J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Seeking Meaning in Tea Parties

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.

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.
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.)

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. . . .

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.
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.

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.

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.
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.


Vern said...

The frustration of the original Tea Party was with distant people with no direct experience of the issues passing unpopular financial policies that directly impacted those who had no one directly arguing their side (no direct representation in parliament).

The bailout passage and similar reforms are relevant because there is a sizable population against those policies and yet they had no real representation in congress - neither major party had been against the bailouts which had been going on for almost a year under Bush.

So it seems an apt analogy today to have a tea party - the government that is supposed to be representative had passed financial policies on a part of the population that felt they had no representation arguing their side of the debate.

I think the closest example on the left was not when they were completely out of power, but when NAFTA passed under Clinton. Again large portions of the populace felt they were not represented due to the broad "conventional wisdom" of the political classes at the time.

The difference is between feeling like you lost the debate vs. never having had anyone make your argument in the first place.

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t think the statement “there is a sizable population against those policies and yet they had no real representation in congress” is factual. There were 171 votes in the House against the October 2008 bailout bill. There were even more votes against the next administration’s economic bills because the Republicans voted as a bloc.

I agree that there’s a difference “between feeling like you lost the debate vs. never having had anyone make your argument in the first place.” The opponents of those bills had Congressional representatives making their arguments. And they lost the debate.

Why some of those opponents feel they had no representation or voice when the record shows they had is the real conundrum.

K. Freeland said...

Great post. It voices many of the thoughts that have gone through my head regarding the modern "Tea Parties."

There will always be people who think their opinions are not being represented in Congress, but that is the reality of being part of a representative government. Not everyone is going to prevail--sometimes your ideas and opinions lose to other people's ideas and opinions. Just because you lose doesn't mean you're not being represented. :\

Anonymous said...

Oh gawd. Another formerly interesting blog is turning into a political ranting platform. Academics are so clueless about how ordinary people think and do politics. Tea party derangement syndrome is the latest manifestation.

J. L. Bell said...

I see only one person “ranting” here. Other folks are discussing recent and Revolutionary events, how they compare and contrast, and what they say about our democratic system.

Fortunately, the political Revolution that included the Boston Tea Party yielded a constitutional right to protest, to discuss, and even to rant anonymously.

Robert S. Paul said...

Mr. Anonymous,

J.L. Bell has mentioned modern day topics and how they relate to the 18th Century for at least as long as I've been reading the blog, and I'm sure the archives would show even longer.

Furthermore, this particular post wasn't all that political, aside from it talking about a political movement and how it compared (and contrasted) with a political movement in the 18th Century.

And it wasn't Bell who started the historical analogies; It was the protesters themselves. That makes it even more relevant (and important) for this blog to cover it, because in many cases they are diluting history and twisting the truth.

If you want to read nothing but dry history, I'm sure there are plenty of textbooks and museums you can visit. But history and politics go hand-in-hand, and for the most part, I haven't seen much bias here (even though Mr. Bell is entitled to bias his blog as much as he'd like).

Vern said...

Let me qualify "no real representation" as a statement about perception. The Republican President, both major party candidates, and most national figures favored the TARP. Even though a lot of R's voted against it, the meme of the coverage was always it's inevitability. The Santorelli rant was as much about "will anyone ever come out against this?!" than the specific policies.

And really, my point was simply that the protests were designed to show that opposing views existed and to demand better representation for them. Demand for representation, related to a financial issue ... Boston Tea Party. I don't think we have to over-complicate that connection.

Maybe the more interesting side story is how events around Revolutionary Boston are seen in a relatively benign manner today - don't we hear calls for "a new Declaration of Independence" every now and then as well? The radicalism of their actions has been washed out over time, maybe by comparison to what followed in France, Russia, and throughout the twentieth century in various other revolutions?

If WWII was "the good war" was the US Revolution was "the good revolution?"

J. L. Bell said...

Oddly enough, I think that in the 1770s British-Americans had a rosier perception of “revolution” than they would just a few decades later.

The last “revolution” in British culture was the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which removed a Catholic from the throne with minimal blood and came to be seen by most of the kingdom as a Good Thing.

What worried people on both sides of the 1770s conflict was “civil war.” The English Civil War was widely seen as a Bad Thing, though some (like the Rev. Jonathan Mayhew) still argued for the rightness of killing Charles I.

Only after the French and Haitian Revolutions, I think, did the word “revolution” become frightening in American culture, and to carry notions of social chaos and widespread suffering. The Russian Revolution reinforced that in the 20th century.

Yet, as you suggest, we Americans continue to see our own Revolution as exceptional, and all good.

Anonymous said...

In modern context, "TEA" means "taxed enough already," a movement which has been around since at least the late 1980s, when I worked for the IRS.

The whole 4/15 protest was a rather disingenuous attempt to correograph (in part through the internet) a seemingly "grass roots" opposition to what some perceive as Obama's "soak the rich" tax plan, less than 100 days into his administration and before he has even really enunciated what his specific plans are.

The blogger who mentioned protests from the left is indeed correct; the whole thing reminded me of the 1960s when Abbie Hoffman appeared before the House Committee On Unamerican Activities dressed in Revolutionary War regalia.

From my perpsective, the interesting thing about this are the parallels to the "progressive school" of history from the 20s-40s, viewing attempts by Otis, Adams, and others to engineer public opinion in the 1760s and 1770s.

In any era, advocates rely on allusions to God/Morality, Patriotism, Fear, and other basic emotions to inspire action. In recent years we've seen the flag and "United We Stand" (lifted from John Dickinson's lyric) used for one purpose, and more recently Abraham Lincoln for yet another.

References to the Founders is,of course, one such allusion, the problem being that there were many Founders -- indeed, several generations of Founders -- and they didn't have one single opinion that every one shared on any particular subject, much less one that modern advocates can apply as definitive testimonial evidence in support of any particular tax policy.

Anonymous said...

A couple of comments:

As to the statement that "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", Prof. Carp obviously does not appreciate that the right, or more to the point, conservatives, have not been in power since Ronald Reagan. President Bush was far from conservative on many issues - illegal immigration and uncontrolled spending - to mention two.

As to the statement that "taxation without representation” is no longer a national issue, I believe that it will be in the not too distant future. We are very quickly approaching the point where more than 50% of tax filers will have no federal tax liability. Once that point is reached, "taxation without representation" will be back. Any candidate running for office will pander to the majority who pay no taxes.

One last thing. I attended a tea party in Riverhead on Long Island, NY on April 15th and the one unifying sentiment expressed by the speakers and those I talked to, was the growing frustration with big, centralized government and its intrusions into our lives. The bailout package, the proposed budget, the stimulus package, the tax code, illegal immigration, the unrelenting assault on second amendment rights, etc... are some of the big government complaints that I heard.

J. L. Bell said...

The notion that the Bush-Cheney administration was not conservative is ludicrous. It certainly expanded government power in many ways, but small-government conservatism is only one strain of the American right wing.

Your description of complaints at the Long Island “tea party” reinforces the notion that it expressed general resentment rather than a coherent or reality-based political position. Where are the signs of this “unrelenting assault on second amendment rights”? How can anyone see “illegal immigration” as government intrusion?

Anonymous said...

The Bush administration operated under self-proclaimed "compassionate conservatism". This is not true conservatism but a more moderate, centrist position. Of course, not quite as centrist or pragmatic as, say, President Clinton, but I'm confident that you would agree that Bush was not conservative in the mold of Goldwater or Reagan. True, his administration took conservative positions on many social issues such as embryonic stem cell research, but the expansion of government power, spending and debt under Bush were anathema to traditional conservatives.

You're correct in pointing out that I grouped illegal immigration under governmental intrusion. Obviously that's not what it is. But there is a great frustration among conservatives when we see government involved where we believe it should not be (like bailing out corporations), while ignoring some of its most basic responsibilities (like securing the border).

By the way, I love your website. There's so much great information here.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I forgot to address the "assault on second amendment rights". Where have you been? This has been going on for years. In fact, the Supreme Court made a decision last June upholding an individuals right to keep and bear arms and in the process striking down the DC gun ban. This was just the latest in a debate that has been raging for decades.

J. L. Bell said...

On the assertion that “We are very quickly approaching the point where more than 50% of tax filers will have no federal tax liability,” here are refutations from FactCheck.org and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

That belief makes the error of confusing federal income tax with all “federal tax liability.”

Even if that statement were true, the attendant worry is based on the idea that people with the most wealth in a society would have disproportionately little influence in the political process. That flies in the face of everything history tells us about any form of governance. Rich people have always had more influence than their numbers alone would provide.

And even if that unlikely forecast were true, the connection between such a scenario and “taxation without representation” is based on the untenable notion that representation doesn’t count unless one always gets one’s way.

J. L. Bell said...

The Bush-Cheney administration operated very much like the Reagan administration. Both markedly increased defense spending while cutting taxes for the wealthiest citizens and corporations, thus creating both strictures on social programs for the most vulnerable and huge budget deficits for the future.

Both administrations increased government intrusion into people’s private lives to please socially conservative supporters, though ultimately they were more willing to compromise on those issues than on economic issues.

Both administrations ended with more Cabinet departments than they had started with. Reagan’s ended with more federal government employees; the Bush-Cheney administration’s preference for privatization employed more people, at higher cost, through contracting instead of wages.

There was no Goldwater administration, of course, so it’s impossible to say what that senator would have done in office. But it’s clear that in 1964 the U.S. voters didn’t want to find out.

As for the label “traditional conservatives,” all conservatives think of themselves as traditional. The phrase is almost redundant. There are many strains of conservatism intertwining in the American right wing, and in individuals: temperamental conservatism, libertarian conservatism, social conservatism, status-quo conservatism, pro-business and pro-wealth conservatism, national-security conservatism, law-and-order conservatism... All of those outlooks claim to be “traditional.”

J. L. Bell said...

Once again, I asked, “Where are the signs of this ‘unrelenting assault on second amendment rights’?” (Please note the word “unrelenting,” which somehow got dropped when that phrase was quoted a second time.)

Citing a Supreme Court decision expanding its interpretation of those rights is evidence that “unrelenting” is inaccurate. In addition, in the last ten years the assault-weapons ban expired without renewal. If there ever was a federal government “assault on second amendment rights,” then clearly it has been relenting in recent years.

As for illegal immigration, I’m glad we agree that that’s not produced by “big government.” In fact, the only way to discourage it (aside from economic changes) is “big, centralized government and its intrusions.” But apparently the folks at these protests don’t mind such government intrusion into some other people’s lives.

Anonymous said...

All the statements you made with regard to past republican administrations increasing power and intrusion into people's lives, serve to bolster my argument that conservatives have not been in power. Reagan was the most conservative president in recent history but I don't agree with everything he did either.

OK, I see that you don't approve of the "traditional conservative" label. If we must have a label, how about "constitutional conservative". I believe that the founding documents, namely, the constitution and the declaration, are our guiding principles. These, together with the Federalist Papers outline how I believe our government should work and how its powers are limited.

As for all the different "strains" of conservatism, you make it sound like there are all these one-issue groups that can't unite on anything. All conservatives I know believe in limited government, free capitalism, an originalist interpretation of the Constitution and a strong national defense. There may be some disagreement on social issues, but for the most part we are fairly united in our views.

Now, on the second amendment. Despite all your assertions to the contrary, there continues to be an unrelenting (there, I said it!), an unrelenting assault on second amendment rights. I could cite many examples but here's a couple:
From the New York Sun: "Mayor Bloomberg wants to take New York City's gun control regulations nationwide. At his swearing in ceremony earlier this month, Mr. Bloomberg announced his top priority for the next four years: a nationwide fight across America for more gun control, from Washington, D.C., to individual statehouses." This is from an article dated Jan. 9th, 2006 which was, of course, before the recent Supreme Court decision regarding the second amendment. However, Bloomberg continued his assault this past April when he financed a negative ad against Bob McDonnell who is running for governor of Virginia. The ad casts McDonnell as a protector of criminals because of his stand on gun control laws. Now, we can agree or disagree on gun control legislation but if this is not an "unrelenting assault", I don't know what is.

As for illegal immigration, you've either misunderstood my position or intentionally mischaracterized it. Illegal immigration occurs precisely because the government is intentionally not doing one of the things it is charged to do by the constitution. It is supposed to defend our borders and provide for an orderly and sensible immigration policy. Yes, "the folks at these protests don't mind such government intrusion into some other people's lives" when those other people have entered our country illegally.

Thanks for the healthy debate.

J. L. Bell said...

Nearly all Americans of all political stripes share a faith in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the principles of the free market, rule of law, national security, and restrained government.

That includes all types of conservatives. Therefore, trying to claim the label of “constitutional conservative” doesn’t distinguish one group—though it presents that group as willing to smear other conservatives by implying that they don’t adhere to the Constitution.

I didn’t “make it sound like there are all these one-issue groups that can't unite on anything.” I explicitly stated that there are several strains of conservatism in the American right wing, and even in individuals. The simple fact that you wish to deny that the most right-wing administrations of our lifetime were conservative, and to minimize the intrusions into private lives that social conservatives advocate, shows how some parts of the right wing can be at odds with others (especially when they‘ve become widely unpopular).

When one has to reach all the way down to the municipal level to find an example of government working to limit gun ownership, that simply proves my point that the federal government has been “relenting” on that issue. Unless you wish to claim that the nationwide “Tea Parties” were directed at the mayor of New York City, his policies are beside the point.

And as to illegal immigration, I understand your position perfectly. I just noted that it’s an example of how small-government advocates (on the right and the left) can nonetheless advocate expanding government power in certain areas.

In fact, almost everybody would be happy with fewer government strictures on themselves and more on certain other people. Our democratic and constitutional system requires most citizens to be able to look at the world through other people’s eyes as well as their own.

Anonymous said...

The other anonymous referred to the Declaration, the Constitution and the Federalist being evidence that the Founders intended a limited government. As I previously noted, the Founders were not a small group of homogenous people sharing a single mindset.

The Articles of the Confederation were the real model for a government based on principles of Federalism and limited government. Proponents of Nationalism like Hamilton and Madison -- who disingenuously called themselves "Federalists" while painting opponents of Nationalism as "Anti-Federalists" -- were in fact proponents of a strong national government with aggressive taxing powers. Read Hamilton's Reports as the first Secretary of the Treasury; he aggressively promoted taxes, he aggressively promoted assumption of state debts, he aggressively promoted manufactures and he aggressively promoted creating a federal banking system. This is not a model of modern "conservative," "free market," "limited government" in any sense of the word: it's Liberal, Liberal, Liberal.

The Federalist Papers are not an indicia of how the country felt or even what the "Founders" believed. They were newspaper propaganda written mostly by Hamilton and Madison to persuade opponents of the Constitution to favor it. Hamilton never believed most of what he wrote, as evidenced by his comments at the Constitutional Convention and by the actions he took when given power. Madison, I believe, actually seemed to believe what he said, as evidenced by the fact that he switched parties and opposed Hamilton when it became obvious to him what Hamilton was doing.

Likewise, there are a lot of politicians who claim to be "conservatives" in order to get elected who in fact don't really believe any of it. That's why people like the other anonymous finally lost faith in Bush/Cheney and are becoming so embittered in their positions in opposition to Obama.

By the way, the Founder's views on Immigration are far more liberal than the other anonymous presupposes. Many of the Founders -- Hamilton, Wilson, Witherspoon come to mind -- were immigrants, and of course these people were far closer in time and sentiment to the religious minorities who escaped persecution in Europe to come to this continent. The Founders originally wanted to encourage immigration to this country. One should read the Northwest Ordinance for a better understanding of their position.

It's not until the 1790s that Nativism reared its ugly head, and some of that was directed at Albert Gallatin (when he was kicked out of the Senate and subsequently elected to the House.) It truly got off the ground with the various alien acts of 1798. The authority of the Federal government over immigration was vigorously argued by Gallatin in the House. If the first anonymous is truly concerned with the Founder's intent in a "federal" or "limited government" context, that intent is arguably either that the government has no authority to regulate it all, or that the matter rests entirely with the state governments, not the Federal government. That of course is not born out legally by subsequent actions of the Federal government.

Also, by the way, by every modern indicia, Alexander Hamilton was an illegal alien.

J. L. Bell said...

The U.S. Constitution did indeed produce a bigger, more powerful U.S. government than that under the Articles of Confederation, even after the Bill of Rights was added.

At the same time, the Constitution was clearly the product of a top-down, conservative movement within the U.S. of A. That is yet another demonstration that supporting “small government” is only one possible strain of conservatism.

Immigration is a curious issue from a constitutional standpoint. The Constitution gives the new federal government authority over naturalizing new citizens, but the document says nothing about immigration itself. Of course, it wasn’t that big a deal when Americans saw themselves as a small nation with lots of land.