Ron Chernow: The Founding Fathers Versus the Tea Party

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Ron Chernow is the author of “Alexander Hamilton” and the forthcoming “Washington: A Life.”]

LIKE many popular insurgencies in American history, the Tea Party movement has attempted to enlist the founding fathers as fervent adherents to its cause. The very name invokes those disguised patriots who clambered aboard ships in Boston Harbor in December 1773 and dumped chests of tea into the water rather than submit to the hated tea tax. At Tea Party rallies, marchers brandish flags emblazoned with the Revolutionary slogan “Don’t Tread on Me” while George Washington impersonators and other folks in colonial garb mingle with the crowds.

Many Tea Party candidates and activists have tried to seize the moral high ground by explicitly identifying with the founders. Sharron Angle, who is mounting a spirited run against Harry Reid for a Senate seat from Nevada with Tea Party support, bristled at Mr. Reid’s contention that she is overly conservative. “I’m sure that they probably said that about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and Benjamin Franklin,” she protested. “And, truly, when you look at the Constitution and our founding fathers and their writings ... you might draw those conclusions: That they were conservative. They were fiscally conservative and socially conservative.”

The Tea Party movement has further sought to spruce up its historical bona fides by laying claim to the United States Constitution. Many Tea Party members subscribe to a literal reading of the national charter as a way of bolstering their opposition to deficit spending, bank bailouts and President Obama’s health care plan. A Tea Party manifesto, called the Contract From America, even contains a rigid provision stipulating that all legislation passed by Congress should specify the precise clause in the Constitution giving Congress the power to pass such a law — an idea touted Thursday by the House Republican leadership.

But any movement that regularly summons the ghosts of the founders as a like-minded group of theorists ends up promoting an uncomfortably one-sided reading of history....
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