T.H. Breen: Are Tea Party Protests Really Modeled on the American Revolution?





[T.H. Breen, a professor of American history at Northwestern University, is the author of the forthcoming book "American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People."]

When Americans protest, whether it is today's Tea Party members or Vietnam Veterans Against the War being arrested on Lexington Green in 1971, they often lay claim to the ordinary patriots of the Revolution. The impulse of many protesters has been to assert kinship with the middling Americans who came forward to resist British imperial power. But what do we know about the motivations and actions of the ordinary colonists who risked killing and getting killed at the birth of independence? Judging by some of the uses to which their memory is put, not much. These remarkable men and women, however, left ample records; we can discern their motivations in their own words.

First, the American patriots of 1773 and 1774 worked hard to promote unity. The 13 colonies could have broken up into small, squabbling units, an event that would have doomed effective military resistance to Great Britain. But rather than trumpeting narrow regional, ideological or class interests, ordinary patriots insisted on promoting a general American cause. They understood that it was only by working together that they could hold their own against the empire. As the Rev. Nathaniel Niles of Massachusetts reminded parishioners in 1774, "The smallest particles have their influence. Such is our state, that each individual had a proportion of influence on some neighbor at least; he, on another, and so on; as in a river, the following drop urges that which is before, and every one through the whole length of the stream has the like influence."

Second, the colonists did not protest taxation. To be clear: They protested against taxation without representation, an entirely different matter....

Third, the colonists appreciated that any disgruntled person can mouth words of protest. But resistance to Britain demanded serious sacrifice....

Modern Americans owe a tremendous debt to the ordinary patriots who launched an insurgency that became a revolution that brought independence. Simply put, without them there would be no United States. The minimum repayment is to know their history. Anyone wishing to cloak present-day complaints in that early generation's sacrifice ought to understand how it managed during a severe political crisis to bring forth a new republic dedicated to rights, equality and liberty....


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