Fred Schwarz: Tea Parties Old and New





[Fred Schwarz is a deputy managing editor of National Review.]

The one-sentence version of the Boston Tea Party is that in December 1773, angry colonists dumped a load of tea into Boston Harbor because they didn’t want to pay the tax on it. That’s true as far as it goes, but the full story is a bit more complicated — and holds even more instructive parallels for the tea partiers of today.

For one thing, the tea tax was not new in 1773. It had been in effect since 1767, and in spite of sporadic attempts at a boycott, many colonists had wearily reconciled themselves to paying it. Others consumed tea smuggled in on Dutch ships (which was cheaper, though generally thought inferior), or bought from importers who had bribed the tax collector....

In 1773 as today, respectable supporters of the cause were uneasy about the participation of undisciplined masses; Benjamin Franklin called for the cost of the destroyed tea to be repaid. And to be sure, many of the tactics used by 1770s revolutionaries — not just seizure of property but vandalism, physical intimidation, tarring and feathering, and the like — have no place in today’s politics. Even back then, they were considered extreme, which is why the original Tea Partiers had to disguise themselves (as Indians, according to legend) and act under cover of night. Their descendants today engage in nothing more violent than the occasional vivid metaphor. Similarly, it’s worth recalling that while Boston’s rebels were protesting taxation without representation, today’s protesters have duly elected representatives in Congress — just not enough of them. That’s why their efforts are focused on winning back government through the ballot box instead of shaking it off through force.

In both cases, the government expected a supine public to accept a loss of liberty in exchange for a seeming benefit (“cheap” tea, “universal” medical care). The British ministry thought the public would be too dumb to see through the Tea Act, or too apathetic to care, just as the Democrats thought today’s public would eagerly devour the poisoned lollipop of Obamacare. And in both cases, the government didn’t know when to cut its losses in the face of determined resistance. While Barack Obama’s response to today’s tea parties will not be as heavy-handed as that of Lord North in 1774, we can hope that today’s Americans will be just as vigilant in defense of their freedom as the original tea partiers were.

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