The Ghost of Tea Parties Past
Benjamin L. Carp is Assistant Professor of History at Tufts University. In his book, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution, he shows how these various urban meeting places provided the tinder and spark for the American Revolution, focusing on colonial America’s five most populous cities. Carp has also been paying attention to recent urban protests like the tea parties across America. Check out his thoughts below and in this Washington Post article.
On April 15, I attended one of the conservative “tea parties” being held across the country to protest government spending (and a variety of other grievances). This particular protest was held along the Broadway side of Manhattan’s City Hall Park. In the eighteenth century, this area was known as “the Commons.” In 1766, New Yorkers erected a Liberty Pole in the Commons to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act, which would have taxed a variety of legal forms, newspapers, and other documents in the colonies. Over the next few years, the Liberty Pole became a battleground in the fight between British soldiers and New York City’s civilians. The troops would frequently try to cut down the pole, and New Yorkers fought like devils to keep their symbol standing tall. Indeed, on April 23, 1774, the day after New Yorkers held their own “tea party” and dumped tea from an English ship into the river, they celebrated by raising a flag atop the Liberty Pole.
At the modern tea party I deliberately interviewed a handful of different people who appeared to be thinking about the American Revolution—either because they were waving Christopher Gadsden’s rattlesnake flag (“Don’t Tread On Me”), were wearing tri-corn hats, Revolutionary reenactment dress, or Indian costumes, or because their signs reflected eighteenth-century rhetoric. In thinking about how political mobilization in 2009 echoed political mobilization in the 1760s and 1770s, I came to two additional conclusions.
First, the tea parties, even as they invoked the history of the American Revolution, missed an opportunity to fully engage the history. After all, the protesters were rallying next to City Hall Park, but I’ll bet that few of them knew of “the Commons” as a site of revolutionary protest. This isn’t the protesters’ fault, of course: New York City is one of the worst places to get a sense of the 1770s (compared to say, Charleston or Boston or Philadelphia), because almost all of the structures and landscapes have been destroyed or obscured. But a sense of our past can help guide us to better future. When the opportunity presents itself, Americans should do what they can to evoke the real history of the American Revolution.
Second, 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?
After all, the Department of Homeland Security recently issued a warning to local law enforcement officials about evidence of potential violence associated with a rise in right-wing extremism. 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.