Publick Occurrences 2.0

February 16, 2010

Tea Party on the Move

There has been a crush of interesting recent articles on the contemporary tea party movement, which I thought I’d highlight.

Today’s New York Times has a very long feature that tries to tie together the tangled strands of the movement.

These people are part of a significant undercurrent within the Tea Party movement that has less in common with the Republican Party than with the Patriot movement, a brand of politics historically associated with libertarians, militia groups, anti-immigration advocates and those who argue for the abolition of the Federal Reserve.

Urged on by conservative commentators, waves of newly minted activists are turning to once-obscure books and Web sites and discovering a set of ideas long dismissed as the preserve of conspiracy theorists, interviews conducted across the country over several months show. In this view, Mr. Obama and many of his predecessors (including George W. Bush) have deliberately undermined the Constitution and free enterprise for the benefit of a shadowy international network of wealthy elites.

The ebbs and flows of the Tea Party ferment are hardly uniform. It is an amorphous, factionalized uprising with no clear leadership and no centralized structure. Not everyone flocking to the Tea Party movement is worried about dictatorship. Some have a basic aversion to big government, or Mr. Obama, or progressives in general. What’s more, some Tea Party groups are essentially appendages of the local Republican Party.

But most are not. They are frequently led by political neophytes who prize independence and tell strikingly similar stories of having been awakened by the recession. Their families upended by lost jobs, foreclosed homes and depleted retirement funds, they said they wanted to know why it happened and whom to blame.

That is often the point when Tea Party supporters say they began listening to Glenn Beck. With his guidance, they explored the Federalist Papers, exposés on the Federal Reserve, the work of Ayn Rand and George Orwell. Some went to constitutional seminars. Online, they discovered radical critiques of Washington on Web sites like (“Home of the Patriotic Resistance”) and (“Because there is a war on for your mind.”).

The Tea Party movement defies easy definition, largely because there is no single Tea Party.

Local Tea Party groups are often loosely affiliated with one of several competing national Tea Party organizations. In the background, offering advice and organizational muscle, are an array of conservative lobbying groups, most notably FreedomWorks. Further complicating matters, Tea Party events have become a magnet for other groups and causes — including gun rights activists, anti-tax crusaders, libertarians, militia organizers, the “birthers” who doubt President Obama’s citizenship, Lyndon LaRouche supporters and proponents of the sovereign states movement.

It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny.

Other articles of interest:

In the New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky observed the protests of September 12, 2009.

Earlier this month, Ben McGrath took stock of the tea party movement in a nice piece for the New Yorker.

On the Washington Post website, David Waters was skeptical that the Christian Right would join forces with the tea party movement (H/T John Fea).

In HNN, Jim Sleeper offers a cursory comparison of the Boston Tea Party of 1773 and today’s tea party movement, and (rather too optimistically) tries to link today’s tea party movement to anti-corporate sentiment.  While there were anti-corporate elements in the original Boston Tea Party, as  Thom Hartmann points out here, I think Sleeper goes too far in hoping that Sarah Palin’s Nashville audience will take up Hartmann’s cry.

Finally, at Jeff Pasley’s request, I’m linking to the videos of two lunchtime talks I gave at the Old South Meeting House in December 2009.  John Fea kindly mentioned the videos on his own blog (which all of you should be following), but in any case here is the first talk and here is the second.  The talks are called “Teapot in a Tempest: The Boston Tea Party of 1773,” in part because that’s what I thought the title of my upcoming book would be.  The title has now changed, but I am happy to say that the manuscript is currently off to the press and due out in fall 2010.


April 27, 2009

More Visiting Team Tea Party Commentary

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Conservatives,Revolution — Benjamin Carp @ 12:26 pm

Last week I did some more Tea Party commentary elsewhere:

…it’s true that many (though not all) of the conservative protesters were invoking the “tea party” mostly as empty symbolism and not as an explicit historical parallel. But such unthinking (not to say cheap) symbolism can be potentially dangerous. After all, the actual perpetrators of the Boston Tea Party destroyed over £9000 worth of goods (the equivalent of between $1 and $2 million dollars in today’s money), and this was after weeks of threatening the British tea agents at their homes and places of business. Perhaps we might agree today that the colonists were forced to resort to violence and destruction because they suffered under a “tyrannical” empire that ignored their arguments—but in a representative government, we have other alternatives. Despite the signs calling for “tarring and feathering,” in New York City, the strong police presence probably discouraged any real thoughts of violence. But will those protesters who were calling for “rebellion” be content with civil disobedience in the future?

Check out OUPblog for the rest.


April 17, 2009

Ink-Stained Wretch

Filed under: Conservatives,Newspapers,Revolution — Benjamin Carp @ 10:26 pm

Here’s why I was holding back my experiences at the NYC tea party from earlier this week:

The night turned chilly as dusk settled into darkness, and a dampness hung in the air from the rain that had fallen earlier in the day. In a sea of citizens who said they were fighting for freedom, I saw young men dressed as American Indians. I saw tea being brandished in protest. And I heard plenty of anger about taxes and tyranny.

This wasn’t Boston on Dec. 16, 1773. I was in New York City on April 15, 2009.

Read the rest in the Washington Post Outlook section.


April 16, 2009

Steeped in Tea Party Links

Filed under: Conservatives,Historians,Media,Political culture,Revolution — Benjamin Carp @ 11:32 am

Last night I went to one of the tax day “tea parties”–this one in lower Manhattan, by City Hall Park.  I have a lot to say about my experience there, but I want to hold off for a little while.  In the meantime, I wanted to provide readers with some of the most interesting links I’ve perused over the last few days.

Our regular readers will have already seen my previous thoughts, plus smart observations from Andrew Shankman.  The website for the NYC event I attended is here.  Wikipedia does an informative rundown of the 2009 history; see also the talk page.  I found good advance coverage by David Weigel of the Washington Independent, who followed up by reporting on the Washington DC tea party here.  Lawrence Downes was caustic about an earlier tea party event in the NYT; more interesting was this rundown of previous tax revolts in US history.

Samuel Adams biographer Ira Stoll graciously linked to this site in this Forbes piece: “Time for a Tea Party?“  So did John Fea of Messiah College, who records his observations of the Harrisburg, PA, tea party, and Jared Elosta of bottom up change, who began reporting what he saw in Boston.

Thom Hartmann offers historical perspective from the left in “The Real Boston Tea Party was an Anti-Corporate Revolt,” at (hat tip to PJT).

Glenn Reynolds of the University of Tennessee offers a sympathetic discussion of the movement’s political mobilization in the Wall Street Journal, and Jack Balkin of Yale Law School does a great follow-up to the Reynolds article.

From the right, Ross Kaminsky combats some left-wing stereotypes about the Tea Party in “Lunatic Left Wrong About Tea Parties,” in Human Events; Angry White Dude offers his thoughts.  Supporters of the tea parties give a rundown of the day’s events at and

Skeptics have included Paul Krugman, Andrew Sullivan (also here), Amanda Marcotte, the folks at and (see Ann Davidow), the Huffington Post, Robert Reich, and Rand Simberg (though he’s also somewhat of a supporter).

Anyone have other links to add?  I’m not particularly interested in television coverage; if people have links to standard press coverage (or other opinions from any part of the political spectrum) then I’m more interested, particularly since I’ve found very little on the NYC protest I attended.


More links: Ross Douthat from the right, and Kos, Ezra Klein (with newer thoughts here), James Wolcott and Whiskey Fire from the left.  Also, Jared Elosta (an Obama supporter) continues his Boston coverage.

Gordon Belt of the Posterity Project linked here with his own linky post (with some videos too).

And Jon Stewart is funny, but John Oliver is even funnier.


April 14, 2009

Tea-partying like it’s 1773 — no, really!

Filed under: Conservatives,Guest posts,Revolution — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:47 pm

Here’s another, welcome but unsolicited view of the modern “tea party movement” that Ben just wrote about, from Myths of the Lost Atlantis guest poster Andrew Shankman of Rutgers. The so-called teabaggers have been the snark of the liberal blogosphere and MSNBC the past few days, but Andy suggests that this may be a rare case of a right-wing historical analogy having a certain accuracy:

Tomorrow in what appears to be a scripted farce, some number of Americans will wave tea bags to denounce what they view as the outrageous, un-American taxes of the Obama Administration.  The teabags are meant to invoke the Boston Tea Party of December 15, 1773, when, in current U.S. dollars, the Boston Sons of Liberty dumped between $1.5 and $2 million worth of tea into Boston Harbor.

Many of my fellow Obama supporters have denied that these modern tea-partiers can claim a proud American heritage since President Obama has lowered the taxes of the vast majority of U.S. citizens.  This modern nonsense, they insist, can, therefore have nothing to do with that brave act of resistance, which provoked the Coercive Acts that led to the First Continental Congress and two years later to the Declaration of Independence.

Yet how wrong my fellow liberals are.  In denouncing President Obama’s smug, elitist insistence that taxes be lowered, the modern tea-baggers follow precisely the example of the Boston Sons of Liberty.  The Tea Act of 1773, conceived by the ministry of Frederick Lord North, gave the East India Tea Company monopoly privilege to sell tea to the American colonists.  This privilege was intended to bail out the floundering company.  In exchange for it, the company paid a light tax and also agreed to sell the tea to the colonists at prices lower than they had been before Parliament passed the Tea Act.  The Tea Party occurred because the Massachusetts colonial governor, Thomas Hutchinson, refused to let company ships laden with tea that had arrived in the harbor leave without unloading.  The tea sat for several days and the time when it would have to be unloaded or seized and sold at public auction neared.  Leaders of the Boston Sons understood that if the historically cheap tea made it on shore, whether unloaded by the company or as a result of public seizure, the good citizens of Boston would happily purchase it.  So into the harbor it had to go before a principled stand against no taxation without representation ended with Bostonians drinking very cheap (but taxed) tea.

So wave your teabags by all means.  Denouncing taxes that have actually been lowered and resisting shrewd, well-designed policies is so American that it predates the United States of America.

Andrew Shankman
Associate Professor of History
Rutgers University, Camden

I might add that the other factor that the 1773 and 2009 Tea Parties have in common is that they primarily express their organizers’ atavistic political antipathies, and their desire to put on attention-getting political stunts, rather than any coherent ideas about tax policy. Of course, Sam Adams and his cohorts may possibly have organized their stunt in an otherwise worthier cause than Rick Santelli and his.

Now playing: Comet Gain – This English Melancholy


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 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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