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Monday, February 8, 2010

Tea Parties: 18th Century v. 21st Century

Unless you have been living under a rock, you are aware of the sudden emergence of the "tea party" movements that have captured the attention of many "super conservatives" this past year. In the spirit of the original tea party of old, many of these new activists fancy themselves as revolutionaries who are crying out in the dark for freedom from oppression and tyranny.

But just how similar are the "tea parties" of today with those of old?

Comparing the Boston Tea Party to the various tea parties that have taken place across the nation in recent months is complex to say the least. After all, we're trying to compare 18th century America with today's society. Most of the social, cultural, and technological norms are completely different now. The majority of early Americans wouldn't even recognize modern America as being their "stomping ground." This is probably the most important (and obvious) distinction to make, especially when we consider just how much tea party pundits (most notably Glenn Beck) have tried to cast the founders in a modern light.

With that said, here are a few specific differences between the tea parties of today and the original tea party of 1773:

1. First off, the legacy of the Boston Tea Party (1773) has been used on a number of occasions. In fact, Mahondas Gandhi (not Mahatma Gandhi) invoked the legacy of the Boston Tea Party in 1908 by inspiring his fellow Indians to burn British registration cards. In the early 1970s there were a large number of gatherings that called themselves "tea parties." At one “I Love America” rally led by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, followers were asked to burn bags of tea, symbolizing the people’s anger over the newly-enacted Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade. In 1973, the 200th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, protestors gathered at the White House to call for the impeachment of then President Richard Nixon by throwing bags of tea on the White House lawn. In 1998, two conservative US Congressmen put the federal tax code into a chest marked "tea" and dumped it into the harbor. And finally, in 2006 a breakoff of the Libertarian Party called the “Boston Tea Party” was founded.

2. The motivations behind today’s tea parties and the original tea party of 1773 are completely different. The Boston Tea Party (1773) was actually a protest AGAINST a corporate tax cut, as opposed to today’s tea parties which protested rising taxes and an increase of government spending, etc. In 1773, The British East India Company was nearly bankrupt and instead of providing a "bailout" or government loan, Parliament passed the Tea Act, which eliminated for this company the duty on tea exported to America. As a result, smaller merchants in the colonies were expected to suffer, since they didn’t received the same tax cuts as the East India Company. The Boston Tea Party was the peak of a boycott against a company that got huge corporate tax cuts granted to them by the government. Once the ships from the East India Company arrived in Boston’s harbor, men like Samuel Adams and John Hancock were quick to seize the opportunity and turn it into a political advantage by rallying local Boston merchants to their cause. On December 16, after assembling at the Old South Church to express their grievances, Samuel Adams stood and gave the “secret message” to his devout “Sons of Liberty” (and Masons) to assemble at the docks, where they had their “tea party.” 342 chests of tea (property of the East India Company) were seized and dumped into Boston Harbor.

Now, this is often contrary to what many people know about the Boston Tea Party. After all, most Americans believe that the American Revolution was the result of taxes being levied against them by Britain. This isn’t 100% accurate. To understand the role that taxes played in the American Revolution we must go back to 1765. The British Empire, fresh of its complete rout of the French in the French and Indian War, was faced with a mounting debt as a result of that war. As a result, Parliament decided to levy a small tax (roughly one percent) against the colonists in America. Parliament believed that the colonists needed to play off a small portion of Britain’s debt, since the war had been fought to protect the colonists in the first place. As a result, the STAMP ACT was passed. However, the colonists exploded in anger and protested the act. Led by Boston Revolutionary Samuel Adams, the colonists succeeded in having the Stamp Act repealed. One of the main reasons for their success was their usage of the old propaganda phrase, “No taxation without representation,” which had been coined in 1750 by Reverend John Mayhew. By repealing the Stamp Act, the colonists believed they had succeeded and that everything would be ok.

The colonists’ excitement, however, was to be short-lived. In 1766 Parliament passed the often forgotten DECLARATORY ACT, which stated that Parliament had the right and power to govern its colonies, “in all cases whatsoever.” In essence, this became the catalyst for the revolution. It created a “showdown” between the legitimacy of Parliament’s rule and the sovereignty of the colonies. In fact, Thomas Jefferson would quote the Declaratory Act several times in the Declaration of Independence.

So, while taxes were an issue early on, it is important to recognize that they played a very limited role in bringing about the American Revolution.

3. The Boston Tea Party was an illegal action of a mob that committed assault, theft, destruction of property, etc. The tea parties of today did no such thing (at least to my knowledge). The Boston Tea Party was literally an act of defiance to the laws of the British. The participants were willfully and knowingly being insubordinate to the will of King and country. The results of their actions caused the British to impose a complete blockade of Boston Harbor. Today’s tea parties, while an expression of anger/intolerance of current government decisions, do not invoke the same response nor do they take the same radical steps of defiance.

4. Today’s tea party participants claim that their petition was a “grass roots” movement led and organized by the people, a claim that is hotly debated by many. The Boston Tea Party, however, was not. It was led by prominent and influential Bostonians like Samuel Adams and the VEEEERY rich John Hancock, who, interestingly enough, stood to lose a fortune by the East India Company. His motives were not as pure as we are often taught.

5. The Boston Tea Party was NOT assembled out of a growing concern over the size of government, government spending, etc. Instead it was assembled on issues like colonial sovereignty v. Parliamentary rule, corporate tax breaks, and a lack of government funding for the development of the American merchant class. In fact, this last point (the development of the American merchant class) was a fundamental issue for Thomas Paine in his extremely influential pamphlet, “Common Sense.” It’s worth noting that political activist Glenn Beck has quoted Thomas Paine on several occasions, especially during the tea parties of the last year. However, Beck neglects to recognize the fact that Paine was IN FAVOR of bigger government, more government spending, higher taxes, welfare programs, etc.

And while the differences between the tea parties of today and the Boston Tea Party of 1773 are vast, it’s important to remember that at the heart they share the same basic principle: that the people are where sovereignty and power ultimately reside…at least that is the hope of its participants, whether in the 18th or 21st century. And it’s likely that we haven’t seen the end to the legacy of the Boston Tea Party!!!

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