own taxes. Now shareholders of the East India Company hoped to reap a windfall off a monopoly on the tea trade. All these measures served special interests at the expense of ordinary colonists in North America. Rather than defending the tax breaks of the wealthy or the monopoly privileges of private companies, the original Patriots championed the wellbeing of middling households.
  • It was about the obligation of government to regulate economic transactions. Eighteenth-century Patriots assumed a principle of public activism. Samuel Adams explained in a Boston newspaper: Governments might oppress the people by grabbing too much power, but oppression also occurred when governments were too weak. Government existed precisely “to protect the people and promote their prosperity.” In normal times, people expected government to limit monopolies and excessive profit-taking. In the imperial crisis, Patriots insisted that countless transactions—not only tea sales—should come under public scrutiny and serve the common good. What justified destroying the East India Company’s tea was the principle that public good trumped corporate profit.
  • It was about the distribution of wealth. Americans’ ancestors had been uprooted from the British countryside as great landowners amassed more and more of the land. In North America, many English settlers had achieved a sort of middling security. Now that security was threatened. Parliament was taking the side of the rich, and some rich Americans were taking the side of Parliament. The danger was the impoverishment of everyone else. The Patriots believed that a rough economic equality was necessary to maintaining liberty.

Viewed accurately, the original Patriots would sadly disappoint today’s Tea Party activists, who promote a far different political philosophy. Of course no one today needs to agree with eighteenth-century ideas, and we know that the Patriots had their profound flaws. But we must object when present-day interests sidestep good-faith discussion of the merits of their position by misappropriating the founding generation.

barbara smithThe principles of today’s Tea Partiers may (or may not) be correct, but they cannot establish it through sleight of hand, blithely invoking the founders while ignoring those founders’ ideas. The rest of America should not be intimidated by unfounded claims that Tea Partiers are the “real America” or that their values are the ones that originally won American freedom. Those claims fly in the face of history, and they contribute little to our ability to address the massive problems that we face as a nation.

Barbara Smith

Barbara Smith is the author of “The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America,” just issued by The New Press.

Republished with permission from The History News Network.

Comments

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  2. George A. Crackuh says:

    Our founding fathers, and the original Tea Partiers, truly were liberals, in that they wished to liberate the people from oppressive government. Today’s Tea Party also recognizes the oppressiveness of too much government and too much taxation. So, today’s Tea Party is focused on lower taxes and limited, fiscally restrained government.

    The author’s attempt to muddy the waters with her invocation of the misleading ‘Conservative vs. Liberal” labels is a red herring. Today’s conservatives in the Tea Parties seek to preserve the liberal ideas of our founders, while today’s progressives are not liberal at all.

    Progressives, as far as I can tell, have a utopian vision of equality, not one of liberty; and they are prepared to use governments near and far to take away as much of our property and our freedoms as they deem necessary to force us toward their dream of enforced equality.

    (One which can never be achieved, by the way. If you were to somehow magically distribute all the wealth in the country exactly equally at an instant, many of the people would immediately begin wasting their money foolishly, others would hold their own through hard work and common sense, and a few, through genius, innovation, organization and effort would once again become wealthy. This is because people are not equal in their abilities and motivations, and never will be.)

    I have yet to hear ANY progressive articulate a clear philosophy that disagrees with this vision of ‘equality’. So, todays’ progressives are not about liberating us from the oppression of heavy taxes and heavy laws; they are STATISTS whose vision is diametrically opposed to what our founding fathers would have recognized as “liberal”.

    I do agree with the author that monopolists are *generally* not good for the public (note: Alcoa Aluminum). One of the proper uses of government today is to set up the ‘playing field’ so that all the little guys can compete effectively with the big ones. That primarily means creating transparency and simplicity and reducing roadblocks to change and innovation, because complexity and legal obstacles almost always favor the big guys. Then the big guys would tend to only prevail whe economies of scale are the deciding factor in success. That way, any monopolies with unfair advantages disintegrate.

    What the author apparently misses is that government is also a monopoly, and it is BY FAR the most dangerous and oppressive one of all. That is what the original Tea Partiers understood clearly then, and the new Tea Parties understand and fight against now.

    Our federal government is a pervasive leviathan. Our state and local governments have also metastasized far beyond reasonable limits. This is soft tyranny, and It’s time once again to liberate the people from this cancer on our body politic that our government has become.

  3. Thomas White says:

    “Captain Preston, what made you go to the Concord Fight on April 19th 1775?”
    “What did I go for?”
    “…Were you oppressed by the Stamp Act?”
    “I never saw any stamps, and I always understood that none were ever sold.”
    “Well, what about the tea tax?
    “Tea tax, I never drank a drop of the stuff, the boys threw it all overboard.”
    “But I suppose you have been reading Harrington, Sidney, and Locke about the eternal principle of liberty?”
    “I never heard of these men. The only books we had were the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’ psalms and hymns and the almanacs.”
    “Well, then, what was the matter?”
    “Young man, what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”
    – Captain Levi Preston of Danvers, Massachusetts, interviewed about his participation in the first battle of the American Fight for Independence many years later, at the age of 91, around 1843.
    The Federal Government has increasingly assumed the role of King George III, and started doing so long ago. Even King George III & Parliament did some things right, and governed responsibly at times. Simply, most well informed individual Americans do not wish to answer to a remote, uninformed, biased, ineffective, promise-breaking, arrogant, oppressive, self-involved arbitrary authority. The Federal government & employees thereof do not always act in such a counter-productive manner. That useful parts of government are not being particularly resisted by the citizenry as whole.

    Shall we have people say that many Americans that might invoke the name of Martin Luther King, Jr, this coming Monday on the holiday, have betrayed the very principles for which he stood?
    Wouldn’t it be better to just stand for MLKJ’s principles, instead of attacking those that missed the point or are deceitful when wrapping themselves in his legacy?

    ‘In the imperial crisis, Patriots insisted that countless transactions—not only tea sales—should come under public scrutiny and serve the common good. What justified destroying the East India Company’s tea was the principle that public good trumped corporate profit.’ [Original author]
    So, the author endorses uninvited, unwarranted violence & destruction of property?!
    Who said the original Tea Party was justified?
    Few things were taxed prior to the King’s growing intrusion upon the new New World society after the French & Indian War. There was no widespread government authority to even enforce taxes. 4 million inhabitants spread across 13 colonies meant a low population density. In fact, many goods & services were paid for in tobacco or other goods – barter instead of coinage and paper currency. The citizens did support the churches, generally speaking. We have an idea the typical tax rate in that instance, given the traditional tithe (10%). Much lower than the taxes of today.

    ‘…that Tea Partiers are the “real America” or that their values are the ones that originally won American freedom. Those claims fly in the face of history, and they contribute little to our ability to address the massive problems that we face as a nation.’ [Original author]

    You are right, the U.S. Constitution & Bill of Rights did not win American freedom. Neither did the Declaration of Independence or Articles of Confederation. Americans *maintained* their freedom from the British from the start in the early 1600s until today, with the mentioned documents merely being an expression resulting from success. All of America is the “real America”, then and now.

    A Son of the American Revolution

  4. The Taxed Enough Already have much in common with the Progressive Movement under Teddy Roosevelt.

  5. The Tea Party type keeps coming back up, after WWI there were these folks. http://twitpic.com/1vkv2n That was from the Worcester, MA newspaper in 1924. Comparing them to just the original Tea Party is good, but let’s know that the same BS keeps coming up.

  6. Let me be the first to say “Liar, liar ,Pants on fire”!

    First, “Conservetive” and “Liberal” are subjective, depending on what type of Government one lives under. Those who support the Revolution would not be considered “Liberal” and definaly not Progressive by today’s standard, though you imply that throughout.

    Second, true it was not about Taxes, it was “Taxation without repesentation”, funny you make no mention of that.

    “Viewed accurately, the original Patriots would sadly disappoint today’s Tea Party activists, who promote a far different political philosophy.”

    Viewed acuratley through the distorting prism of Far-Left wing ideology? Is that what you mean?

    “Of course no one today needs to agree with eighteenth-century ideas, and we know that the Patriots had their profound flaws.”

    What would those be?

    “But we must object when present-day interests sidestep good-faith discussion of the merits of their position by misappropriating the founding generation.”

    Just like what your are ineptly trying to do? Can you cite any examples from contempory writings to support your opinion on the mind set of the Early Patriots? Reading the works of Thomas Paine recentley and I didn’t see a single thing that would support any of your points. I can’t recall any thing written about “corporate profits” in that time period. Where is there mention of “redistabution of wealth” or “Social Justice”? I would love to know where you get your delusions from.

    It was about “Power”, and it’s abuses by their Government , that they had no control over. The Founders weren’t activists by trade, they all had real jobs and became activists when Government ran amok.( a quick overview of that is available in the Declaration Of Independence)

    When did Acedemia become water boys (and girls) for the Far-Left wing agenda? Do propagandist actually beleive their own lies?

    Shame on you Madame!

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