The Tea Party’s Appeal Across the Political Spectrum

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Mr. Carp is Assistant Professor of History at Tufts. He is currently at work on a project tentatively called Teapot in a Tempest: The Boston Tea Party of 1773.

            Woden Teachout’s HNN article, “The Tea Party in Politics: Why the Event in Boston Harbor Keeps on Appealing to Conservatives,” raises some excellent points about the changing uses of American history, the powerful deployment of history in social movements, and the ways in which politicians can manipulate poorly understood memories of the American past.  At the same time, the article further muddies the waters with some of its misleading conclusions.  In particular, there isn’t much evidence to support Teachout’s assertion that the “most frequent and insistent” claims to the tradition of the Tea Party have been conservative.

            “Radical forces” have not just cited the Boston Tea Party in the centennial years of 1873 and 1973: in fact they have been present throughout the history of invoking the Tea Party, alongside conservative voices.  As Teachout’s own article makes clear (in discussing an effigy of Richard M. Nixon), it is not true that Americans have only invoked the Tea Party during Democratic presidencies.  (Incidentally, citing Andrew Jackson and Barack Obama as equivalent Democrats makes exactly as much sense as citing Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush as equivalent Republicans).

            Teachout seems to draw her evidence entirely from the last fifteen years, and from Alfred F. Young’s excellent book, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party.  Young never claimed that the examples of the Tea Party he mentioned in his book were exhaustive: he focused on the 1830s, the centennials, and recent events (in 1999) as a way of pointing to peaks and endpoints in the memory of the Tea Party.  And indeed, as Teachout rightly observes, recent invocations of the Boston Tea Party have largely come from the conservative side of the political spectrum: particularly the Ron Paul presidential campaign (which held a major fundraiser on December 16, 2007) and the current so-called “tea party movement.”

            Yet to cede the memory of the Tea Party to conservatism past and present concedes too much to contemporary conservatives.  The Tea Party appeals to traditionalists and self-proclaimed patriots, but it also holds a special appeal for radicals and reformers.  Teachout briefly mentions examples that Young cited: women suffragists in 1873 and environmentalists in 1973.  But there have been countless others, conservative as well as radical.

            Colorado farmers mentioned the Boston Tea Party in their protests against British enterprises in 1887.  Abraham Lincoln cited the Tea Party as precedent when defending women who had destroyed a saloon in 1854, while William Randolph Hearst gave the Tea Party as an example of just disobedience to the Volstead Act in 1929.  In the 1941 comedy The Devil and Miss Jones, a labor union organizer invokes the Tea Party in front of a magistrate.  The list goes on: the anti-slavery Liberator in 1831, vigilante agrarian reformers in Kentucky in 1907, the Knights of Mary Phagan in 1915.

            More interestingly, the Boston Tea Party has had plenty of advocates beyond American shores.  When Sun Yat-Sen threatened to seize a customs office in 1923, he threw the precedent of the Boston Tea Party in the face of the American government when it tried to intervene. While meeting with a British viceroy after the salt protest campaign in 1930, Mahatma Gandhi poured salt in his tea in homage to the Tea Party as a formative moment of civil disobedience.  The Lebanese journalist Nawaf Salam compared the 2005 Cedar Revolution to the Tea Party.

            The Boston Tea Party represents a tradition of non-violence as well as violence, a bowdlerized past as well as possibilities for future transformation.  It has been a political football for conservatives, liberals, and people who defy easy characterization—just like the Statue of Liberty, the American flag, and other historical icons.

            Teachout argues that the memory of the Boston Tea Party offers a safe (if tea-filled) harbor to conservatives with aspirations for change and a hatred of taxation.  She may be right—but that is no reason for historians to allow the Tea Party to “redefine the Republican party” alone—it redefines all of us.

Response of Woden Teachout

My thanks to Benjamin Carp for his comments on the political legacy of the Boston Tea Party. It was never my intention to claim that the Tea Party belongs to any one political perspective: clearly, as both my article and his comments point out, it doesn’t. I was interested, instead, in explaining why conservatives have been particularly drawn to this event, especially in recent years. I think I’ve done that. I appreciate Mr. Carp’s many and varied examples of the symbol’s political invocation and I’ll be on the lookout for his book.

Response of Benjamin Carp

Thanks to Woden Teachout for her gracious response. I have appreciated her inquiry into the reasons why conservatives have been particularly drawn to the Boston Tea Party. Her article yields plenty of sharp insights, and it has encouraged me to seek out her new book.

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Mark Anthony Garcia - 7/24/2009

I think that you are missing the point. The Boston Tea Party incident represents to Americans a general, rather than specific, dissatisfaction with the government. While the incident itself may have been in response to a specific set of circumstances. It was viewed then, and ever since, by the rest of the nation as a general expression of dissatisfaction.
The event is owned by who ever is dissatisfied with the government, which has historically been conservatives, and primarily due to the nations inexorable slide towards socialism.

President Obama is advocating a radical further jump towards socialism, and thus, conservatives are rekindling the Tea Movement in order to demonstrate that dissatisfaction with the government. All seems pretty simple and straightforward to me.