The “Tea Party” Movement and Its Misuse of History

Mr. Stern is now completing his doctorate in early American history at Princeton University; his dissertation is entitled, The Overflowings of Liberty: Massachusetts, the Townshend Crisis and the Reconception of Freedom, 1766-1770. He is also the author of "Jane Franklin Mecom: A Boston Woman in Revolutionary Times" (Early American Studies, Spring 2006).

We’ve seen a lot of the “Tea Party” protesters in recent weeks. Their main announced purpose, as they parade and wave their tea-bags, is to stop health-insurance reform, which they have branded a “socialist” (or, alternatively, fascist) invasion of private rights. They complain bitterly about taxation, and about government spending in general. Many go a good deal further, spouting incendiary (and often blatantly false) claims about government leaders and intentions. They insist that the “real” America – whatever recent elections say – hates and fears that government. They seem, indeed, determined to whip the like-minded into a frenzy bordering on violence. Many prominent conservatives have happily embraced this movement. House Minority Leader John Boehner proudly calls it the start of a “rebellion,” a rising of the angry masses against the government – a government he speaks of as if it had been imposed on the country against the people’s will.

The protesters steep themselves in the aura of the American Revolution, claiming to embody its spirit. Yet they seem to believe their anger should trump the will of a democratic majority – an idea that comes much closer to nullification and secession, the roots of the Civil War, than it does to our nation’s founding ideals. In comparing themselves to Boston’s 1773 destruction of tea, the “Tea Partiers” grossly misunderstand the history they claim to champion.

“Tea Party” is, first of all, a patronizing name never used by the participants (it was coined by 19th century writers uncomfortable with popular crowds). But, far more importantly, the 1773 event had nothing to do with taxes being too high – and it certainly wasn’t meant to condemn the idea of taxation in general. The issue was taxes imposed from Britain, without the consent of the people or their representatives. Far from denouncing taxation in general, the Revolutionaries often declared it their patriotic duty to pay, making much of their readiness to contribute to or even beyond the limits of their means – so long as they, through a majority vote of their representatives, made a free grant of their money to the government. The Revolutionary movement had little to do with the modern conservative notion that taxation is “organized theft.”

The “Tea Party” movement, when it invokes the Revolution, is completely confused on these points. Ironically, their take on the “Tea Party” is closer to that of the British and the Loyalists, who contemptuously caricatured the colonists as mere tax rebels.

The Revolution established elected government in America; after that, the militant methods of 1773 no longer applied. There were, to be sure, tax revolts after the Revolution – but most Revolutionary leaders condemned them. Taxes were now passed by majority consent through elected legislative assemblies, and were binding on majority and minority alike: extra-legal risings such as the tea action were no longer considered legitimate.

Many, of course, from the founding era on up, complained that taxes were too high, or that government was getting too big and too intrusive. But the Revolution had changed everything: government policy was determined by majorities of the people’s representatives. Those out of power have always had every right to challenge policies they dislike. Yet the route to redress was now through elections and the courts. Dissenters could not deny the legitimacy of elections they disapproved, or reject the rule of law because they disagreed with the majority’s decisions.

It would surely be well if senior politicians such as Boehner considered these facts, before tossing around words like “rebellion.” The “Tea Partiers” openly and proudly denounce our elected leaders as socialists, fascists, foreigners, and a good deal more besides. Defining themselves and their sympathizers as the only “real” Americans, they want a veto over the will of the actual voting majority. The leaders and thinkers of the American Revolution would have no tolerance for such tactics. The minority’s forcible refusal, within a republic, to abide by the majority’s constitutional acts betrays everything the Revolution achieved. That was why the Union eventually fought the Civil War – and one would have hoped, since then, that minority “rebellion” had lost its appeal as a political strategy.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

J R Willis - 10/16/2009

None of which has been seriously challenged as a fundamental facet of the original design of the system. These are all Federal intrusions into a system that needs oversight, not acts of fiat.

We play the hands we are dealt, sir. The over-arching concern is how the rules need to be changed.

Jonathan Chu - 10/15/2009

All too often, the Westerners who protest that government is on their backs live off of subsidized grazing fees, tax-write offs, oil depreciation allowances, Social Security and Medicare

Maarja Krusten - 10/13/2009

I don't know which message boards you read, but consider what Steve Chapman wrote about President Obama at Townhall in September:

"He is president, in short, at a highly consequential moment. And consequential moments inflame the political climate, because so much is at stake.

Does that mean the ferocious criticism has nothing to do with race? Of course not. Obama may be a 'post-racial' figure, but there is still a significant slice of the electorate that has never gotten past his skin color.

For anyone who regards blacks as irredeemably alien or inferior, Obama is a nightmare, not just because he is black but because he so thoroughly confounds racist stereotypes."

Chapman's article about the President and criticism of past Presidents and the comments are interesting. See;comments=true

Anyone who has read message boards where anonymous members of the public congregate has seen the President referred to as the Mulatto Messiah and his wife as Aunt Jemima. Or worse. And we've all read the on-line discussions where people shake their heads at acquaintances who make jokes about the First Family's family tree and gorillas.

One thing to look out for is the degree of comfort people have in calling out fellow posters with whom they otherwise agree ideologically when they make racist comments. If opposition to Obama mostly is philosophical or political and not racial, otherwise like minded people should feel comfortable posting rejoinders such as "that's ugly and uncalled for. I didn't vote for him, but he's the President voted in to office by a majority of the American people. Let's keep race out of our discussions of public policy." If such pushback to the comments about Mulatto Messiahs and Aunt Jemima and gorillas isn't there, then historians will have to try to unravel why not. There could be any number of reasons related to the way people in groups interact.

Maarja Krusten - 10/13/2009


The writer offers that just in fun, but it's a reminder of how different tax and other domestic policy issues can look, depending on where one lives. David Brooks pointed that out in 2004 in a more thoughtful column than the one in MarketWatch. Brooks offered his observations in a column headed "Not Just a Personality Clash, It's a Conflict of Visions,"

Brooks noted, "Politicians from the more sparsely populated South and West are more likely, at least in the political and economic realms, to champion the Goldwateresque virtues: freedom, self-sufficiency, individualism. Politicians from the cities are likely to champion the Ted Kennedyesque virtues: social justice, tolerance, interdependence.

Politicians from sparsely populated areas are more likely to say they want government off people's backs so they can run their own lives. Politicians from denser areas are more likely to want government to play at least a refereeing role, to keep people from bumping into one another too abusively."

Maarja Krusten - 10/12/2009

I support efforts by historians to point out the facts behind historical events and to engage with the public. I wish more of them did so. However, sites such as HNN don’t have a very broad reach. There are many busy, well-meaning Americans who never read history, only get glimpses of the news, and have a vague and inchoate sense of how they and their perspectives on the past and present fit in with other citizens and the federal government. Among the people in the Tea Party movement are populists, libertarians, and conservatives, among others. What is the best way to reach them with discussions of history? Is it possible to do that effectively in this echo chamber age?

Aside from the broader strategic issue, I’d like to offer some tactical advice. You write, “The ‘Tea Partiers’ openly and proudly denounce our elected leaders as socialists, fascists, foreigners, and a good deal more besides.” That seems too broad brush and didactic to me as an historian, given the analyses I’ve seen of the divergent elements that made up some of the participants in rallies. Beyond that, there is the question of advocacy, in which you seem interested. If you’re trying to reach some of the persuadable people, I’d take a different approach than you have.
At the AEI blog, Charles Murray recently wrote: “My reader—the one I’m talking to with every sentence—is a bright, reasonable person who doesn’t agree with me but comes to my text ready to give me a shot. My task is to get this reader to stick with me as we work through difficult questions. If I take a cheap shot at his point of view, I’m going to lose him. If I duck an obvious objection to the argument I’m making, I’m going to lose him. I realize that this is a saccharine, maybe even a wussy, way of thinking about what I’m doing. And it’s more than a little elitist. But we live in a world where a majority of the best and brightest young people who are going to shape the culture leave college with a standard liberal view of the world.”

That is not to say that everyone is reachable to advocates on the right, left or in the middle. Consider the range of opinions this summer just at two sites. Kathleen Parker, a Republican pundit who writes for the Washington Post, observed in August in a column about economic woes called “Anxiety Attacks” that “Here's how a Florida real estate appraiser summed up the zeitgeist: ’People don't believe the politicians or the government stats when they know five couples who are losing their house and cars. . . . Basically, it's a total disconnect from government, and government cannot influence their decisions unless they give them money, yet every giveaway reinforces their lack of faith.’" Her column is here
The response at FreeRepublic to her assessment of citizens’ anxiety is here: As you can see, Ms. Parker and the posters are hardly on the same page. To unravel the sources of some of the anxiety, I think historians will have to take a very nuanced view.

J R Willis - 10/12/2009

This and your other post imply that the protests are, at the end of the day, all about race. To say that no one is protesting the president simply because of the color of his skin is certainly wrong, a small proportion surely may be. To suggest that all of them are doing so for that reason is a badly and over-played card, for several reasons:

-Obama's job ratings have been falling steadily. This demands that we admit a few facts, namely, that a significant proportion of the same people who elected him don't approve of what he is doing. Hardly a racist smoking gun. Too, as hard as the media has tried, they haven't found any significant racial displays or motivations behind the protests, which, if they could prove, would have been splattered non-stop throughout the media universe. It just isn't happening that way.

-Congress is just as big a target (if not moreso) of the protests as Obama, and this is not related to race. It is about competance, vision, and execution, which has been found wanting in that body. Congress' approval ratings are in the toilet, and Obama is surely getting some negative feedback for his collusion with key members of that body.

I was deeply concerned that race would become an issue with this president, but I am both saddened and relieved to see that he has foundered so mightily that it really isn't a factor.

Lisa Kazmier - 10/12/2009

You're being pretty disingenuous if you try to assert those are the reasons. Read my post and watch that program first.

Lisa Kazmier - 10/12/2009

Recently, I saw a History Channel program on the history of the KKK and their stances against immigrants and the like. The footage could easily have been shot this year at a Teabagger Event.

Indeed, a lot of the language used about Martin Luther King Jr (except the N word) has been used regarding Obama.

I suggest people look into this.

J R Willis - 10/12/2009

I stand by what I said, I think we are talking about degrees here. Reaction to taxation was ugly, and often saw some violence. But none of these acts approached the Tea Party in significance or repercussions, which is why I stated that taxation/representation had, by then, been eclipsed by a new form of abuse, and thus response. One only needs to read the Declaration of Independence to see that this list of grievances had grown long. Yes, taxation was important and it served as the launching pad for discontent, but it was NOT the only factor behind the Tea Party participants or leadership actions.

As for rebellion, it takes many forms, and not all are successful. I never suggested whether it was "proper" or not, only that it does and will occur. Having said that, are you suggesting the attempted nullification of the Alien and Sedition Acts, by none other than those rebels Jefferson and Madison, somehow violated the spirit of the Revolution? I don't think so, because they were well-positioned to understand the difference between a Republic and a true democracy. There is no doubt that Jefferson thought that the Contract had been violated, demanding the use of whatever means needed (words, in this case, perhaps followed by actions) was the correct response.

But again, I see no reason to directly link the violence of the 1773 folks with those of today, rather, I think that the two groups share very similar complaints and goals, even if the exact set of playing pieces have changed slighty.

As for denying the legitimacy of elections and laws, they may do so at their leisure until they actually act. This is my main complaint with your otherwise good piece: You seem to deny the right of dissent, but from only one ideological direction.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/12/2009

Which of these claims about our government leaders do you find "blatantly false?" --

A) We are saddled with a Secretary of Treasury who failed to pay $35,000 in income taxes for which he was reimbursed in advance, and for which he signed an agreement to pay?

B) We have a chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee who admits he failed to report $75,000 in rental income
from a villa he owns(!) in the Caribbean, and who admits that an account containing $250,000 was omitted from his net worth statement.

Forget all the other tax-cheaters. Those two alone are worth several protest walks.

Jeremy Adam Stern - 10/12/2009

To deny the centrality of taxation without consent is to miss the entire thrust of the Revolutionary era, Mr. Willis. Your statement that taxation "had not provoked such an uproar" by 1773 is so utterly wrong, it really makes any further discussion of the issue pointless. I suggest you spend some time with the Colonial newspapers and legislative proceedings, and see what they had to say on the matter.

As for your suggestion that forcible risings against government are justified so long as they are "successful," I think you rather proved my point than refuted it. The forcible overthrow of an elected government by the frustrated minority destroys everything the Revolution stood for. Such "success" would only mean that democracy had been "successfully" destroyed. That was why the Whiskey Rebellion, nullification and secession were opposed.

And, quite apart from the widely documented tenor of the "Tea Party" protesters' signs and statements, "rebellion" was a direct quote from the House minority leader.

The "Tea Party" protesters have every right to march, protest and call for whatever policies they wish. They do not have the right to deny legitimacy to fair and free elections simply because they don't like the result; nor do they have the right to call -- as they do -- for forcible resistance to legal acts of government.

James Lee Winningham - 10/12/2009

If you haven't noticed the agitation for rebellion at these "tea parties" then you have not been watching. Try living in Texas. There are many here ready to leave the country.

J R Willis - 10/12/2009

"Crazies"? I would say that the Americans of '73 were a bit more "crazy" than modern protestors. When someone in this modern movement tars-and-feathers an IRS agent or destroys a massive amount of government property while dressed as indians, then we can talk.

J R Willis - 10/12/2009

Don't misunderstand, the tax issue was ever-present, but had not provoked such an uproar to that point. The monopoly was the real spark, because it was seen for what it was: Government force. The Navigation Acts and others beyond those had long set the tone, but as long as the colonies were not burdened too heavily, the relationship didn't sour until the series of extra-ordinary revenue measures of the 1760's. Even then, civil disobedience was the chosen tool for resistance for the most part, not outright commercial terrorism.

I won't spend too much ink parsing your choice of "proper", but proper and effective tend to part ways on occasion, thus weakening your argument. Look at the Nullification impasses, the Whiskey rebellion, the lead-up to the Civil War, and that event itself. Whether proper or not, these were issues that sought to address a perceived tyranny, and each was variously successful.

I don't see many modern "tea party" folks suggesting rebellion, they have, in contrast, peacefully staed their deep displeasure with what they see as abusive government policies that they have no other way to resist, for a number of reasons.

Jeremy Adam Stern - 10/12/2009

In fact, Mr. Willis, the 1773 tea action had everything to do with taxes. While the monopoly granted to the East India Company was certainly an extra source of anger, the main issue was the 1767 Townshend duty on tea... as Caroline Hill correctly points out, the 1773 Tea Act was seen as a trick to lower the price of tea, thereby to sell the tea in the colonies, collect the duty, and establish the precedent of taxation without consent.

As for the notion of arrogant and invasive government, the point is that the present federal government of the United States has been fairly and freely elected. That is an issue I very explicitly addressed: since the Revolution, the proper way to oppose government is through elections and the courts. The 1773 protests and their extra-legal approach had no bearing after independence. Today's "Tea Party" protesters, by suggesting rebellion against the lawful elected government, are not the ideological heirs of 1773.

william e vanvugt - 10/12/2009

Add to this the fact that many of the "tea party" leaders in 1773 were smugglers who were now being undercut by the cheaper tea--cheaper even though it was taxed. The anti-tax crazies of today have nothing in common to those of 1773

Caroline Hill - 10/12/2009

The 1773 demonstration also, ironically, protested lower taxes! As part of the attempt to create the monopoly the East India Company was granted tax rebates, which would lower the price of tea. . .and entice colonists to break the boycott.

J R Willis - 10/12/2009

The 1773 "Tea Party" had very little to do with taxes, at least in the event. It was a protest against the Crown creating a government-backed monopoly in the tea trade, strangling the free market and pushing merchants out of business.

It is incorrect to suggest that modern "tea party" participants are utterly anti-ANYTHING, but they are particularly intersted in keeping an arrogant federal government from taking control of more and more aspects of daily life, and ultimatly, their liberty. In this, Americans of 1773 and 2009 have a great deal in common.

Subscribe to our mailing list