The Boston Tea Party: what does it mean today?

Posted on December 1, 2011. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , |

Part the last of our series on the Boston Tea Party considers its legacy in U.S. history, memory, and mind. With the rise of the Tea Party political party after the 2008 presidential election, this question of the meaning of the original act of protest is particularly important.

We’ve seen in this series that the original Tea Party (which was not called by that name, incidentally, until decades after the fact) sprang from a complicated and not very appealing tradition of using physical violence to achieve political goals. The governor of Massachusetts himself, Thomas Hutchinson, was forced to flee for his life with his wife and children in 1765 when a mob destroyed his home—literally ripping it to pieces—in protest of the Stamp Act.  The men of Boston who supported the Body of the People carried out many attacks on tea commissioner’s homes, families, and persons in the months before the  night of the Tea Party, attacks which we cannot approve of today. Using violence to get people to do what you want, especially in the name of justice, is the polar opposite of democracy, the representative democracy the U.S. is founded on. None of us would want to see mobs of people burning down the homes and businesses of people whose policies they didn’t approve of.

But we also see that patriot leaders in Boston realized that mob violence was not a long-term solution to Americans’ problems with British rule, and that it would not work as a political tool. Men like Samuel Adams and John Hancock knew that their goal—democratic self-rule—had to be based on civil political debate, freedom of conscience and speech, and rule of law. A war would have to be fought, perhaps, to gain independence, but after that rule of law must win the day.

That’s why the men who rallied the common people to protest were not the ones who ended up drafting the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. John Adams, not Samuel Adams; Thomas Jefferson, not Paul Revere: the men who enshrined rule of law through representative democracy were ones untainted by association with violence (except for John Hancock, an exception which proves the rule). So we can think of the Tea Party as the last act of colonial mob violence before the inauguration of the era of American democracy.

Today the Tea Party has become a synonym for “no taxes”, but we have seen that the protest against the tea was not a protest against the principle of taxation. It was a protest against a) taxation without representation, and b) taxes levied simply to fund government, with no benefits accruing to the people being taxed. No one wants to pay taxes that go only to fund the office of tax collection. Taxes are meant to better society, to provide services to those who can’t afford them on their own, not to entrench the government’s power to tax. The men who organized the Tea Party, the men who carried out the destruction of the tea, the women who boycotted tea even when they considered it vital to their families’ health all did so to establish the ideal of taxation for the general welfare. Warping that democratic goal by saying that all of those people actually wanted no taxation, that they didn’t want their money going to anyone else no matter what, is a cynical and unacceptable lie.

Let’s remember the Tea Party as it was: a gauntlet thrown down to set in motion the necessary violence of a war for independence that would, if successful, create a society where violence had no part in politics, and taxation represented a bit of freedom and justice for all.

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Taxation = Slavery

Posted on August 1, 2011. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Civil War, Economics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

As always, when history is being made in the present, or the present is clearly marked in a historical cycle, we delve into it here on the HP.

In this case, it is the debate in Congress over whether to raise the debt ceiling or default. The main sticking point has been the refusal of a sizable minority of Republicans, mostly belonging to the Tea Party faction, to allow the federal government to collect tax revenue. This group demands tax breaks for the wealthy, including corporations, and the maintenance of tax loopholes that allow millions of dollars of tax revenue to go uncollected.

This is not the place to go into the details of their platform, or the response by moderate Republicans and Democrats. Here, the issue is the extreme instransigence of the Republican minority on the issue of taxation. It has become, to them, a crime for the government to raise taxes or even to collect taxes. To them, there is no compromise on taxation: you are either for it (and therefore un-American) or against it. Again, we’ll leave aside for this post the historical fallacy of anti-tax advocates calling themselves “Tea Party”; read about that here. For now, we’ll focus on the black-and-white issue they have turned taxation into. It’s hard to think of a time when Congress was so completely divided, so unwilling and unable to compromise on an issue; when you look back at our history, only one comparable time comes up—the slavery debates of the late 1850s.

You could not compromise on slavery during those Congresses. You were for it or against it, and this divide worked its way into many other, seemingly unrelated issues, and the uncompromisable issue of slavery could not be resolved. Congress could no longer function to govern the country, and civil war ensued at the 1860 election.

Today, Congress’ refusal to accept compromise on taxation is quite similar to those Congress’ refusal to accept compromise on slavery. But there are two key differences: first, the American people were becoming just as divided over slavery as their representatives; second, slavery really is an issue you can’t seriously compromise on.

Americans in the 1850s didn’t want to fight a war over slavery, but they were rapidly becoming more polarized over it. Even those who didn’t particularly want abolition for morality’s sake blamed slavery for all of America’s ills, and would have gotten rid of it for economic or political reasons. Their representatives’ furor over slavery was not out of line, then, with Americans’ feelings about slavery. It does not seem accurate to make that claim today. Many Tea Party Congress members have said their constituents contacted them to say it’s okay to raise taxes to avoid default, but those members refused to do so out of principle. The extreme polarization in Congress today does not really have its roots in how Americans are feeling.

And taxation is not slavery. It’s not a black-and-white, moral issue that no one can take a moderate stance on. The government raises taxes in order to provide services. It’s a very simple and fundamental tenet of government. We have representation to our government to decide what services and how much taxation, not to stop the collection of tax revenue.

The taxation issue is part of a larger move to reduce the federal government to a negative function: the federal government will not provide social services (no Medicare, Social Security, Head Start, etc.), will not regulate business (protect the environment, police Wall Street, etc.), will not really legislate (instead, Constitutional Amendments will be put in place to handle social issues), amd will not extend civil rights to immigrants, gay people, etc. All it would do under this plan, apparently, is fund wars.

No one really wants to live in that world. It is undemocratic, and unself-sustaining. This experiment with such negative chaos is a dangerous one. The first experiment ended in civil war; it remains to be seen where we are headed in the next 20 years.

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Tea Party, Health Care, “Reload”—the long view

Posted on March 30, 2010. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

We don’t usually get into current-day politics here at the HP, but when big-ticket history is being made, we have to mention it. Right now, the United States is in the midst of a long, rolling series of major changes that will make this present day of ours as deeply studied and debated by historians as the run-up to the Civil War or the civil rights movement.

Right now, the health care bill that passed Congress this month is causing an almost inexplicable torrent of rage amongst a small portion of Americans. These are the small minority of very vocal people who always want to stop the American experiment of accepting and driving social change (see The Great American Experiment), a reactionary fraction who always believe the past was better than the present and far better than the ominous future the latest social change is going to unleash.

In these times, it’s good to be a historian, because you have the long view. You know that there have always been these reactionary groups, ranging from the inane to the harmful. The “Know-Nothings” or American Party in the 1830s and 40s terrorized Catholic Americans and won many political seats on a platform of stopping immigration from undesirable countries, eradicating Catholicism, and generally setting up a police state run by white Protestants. In the late 1800s, groups like the Immigration Restriction League and the Workingmen’s Party authorized terror against immigrants; WP leader Dennis Kearney led his men on a rampage through San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1877, destroying homes and businesses, to inaugurate his campaign against Chinese immigration. The state of California eventually passed several laws stripping Chinese immigrants of their civil rights.

In more recent history, the reaction of the fringe against the Civil Rights movement and the federal laws and Supreme Court rulings that championed equal rights for all races is fresher in our memory.

So when faced with the Tea Partiers and brick-throwing anti-health care fringe of 2010, we can defuse their seeming power by reminding ourselves, and others, that these groups come and go at moments of national crisis or change, they spew their hate and then after a decade or so they disappear. Temporarily, of course; there’s always the next fringe group to take over for them. But they remain fringe because of their illogic and their basis in hatred and fear.

A columnist at the New York Times presents a good summing up of the current situation, pointing out that the fringe has predicted doom and the death of America many times without accuracy. They are never right because they fail to take into account the fact that the majority of Americans are on board with the Experiment, with change and progress. The majority of Americans know, as we lay out in The Great American Experiment, that “America’s story is one of constantly tackling the big—the biggest—problems, ahead of everyone else, with very little to guide us but those founding principles that nag at our conscience. And each time we’ve made progress, extending civil rights to more and more people, it’s been because that old spirit of taking a gamble, of performing the ultimate experiment, took over and led us to the right decision.

“As we think today about what divides Americans, I think it boils down to the fact that some Americans no longer want to experiment. They want to close the lab down. We’ve gone far enough into the unknown, making it known, they say; now let’s stop—let’s even go backward. We were wrong to conduct some of our experiments in liberty, and that’s the source of all our problems. Gay people shouldn’t be treated equally. Black people shouldn’t run the country. Women shouldn’t hold high office. Muslims shouldn’t be granted habeas corpus.

“Whenever one of those Americans talks about the problem with our country today, they talk about how we should be like we once were, back when white people who defined marriage as one man-one woman and were Protestant veterans built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy.

But those Americans are wrong. What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible.”

Frank Rich agrees: “If Obama’s first legislative priority had been immigration or financial reform or climate change, we would have seen the same trajectory. The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play. It’s not happenstance that Frank, Lewis and Cleaver — none of them major Democratic players in the health care push — received a major share of last weekend’s abuse. When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan “Take our country back!,” these are the people they want to take the country back from.”

But that won’t happen. You can’t fight demographics, and America’s population is changing and the result will be: America. Our population has always been changing, always been growing too fast, always been diluted with people from new regions and nations, and we have always kept on, struggling and fighting and eventually breaking through prejudice and habit to achieve new heights of civil rights and equality of opportunity. It’s what we do. It’s why we’re great.

So as you ponder the rage of the fringe, remember they are the fringe. The rest of us will keep on experimenting, like real Americans.

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