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d’Errico: A tale of two tea parties

The “Tea Party” movement of 2010 compares itself to the original 1773 Boston Tea Party that challenged Parliamentary rule in the British colony of Massachusetts. Let’s explore that comparison.

Well-known leaders of the 1773 party included Sam Adams and John Hancock, while the majority of actual tea tossers were apprentices and common laborers, with about one-third skilled artisans and a few merchants and professionals. The most visible leaders in 2010 are Libertarian politicians and media figures, with a membership wealthier and more educated than the general public. Both tea parties are thus amalgamations of popular sentiment and elite self-interest.

Taxation is the biggest issue associated with the two tea parties. In 1773 Boston, tariffs for tea imported by the British East India Company brought public anger to a head about taxation in general. In 2010, anger about taxation is widespread, but unfocused, targeting everything from the huge federal bailouts of banks to the practice of congressional “earmarks” in spending.

Both tea parties point to constitutional issues. Sam Adams defended the 1773 action as an assertion of colonial constitutional rights. Tea Party organizers in 2010 claim they are protesting “our government’s rampant and near continuous trampling of the Bill of Rights.”

Both tea parties point to constitutional issues. Sam Adams defended the 1773 action as an assertion of colonial constitutional rights. Tea Party organizers in 2010 claim they are protesting “our government’s rampant and near continuous trampling of the Bill of Rights.”

We have historical hindsight for the original tea party and can say that it was a significant event marking the loss of political legitimacy of the established government. The colonies were engaged in increasingly coherent efforts to coordinate their governments in response to British imperial power, leading to a revolutionary war. We don’t need to speculate about the significance of tossing the tea into the harbor.

The self-conscious borrowing of the historical name is an obvious assertion that today’s Tea Party movement is as significant as the original event. But, since we are living in the midst of whatever history is being made by the new Tea Party, we can only speculate about its significance. As we saw above, the two tea parties are similar in important respects: Their organization, their anger, and their stated issues. These elements, however, are not sufficient to support a claim that the new Tea Party will be as historically significant as the original.

One way to assess the historical significance of the new Tea Party, in comparison to the original, is to look at a wider context. The people in 1773 Boston were doing more than tossing tea into the harbor. They were participating in building new political institutions, foremost of which were the “committees of correspondence” and other manifestations of local government taking on wider responsibilities. By the time the Continental Congress formed in 1774, colonists had a fair degree of experience with self-government. The tossing of tea to avoid payment of a tax was an act of an increasingly self-governed people.

The people in 1773 Boston were doing more than tossing tea into the harbor.

The Bostonians who tried to look like Indians when they boarded the ships to toss tea were doing something more significant than hiding their identities. Their Indian disguises symbolized a source of their new political understanding. Indians symbolized political freedom, because they demonstrated humans could govern themselves in communities. Indians and Indian governments were the antithesis to the monarchical empire governing the colonies.

By contrast, the tea partiers today, though familiar with, and in some cases experienced at political organization, are not developing anything like a new program for self-governance. Their calls for revolution seem geared more toward fielding new candidates for office than toward new structures of office. Their anti-incumbent anger glorifies lack of political experience rather than new political experience. In sharp contrast to the original, today’s tea partiers are as likely to regard Indian self-government as a problem than as a solution.

Indians symbolized political freedom, because they demonstrated humans could govern themselves in communities.

These points of difference between the old and new tea parties do not indicate that the new tea party cannot have historical significance, but they raise the question whether and how a tea party that reflects the collapse of legitimate government can play a positive role in building legitimate authority.

Anger is a common ingredient and motivator of political protest, but it is not a basis for building a self-governing community. For that, ideals are necessary, and a willingness to commit to group action for the sake of all members. Today’s tea partiers are still short on ideals other than individual self-interest, and their examples all come from the current political party system.

If we want to pick up on the unfinished business of the Boston Tea Party, we won’t get far on a “what’s in it for me?” platform. A better starting point would be trying once again to understand American Indian self-government, looking ahead seven generations.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968 and was a staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services from 1968 – 1970. He taught legal studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, from 1970 – 2002, and is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.