By Benjamin L. Carp
Sunday, April 19, 2009
The night turned chilly as dusk settled into darkness, and a dampness hung in the air from the rain that had fallen earlier in the day. In a sea of citizens who said they were fighting for freedom, I saw young men dressed as American Indians. I saw tea being brandished in protest. And I heard plenty of anger about taxes and tyranny.
This wasn't Boston on Dec. 16, 1773. I was in New York City on April 15, 2009.
In fact, I was right next to the site where New Yorkers themselves had hoisted a Liberty Pole in 1766 to protest British taxes, in what is now Manhattan's City Hall Park.
I was at one of a series of "tea parties" being held across the country to protest the Obama administration's policies and the high taxes the protesters envision they will spawn. They were meant to replicate the famous Boston Tea Party that precipitated the American Revolution. 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.
Still, I wanted to hear the protesters' grievances. Phyllis Thies, who is 50 years old and out of a job, came toting a replica of Christopher Gadsden's "Don't tread on me" flag. She joined the crowd last week because in her view, "high taxes" are the problem, as they were in the 18th century. There was much more to it than that, of course, but for the protesters last week, it was the feisty rebelliousness of the Tea Party tale that made it so appealing. As 21-year-old Jacob Dievendorf said, it was the "first real galvanizing moment" of the Revolution.
He's right. It's a great story. As hundreds watched that day in 1773, men with blackened faces, dressed in ersatz Indian disguises, boarded three ships docked at Griffin's Wharf. They hoisted 342 chests of tea onto the ships' decks. With hatchets aloft, they chopped open the chests and emptied 90,000 pounds of loose tea into the muck below. They were protesting the Tea Act, a recent British law designed to help the monopolistic East India Company unload its excess tea onto the American market. The men aboard the ships kept their identities secret for 50 years or more, and not one was ever punished.
We like the spectacle of drowning tea for the same reason kids like knocking over building blocks. Furthermore, the Boston Tea Party sparked a legacy of relatively nonviolent civil disobedience. Even John Adams, who was hardly a fire-breathing radical, called it "the most magnificent Moment of all," both daring and intrepid. Although many of last week's protesters are interpreting history loosely at best, the issues at stake in 1773 and today are similar in some ways.
In both cases, reckless financial speculation and a credit crunch had led to a painful recession.
The British government, like the administration today, was saddled with debt arising in part from recent wars -- and tax revenues were the principal way to pay it down.
In 1773, like today, the government tried to bail out companies that were deemed too big to fail: Back then, the British government rescued the East India Company, which had a monopoly on all trade east of South Africa, including the Chinese tea trade.
In both cases, taxes were a source of fear, but they were not the immediate source of the problem. The British Parliament had passed a tax on tea in 1767, six years before the tea party. Although the American colonists were angry about having to pay taxes without being represented in Parliament, New Englanders had been sheepishly paying the tax for a few years.
The Tea Act -- what the Tea Party was protesting -- would have lowered the cost of tea for Americans (as Newt Gingrich, the former history professor and speaker of the House, pointed out in his speech to the crowd) by giving a tax break to the East India Company for its colonial tea shipments. Samuel Adams and his allies were worried that the lower cost would seduce Americans into paying an unjust tax.
In 2009, most American families will be paying as much as $800 less in federal income tax than last year. But many of the protesters fear that they are being tricked into supporting "big government," which might mean higher taxes down the road.
The similarities between the past and the present only go so far. For one thing, last week's tea parties were more about words than action.
The United States is not a monarchy -- if we don't like our tax rates or how the revenue is spent, we have the power to peaceably "throw the bums out." Colonial Americans lacked that power -- and the Revolution was born of the resulting discontent.
But the fact that we now have taxation with representation wasn't enough to satisfy some of the protesters. They argued that our lawmakers aren't effective at representing our interests and that the influence of lobbyists can get in the way.
The tea bag -- which wasn't even around in 1773 -- has become one of tax reformers' most prominent symbols. On April 16, 1990, Peter Hendrickson wrapped a tea bag around a bomb that he placed in a post office bin in Michigan as part of his protest against paying income taxes.
Yet the Boston Tea Party has also inspired other Americans: senior citizen activists, the Arizona Minutemen, women's suffragists, advocates for D.C. statehood and people on both sides of the slavery question before the Civil War. Even beyond America's shores, the Tea Party has been invoked by Sun Yat-sen in China, Mahatma Gandhi in India and supporters of the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon.
The April 15 protests seemed to represent a divergent set of views, too: I spoke with Lawrence Arzu and Irving Morales, two young Ron Paul supporters in war paint and feathers, who told me that they ended up voting for Ralph Nader last year. I met an outreach coordinator for the Brooklyn Young Republicans, and others who mentioned issues ranging from abortion to education. I didn't see much unity of purpose, but perhaps that wasn't the point. Gingrich urged the crowd to reach out to friends and pointed to the rise of committees of correspondence in 1774.
The Boston Tea Party does offer some other lessons that we ought never to forget. First, the real Tea Party was not just noble, but also frightening and dangerous: The protest walked a fine line between civil disobedience and violent uprising. King George III's anger at the Tea Party led to harsh punishments, the closing of the port of Boston and then a bloody civil war that lasted for eight years.
Carl Bowen, 42, an accountant from Baldwin, N.Y., acknowledged that the original Tea Party was an act of "vandalism" and warned, "A lot of people would like to vent their frustration more than they're allowed to today." One woman's sign seemed to bear this out: "Tea Party Today, Tar and Feather Tomorrow."
But how far should anyone be allowed to vent?
The memory of the Boston Tea Party surely should not be used to justify the bullying nullification of any law that an outspoken group dislikes.
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.
A representative government, unlike a monarchy, must listen to the people -- otherwise we are indeed poorly represented. But it should also be careful not to overreact -- either by punishing dissidents or by conceding too much.
Benjamin L. Carp is an assistant professor of history at Tufts University and author of "Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution."