Prof. Benjamin Carp of Tufts is at work on a thorough new study of the Boston Tea Party. He’s been mulling over the connections and disconnects between that 1773 crowd action and the recent political protests that invoke it. It’s been interesting to watch his considerations evolve.
On 10 April he wrote on the Publick Occurrences blog:
I think the easiest thing to do would be to start picking out all the bad historical analogies and use it as an excuse to guffaw at the “Tea Party” movement that’s scheduled to demonstrate on April 15, 2009 (tax filing day). But I’m not going to do that–instead I’m going to try and be even-handed about this, and see if there’s anything to this grassroots conservative invocation of the Boston Tea Party.I believe Santelli’s displeasure actually focused on a single aspect of the Obama administration’s economic policy—the plan to keep people from losing their homes when they can pay only part of their mortgage bills. I doubt he would have gotten much support from his audience of Chicago commodities traders if he’d widened his criticism to, say, the vastly more expensive financial-industry bailouts. (Which is not to say that others didn’t protest those bailouts, at the “tea party” events and elsewhere.)
Unfortunately, the ideology behind all of this seems rather vague. . . . There’s not much there: the protesters are in favor of “basic free-market principles” and “freedom.” (Well, me too!) The site doesn’t say how the government is ignoring the Constitution, exactly–and if you dig a little further, it all goes back to Rick Santelli’s displeasure with the stimulus plan and the budget.
Ben shared further thoughts on 19 April in the Washington Post after observing one protest in New York:
Although I study early American history, I wasn’t trying to check the protesters’ creative interpretations against my footnotes. Instead, I tried to appreciate the bizarre nature of a day that began for me with work on a chapter on tea boycotts for my new book and ended with a modern crowd’s interpretation of the historical period I study. It was a great reminder that the original Tea Party had made this civilized re-enactment possible and, ultimately, anti-climactic by comparison. . . .That editorial also had the most to say about historical parallels—and historical perpendiculars—between the issues of 1773 and today. Back then, Parliament deemed the East India Company too big to fail, for instance. But the fundamental disconnect is that today we have a representative government with wide public support. “Taxation without representation” is no longer a national issue. In addition, the current economic crisis affects far more than a single well-connected company.
In Boston in 1773, the men who boarded the tea ships had to conceal their identity or risk punishment—perhaps even being hanged for treason. Last week, the merry protesters chatted with journalists about their complaints, then folded up their “Welcome to the Second American Revolution” signs and went home. The original Tea Party had helped make free speech possible, but these modern protests didn't seem likely to change the world just yet.
Most recently, on 23 April, Ben wrote at the Oxford University Press blog:
it’s true that many (though not all) of the conservative protesters were invoking the “tea party” mostly as empty symbolism and not as an explicit historical parallel. But such unthinking (not to say cheap) symbolism can be potentially dangerous. After all, the actual perpetrators of the Boston Tea Party destroyed over £9000 worth of goods (the equivalent of between $1 and $2 million dollars in today’s money), and this was after weeks of threatening the British tea agents at their homes and places of business.I think American extremists are no different from any other American political group in seeking to link their causes and methods to the nation’s founders. But the shift to a republic produced a fundamental disconnect between the Revolutionaries and the dissatisfied voters of later generations. After 1776, American white men with property could no longer complain they had no say in their government. Well, they could still complain, and some do, but those complaints hold less water than a teacup.
Perhaps we might agree today that the colonists were forced to resort to violence and destruction because they suffered under a “tyrannical” empire that ignored their arguments—but in a representative government, we have other alternatives. Despite the signs calling for “tarring and feathering,” in New York City, the strong police presence probably discouraged any real thoughts of violence. But will those protesters who were calling for “rebellion” be content with civil disobedience in the future? . . .
Certainly the tea party protests weren’t primarily populated by hate groups or domestic terrorists—but we still might want to be wary of “heritage” groups who take their revolutionary rhetoric too far. There were plenty of angry left-wing groups when the left was out of power, and now there are plenty of angry right-wing groups now that the right finds itself out in the cold. The vast majority of this anger will never be channeled into violence; but when protesters begin using “tea party” talk, we have to hope they’re not taking the analogy to an extreme.