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Publick Occurrences 2.0

April 10, 2009

Clio Takes a Look at 2009 Tea Parties

Reader BMC insists that I post on this clip from the Rachel Maddow show.  (If you want to know what all the snickering is about, I’d suggest consulting an online slang dictionary, and I’m not responsible for what you find.)

I think the easiest thing to do would be to start picking out all the bad historical analogies and use it as an excuse to guffaw at the “Tea Party” movement that’s scheduled to demonstrate on April 15, 2009 (tax filing day).  But I’m not going to do that–instead I’m going to try and be even-handed about this, and see if there’s anything to this grassroots conservative invocation of the Boston Tea Party.

Unfortunately, the ideology behind all of this seems rather vague.  For instance, here’s what the website TaxDayTeaParty.com says on its front page:

The Tea Party effort is just a small piece of a much larger movement aimed at restoring the basic free-market principles our country was built on. The Constitution, for the most part, is being ignored by our current government and we intend on working together to correct the problem.

The Tea Party effort is a grassroots, collaborative volunteer organization made up of every day American citizens from across the country. We take pride in the fact that we’ve built a 50 state network of leaders and activists using nothing more than the internet, a few websites and a burning desire to restore freedom.

There’s not much there: the protesters are in favor of “basic free-market principles” and “freedom.”  (Well, me too!)  The site doesn’t say how the government is ignoring the Constitution, exactly–and if you dig a little further, it all goes back to Rick Santelli’s displeasure with the stimulus plan and the budget.

To the extent that the 2009 tax protests are part of a grass-roots movement, I think it’s fine to invoke the Boston Tea Party as your inspiration–although many suspect that corporate lobbyists and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News have a lot to do with organizing and promoting this protest, and even Santelli himself apears to have been the frontman for a rightwing foundation.  Still, if people are responding to the movement and even organizing local “tea parties” on their own, then that does accord with the local tea protests that sprang up in 1773-1774 in the wake of (and even immediately before) the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773.

One historical analogy that fails, however, is the idea that the Bostonians aboard the tea ships in 1773 were protesting higher taxes under the Tea Act.  This is just wrong.

  • First, the British Parliament first passed the tax on tea in 1767, and Bostonians had in fact purchased plenty of tea bearing the threepenny-per-pound duty during the intervening years.  New Yorkers and Philadelphians, who smuggled almost all of their tea from Holland and elsewhere, were in fact outraged at how little the New Englanders were able to stick to their “anti-tax” principles.  In this respect, the Boston Tea Party was almost an apology.
  • Second, the Tea Act would in fact have lowered the price of tea for Americans–so the idea of invoking the “Tea Party” every time you think your taxes are too high is incorrect.  Instead, the Tea Party protesters were energized by a series of principles: the government was propping up a monopoly company (the East India Company), the government was perpetuating an unjust tax (the 1767 tax on tea which had been confirmed in 1770), and the government was using the revenue from that tax to pay the salaries of judges and executive officials, thus rendering them independent of local legislatures.
  • Third, and most importantly: I’ve been extremely dismayed at how many of the protesters say, “Taxation WITH representation ain’t so hot either.“  (I’m not just cherry-picking a random blog comment here–this phrase is everywhere.)

Well, no, no one LIKES paying taxes, but most people recognize that you need some form of taxation in order to pay firemen and astronauts, defend the country’s borders, try to ensure that our food isn’t poisoned, etc.  The point of protest against the Stamp Act, Townshend Acts, and Tea Act in 1765-1774 was that “taxation WITHOUT representation” would lead to slavery–in other words, the colonists believed that the British ministry was arbitrarily levying taxes on Americans when those Americans had no say in electing members of Parliament.  In a democratic republican government, if you don’t like the level of your taxes or you don’t like how your tax money is spent, you have the power to peaceably “throw the bums out.”  And you certainly have the First Amendment right to protest and rail against the stimulus and bailout.  But the point is, the people of the Revolutionary Era had to fight for those rights to get rid of a constitutional monarchy–it’s hardly the case that paying taxes from a colony to a (partially hereditary) government that you don’t elect is the same as paying taxes to a government consisting of representatives and an executive that you DO have the power to elect.

On the other hand, to the extent that the tax protesters believe that their government doesn’t adequately represent them anymore, they’re arguing something more interesting.  If we stipulate that the current execution of the United States Constitution has failed, and that reform of the Constitution is needed (which many on both the left and the right have argued), then legislation and executive policy under George W. Bush or Barack Obama (or whoever) really is the product of a flawed system, and therefore (perhaps) as unjust as anything passed by King George III and the British Parliament. Still, before making this argument, I’d recommend picking up (for instance) Edmund Morgan’s Inventing the People, on how Americans came to believe that a representative government DID have the legitimate right to make laws in a way that a king did not.

By all means, let’s have a civil debate about Obama’s policies in the midst of the economic crisis.  And by all means, if we think that the problems we’re facing are due to underlying constitutional problems rather than the current legislative/executive solutions, then let’s talk about constitutional reform.  But (although I realize it’s too late now) please don’t abuse the analogy to the Boston Tea Party, even if such abuse (again, from both the right and left) is almost as much of an American tradition as the Tea Party itself.

P.S.  Also?  Why even mention tea bags?  In 1773 they were dumping loose tea into the harbor–the tea bag wasn’t invented until later–and you can still buy loose tea.

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32 Comments »

  1. The “Tea Party movement” was energized by Santelli’s televised rant in front of a bunch of oppressed commodities traders, but it has roots in Ron Paul’s election campaign, well predating the current administration and recognition of the current economic problems. It looks a lot like general dissatisfaction and resentment.

    Comment by J. L. Bell — April 10, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

  2. I definitely remember the Ron Paul fund-raising push on December 16, 2007, but I haven’t seen anyone make the explicit connection between the April 15 protests and the Ron Paul campaign–it’s probably there, I just didn’t dig deeply enough. And in any case, doesn’t that just make all this even vaguer? Are all these protesters former Ron Paul supporters, then?

    Comment by Benjamin Carp — April 10, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

  3. And won’t buying and discarding all of that tea represent economic stimulus for the tea industry? Sounds like socialism to me.

    Comment by Pete — April 10, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

  4. I told my “American to 1877″ students about this campaign and asked them whether or not this comparison was accurate (or fair). One of the best students noted a nice comparison: the Tea Act was about rescuing from bankruptcy a major company (with government ties), and so much of our (well, future) tax money will be going to rescue from bankruptcy huge companies (with lobbyists that have government ties).

    Comment by Daniel Mandell — April 10, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

  5. Prof. Mandell (or at least his student) is right, and I’m sorry I was too woolly-headed to have remembered this, because I’ve made the same point many times before. In 1772-1773, one could argue that the British Parliament was treating the East India Company as “too big to fail,” and giving it extremely advantageous trading rights (at the “expense” of Americans who still had to pay the tea duty).

    Comment by Benjamin Carp — April 10, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

  6. [...] friend Ben Carp has an excellent post on the anti-Obama tea parties at the blog Public Occurrences 2.0.  It’s very much worth [...]

    Pingback by bottom up change » Blog Archive » A History Lesson Before the “Tax Day Tea Parties” — April 10, 2009 @ 10:33 pm

  7. I think the protesters do believe that this is taxation without representation. After all, their representatives are not in power.

    Comment by Jared — April 12, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

  8. Paul Krugman in the NY Times today dubs this “tax revolt” an “AstroTurf” movement (instead of grassroots) because it is being “encouraged” (my term) by a small group of right wingers with money.

    Comment by Daniel Mandell — April 13, 2009 @ 10:10 am

  9. I link to this post from a Forbes article offering a similar but also somewhat different take. http://www.forbes.com/2009/04/14/tea-party-gingrich-republican-government-opinions-contributors-market.html

    Comment by Ira Stoll — April 14, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

  10. [...] there are plenty of differences between the situations then and now, as historian Benjamin Carp notes. The main issue is that the colonists weren’t opposed to taxes and spending per se, just to [...]

    Pingback by Time For A Tea Party? | Lux Libertas - Light and Liberty — April 16, 2009 @ 8:21 am

  11. Are all these protesters former Ron Paul supporters, then?

    Comment by koxp — July 25, 2009 @ 10:13 am

  12. But the point is, the people of the Revolutionary Era had to fight for those rights to get rid of a constitutional monarchy–it’s hardly the case that paying taxes from a colony to a (partially hereditary) government that you don’t elect is the same as paying taxes to a government consisting of representatives and an executive that you DO have the power to elect.

    Comment by jagad — August 5, 2009 @ 2:49 am

  13. I told my “American to 1877″ students about this campaign and asked them whether or not this comparison was accurate (or fair) too!

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  15. I think the protesters do believe that this is taxation without representation. After all, their representatives are not in power.

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  20. I think the protesters do believe that this is taxation without representation.

    Comment by mobilya — March 20, 2013 @ 11:59 am

  21. One of the best students noted a nice comparison: the Tea Act was about rescuing from bankruptcy a major company (with government ties), and so much of our (well, future) tax money will be going to rescue from bankruptcy huge companies (with lobbyists that have government ties).

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