Tea Party Then and Now

25 Feb

Special thanks to our reader “piper” for requesting articles about the American Revolution.   Here’s  one for you–with a political angle!

Are we on our way to another American Revolution?  Almost two and a half centuries have passed since the original Boston Tea Party in 1773.  Political unrest has spawned a new Tea Party.  But what does it have in common with its namesake?



Boston Tea Party

Populism – The first Boston Tea Party was a populist movement, which means that its goal was “seeking to represent the interests of ordinary people.”  In Colonial America, citizens were angry that the British could impose taxes that none of their own elected officials got a chance to discuss or put to a vote.  The average citizen grumbled about paying taxes to benefit Great Britain, not the colonies.

Less Government control – Great Britain prohibited the colonists from buying tea from anyone but the East India Tea Company–creating a  trade monopoly, which constituted too much government control.

Grassroots Level Organization – When the ships arrived with their cargo, a group of citizens, organized at the grassroots level, boarded the ships and dumped the tea into the harbor.

Resistance – The colonists formed a resistance against the established government to overthrow their colonial rulers.

Tea Party

Populism – Similarly, the new Tea Party also claims to represent the views of the average citizen.  For example, most Americans agree that it is a good idea to keep taxes low and reduce the government debt.  The Tea Party also offers what it believes to be “popular” viewpoints about health care, global warming, illegal immigration, and other issues.

Less Government Control – Tea Party members believe that the government should not overstep its power.  For example, it concedes that most Americans want affordable health care but argues that the free market should establish a fair system.

Resistance – The Tea Party has formed a resistance to President Obama’s healthcare reform legislation.  It contends that it is unconstitutional to mandate a program that forces all Americans to carry health insurance.

Grassroots Level Organization –  The Tea Party is considered to be a grassroots level organization because it is not as well-established or organized as the Republican and the Democratic parties.

So, can the new Tea Party movement change American history as did the Boston Tea Party? The last two points of comparison–resistance and grassroots level organization–offer the most insight into answering this question.  First of all, it is necessary to define who the enemy is and to agree upon a resistance strategy.  And secondly, it is necessary to recruit support, at the most basic level, within the community.  These are sticking points in today’s American society.

While the colonists lacked communication devices to help them organize, they also had a smaller population–of only two million then, compared to 308 million now.  Amazingly, the Boston Tea Party quickly and effectively gained popular support by posting printed signs and holding town hall meetings.  The following account is given by the Boston Tea Party Historical Society: <http://www.boston-tea-party.org/in-depth.html>

“On Monday morning, the 29th of November, 1773, a handbill was posted all over Boston, containing the following words: ‘Friends! Brethren! Countrymen!–That worst of plagues, the detested tea, shipped for this port by the East India Company, is now arrived in the harbor; the hour of destruction, or manly opposition to the machinations of tyranny, stares you in the face. Every friend to his country, to himself and to posterity, is now called upon to meet at Faneuil Hall, at nine o’clock THIS DAY (at which time the bells will ring), to make united and successful resistance to this last, worst, and most destructive measure of administration.’”

The resulting meeting attracted so many people that, “The crowd soon became so great that the Hall could not contain them…” The attendees supported the actions of the 60 men who boarded the ships, “…and in course of three hours they emptied 342 chests of tea into the water of the harbor.”  Without the aid of the Internet or cell phones, the American colonists had assembled a flash mob!

Today, with the help of technology, revolutions have been formed against long-standing governments in the Middle East, such as Egypt’s grassroots coup, organized on Facebook, which ousted president Hosni Mubarak in February. And so, one would assume that the job would be easier for the Tea Party in 21st century America than in 18th century Boston.  Not so.

On the contrary, it is more difficult than ever to recruit support at the grassroots level because the Internet has the power to both unify and divide.  People spend their free time reading an abundance of conflicting information that splinters them into sub-groups, each with its own combination of liberal and conservative leanings.  Undoubtedly, if a viewpoint exists, a blog exists to support it.

Although their agenda is more closely aligned with traditional Republicans, not Democrats, the Tea Party recruits people from both parties.  Disenfranchised voters can voice their objections to the platforms of either established party.  Democrats tired of supporting unionized labor or a “welfare state” can join up.  Republicans with average incomes who are tired of “rich people” buying influence with huge donations can sign up.  The Tea Parties offers a welcome avenue of dissent, but it might squander its influence because people disagree about what to disagree about.

Mother Jones magazine describes the Tea Party as, “an agglomeration of hundreds of local groups that often compete with each other and hotly insist that they take direction from no one.”  <http://motherjones.com/politics/2010/08/history-of-the-tea-party>  Lest those words be considered unfair criticism from a liberal publication, in January 2010, even Newsweek magazine warned, “at the very moment the tea party has proved it is an undeniable political force that must be taken seriously, it is at risk of tearing itself apart.  <http://www.newsweek.com/2010/01/21/is-the-tea-party-over.html> Truly, it is difficult to persuade people to agree whom the enemy is, when the revolution is against the America establishment, itself, not against an outside force, like British colonial rulers.

Hope for this new grassroots, conservative movement depends upon whether it is bold enough to establish itself as a true Third Party.  Can it offer an alternative that represents the majority of  Americans, as it professes the Republicans and Democrats have failed to do?  And, most importantly, can it nominate viable candidates that will be elected?  Instead of the physical struggle of throwing a cargo of tea overboard, the new Tea Party must find legal and political avenues to overthrow the establishment.  Only then will it take its place beside the Boston Tea Party in U.S. history books.


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