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The Tea Party Movement and its Controversial Roots in American History

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at the Tea Party Movement. See his previous OUPblogs here.

On September 12, 2009, tens of thousands of Americans gathered at the national mall for a mass rally, itself a culmination of a 7,000 mile bus tour that had started two weeks before in Sacramento, California, to protest the tax and spending policies of the Obama administration.

Participants of the 2009 Tea Party movement, which was organized just before Tax Day this year, took their inspiration from the Boston Tea Party of 1773, and not, say, 1776, South Carolina’s Ordinance of Nullification of 1832, or the Confederacy of 1861-65, because while rebellion against George III was legitimate and even glorious, rebellion against the government of the United States was ostensibly not. But a closer examination of history reveals the incoherence of the intended historical parallel, and the plausibility of the unintended historical parallels.

The Bostonian colonists in 1773 were objecting to the right of a distant legislature, in which they had no representation, to pass laws (in this case the Tea Act of 1773) affecting their livelihoods. “No taxation without representation” isn’t just a line one finds on a Washington, DC bumper sticker, it is an ancient British constitutional principle to which the American colonists were legitimately appealing. In this sense, the Boston Tea Partiers were still operating within the framework and premises of the British constitution and seeking redress for where its application fell short.

This clearly is not the case for modern Tea Partiers. Not only does every single protester in the modern Tea Party movement have a representative and a senator representing him or her in at the federal level, Washington, DC – the analogue to the foreign metropole (from the Greek “metropolis,” meaning “mother country”) that London was – does not even enjoy such representation! While the Boston Tea Party was a protest against the British government from America, the modern Tea Party is a protest against American government from no less than her capital city.

The appropriate historical parallel then, is not 1773, but 1776, 1832 and even 1861-65, when Americans challenged the authority of their own government. That modern Tea Partiers have 1. rallied to the support of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s expression of sympathy to Texans advocating secession during a Tea Party in April; 2. brought their loaded weapons to town-hall meetings about health-care reform during Summer 2009 in a show of defiance to the president; 3. were, as Rush Limbaugh was, “ecstatic” about Representative Joe Wilson’s (R-SC) indecorous outburst in the middle of President Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress on September 9, 2009, suggests that the Tea Party movement intends to strike at the very legitimacy of American government. For what is rebellion but the rejection of deliberation and the turn toward politics by any other means — be it secession, physical
interpositioning, or incendiary impudence? And so it is a movement Alexander Hamilton would have scoffed at, but one Thomas Jefferson would have gleefully partook.

The first amendment gives us a right to articulate and seek redress for our grievances against the state, but it is worth stating that there is no first amendment without a constitution, which some of Governor Rick Perry’s constituents appear to be challenging. So on pain of self-contradiction, all Americans must concede that we do not have a constitutional right to revolution. However, this does not mean
that we have not inherited a primal instinct to rebel. Revolution is in our blood, because we are the daughters and sons of revolutionaries. Which is why among those rights the Declaration of Independence held “self-evident,” is “that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
On this point, the Declaration of Independence is fundamentally at odds with the US constitution and its claim to a “more perfect union.” No one has successfully exercised this right since 1789, but there are
sections in the country who have never stopped believing that such a right is any more inalienable than the fact that all men are created equal.

1773 is an oblique way of referencing 1776, which is itself a way of leapfrogging 1789, the year a federation of sovereign states gave way to a more consolidated federal government, to which, like modern Tea Partiers, the author of the Declaration of Independence would feel considerable antipathy as opposition leader to the Federalists and later president, and to which Publius, in contrast, recommended a measure of “veneration” — a sentiment Representative Joe Wilson could not, in the hallowed walls of the US Capitol, bring himself to possess.

Recent Comments

  1. […] about Rush Limbaugh as of September 15, 2009 The Tea Party Movement and its Controversial Roots in American History – blog.oup.com 09/15/2009 Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan […]

  2. […] about Texas Tea Parties as of September 15, 2009 The Tea Party Movement and its Controversial Roots in American History – blog.oup.com 09/15/2009 Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan […]

  3. Zeitgeist


    The estemed professor has appearently never heard of “the battle of athens tenn. circ 1946” aka “McMinn County War”…or doesnt wish to mention it…

    Here readers…enlighten yourself…it’s a better parallel to the current movement…





    You have to do a bit of detective work…but if read carefully , you’ll find that the corrupt political machine was run by democrats and they were thrown out by the GI’s and citizenry…

    But surely a professor of American History would know that…

  4. M. Bean

    “The first amendment gives us a right to articulate and seek redress for our grievances against the state, but it is worth stating that there is no first amendment without a constitution…”
    This assertion is both incorrect, and as it turns out, moot.
    It is incorrect because it is based upon the assumption that the US Constitution “gives” us our rights. As so eloquently put by Mr. Jefferson our rights come from God; we being “endowed by our creator with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And whether one considers it from the Enlightenment natural rights perspective or the religious moral perspective the implication is the same; we possess our rights based upon our mere existence which in turn trumps the power of any potentate or parliamentarian to violate them (our rights).
    As often argued by no less important founders than James Madison, therefore, the entire Bill of Rights was functionally unnecessary (although it was certainly helpful in convincing some of the naysayers at the time that it was safe enough to support ratification of the Constitution) as a means of preserving liberty – because no government has the “right” to infringe upon inalienable rights regardless of what it does or declares.
    The other way the quoted assertion is incorrect is in that it improperly characterizes the nature of the Constitution. Rather than giving the people rights, what the Constitution actually does is give a few specifically enumerated powers (found mainly in Article I, Section XIII) to the federal government, while leaving all other powers in the hands of the states and/or the people (as reiterated in the 10th Amendment). What this means in normal English-speaking human being language is that if that authority is not explicitly given to the US government in the Constitution the federal government has no jurisdiction (power) to regulate or deal in that sphere of affairs. As there were no specifically enumerated powers given to the federal government in the Constitution allowing it to censor, regulate, or in way deal with “speech” issues the 1st Amendment is moot… like everything else not specifically included as an enumerated power in the Constitution meddling with “free speech” is outside the jurisdiction of the US government whether there is a Bill of Rights or not.

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  6. Bill Hennessy

    Terrible research. The 2009 Tea Party movement began in late February and had nothing to do with Tax Day until AFTER the success of the first round of Tea Parties beginning February 27 at Noon ET.

    We decided to keep the movement going because the 30 or so simultaneous parties drew about 10 times the number of people we expected.

    I understand that Tax Day was much bigger–we had 10,000 people at the St. Louis rally–but the start was February.

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