The founding fathers have never really gone out of style. But there are times when their popularity surges. Times like now, when conservative protesters routinely take to the streets with three-cornered hats and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags.
In this podcast, the Backstory hosts take a closer look at the Tea Party Movement, and ask what, if anything, 2010 has in common with 1773. They also consider what the history of American populism portends for the Tea Party’s future.
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Peter Onuf: This is the Podcast of “BackStory,” with us, the American Backstory hosts. I’m Peter Onuf, 18th century guy. [music]
Ed Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th century guy.
Brian Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century guy. [music]
News Tape: Glad you’re back. It’s been one year since the Tea Party Movement gained widespread notice for its opposition to President Obama—
News Tape 2: Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, are gathered on street corners, state capitols, or in front of their town squares all across our country today, for tax . . .
News Tape 3: The Tea Party organization says they want to remind the government that they work for the people.
News Tape 4: Returning to the birthplace of the concept, Boston—
News Tape 5: Obama took office. The other big message, Rick, is they think they’re not being heard. They insist they’re just not being heard.
B. Balogh: That was news coverage of the Tea Party protests around the country last month, protests that marked the one-year anniversary of the first Tea Party rallies back in April 09. Over the course of that year, not only have the Tea Partiers become a force to be reckoned with in American politics, we’ve also learned a lot more about who exactly they are. A recent CBS New York Times poll found that they’re mostly white men above the age of 45 who identify as Republicans and are both better educated and wealthier than most Americans. They also tend to share a particular fondness for the Founding generation.
News Tape: I’ll tell you what—if you read our Founding Fathers, people like Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson, what we’re doing in this country now is making them roll over in their graves.
All right, Rick. We’re going to check back in with—
P. Onuf: That was CNBC commentator Rick Santelli in the so-called rant heard around the world in which he angrily denounced the federal bailout of homeowners facing foreclosure and essentially accused the government of promoting bad behavior The rant has been credited with triggering those first Tea Party rallies last year and while that may or may not be the case, what’s certain is that between all of the three-cornered hats and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, my century, the 18th century, is enjoying something of a moment right now.
E. Ayers: Now, as historians watching this all from the wings, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to weigh in with our own thoughts on the Tea Party phenomenon and so that’s what we’re going to do in today’s special Podcast edition of “BackStory.”
B. Balogh: Peter, I want to know and I guess this would put you on the spot—why the Tea Party? I mean, Ed and I know people have been protesting the government forever. Why the Tea Party— Why is that the moment they chose?
P. Onuf: Well, I think it’s a wonderful expression for something that’s both non-threateningly domestic. A Tea Party, after all, [laughter] and in our collective memory, though, it’s the first big splash, as it were, of the American Revolution. But I think the way to go on this one, Brian, is to talk to somebody who really knows what happened.
B. Balogh: Ohhh, Peter, I want to talk to you. [laughter]
P. Onuf: Well, too bad for you, Brian, because I called up my friend, former student Ben Carp. Ben has just written a wonderful book on the Boston Tea Party coming out shortly, but before I go ahead and play the tape, let me just remind listeners a little bit about some of the basics. First of all, the Boston Tea Party. December 16, 1773. Samuel Adams was at the helm and they storm onto three British ships in Boston Harbor that were carrying the tea that the East India Company had sent over and all those crates went into the water. Of course, some of them didn’t make it into the water because it was low tide. They were protesting the Tea Act of 1773, a law that benefited—you guessed it—the East India Company. A few of the conspirators were dressed up famously as Mohawk Indians that evening and I began my conversation with Ben by asking him what was up with those costumes?
Ben Carp: I mean that’s what makes it so much fun. I mean, (a) it’s destroying a bunch of stuff which I think appeals to the young child in all of us who like to knock down buildings of blocks [laughter] or whatever when we were kids and then also, yeah, I mean, the mystique of oaths of secrecy and Indian disguises definitely adds to the romance of the event.
P. Onuf: Yeah. So, this is the first big fraternity prank in American history?
Ben Carp: In a way, sure. But, on the other hand, and the part that we don’t always talk about, is that there’s this undercurrent of violence. What we forget about the Tea Party is that there were weeks leading up to the Boston Tea Party in which the people of Boston were intimidating the East India Company’s agents and threatening them and storming their homes and places of business and making it unsafe for them to sleep in Boston. Then they commit this act of property destruction. The amount of money would be equivalent to almost two million dollars today.
P. Onuf: Now, this was really a grand event in American history and it was to make a point. What exactly was it?
Ben Carp: Well, they were angry about three things. The first thing they were angry about is that Parliament was propping up the East India Company which they had decided was to big to fail.
P. Onuf: [laughter] Nice phrase that.
Ben Carp: The East India Company was the monopoly company. It was in charge of all British trade east of South Africa—
P. Onuf: Right.
Ben Carp: And they had 17.5 million of pounds in tea in their warehouses unsold and so Parliament is trying to come up with a way to relieve them of this particular problem and so they passed the Tea Act in 1773 which is going to allow them to unload their excess tea on the American market. It’s going to reduce certain taxes. It’s going to cut out American middlemen and so that’s the first thing that angers the Americans is that it’s propping up this monopoly company at the expense of American merchants, both legitimate merchants and also smugglers who were doing their own things in terms of trading tea.
P. Onuf: And what you’re saying, Ben, is that the East India Company is going to be able to undersell smugglers. In other words, Americans were going to get cheap tea.
Ben Carp: Yes, right. They were going to get cheaper tea. It’s not just going to undersell the smugglers. It’s going to undersell legitimate merchants because if you’re going to go to London and buy the tea yourself and then try to sell it to Americans, you’re not going to be able to do as well as the East India Company’s own hand-picked agents.
P. Onuf: Well, that makes us feel better about the revolutionaries because it wasn’t that they always were looking for the best price so the Wal-Mart syndrome hadn’t kicked in quite yet.
Ben Carp: Right. Sometimes, they’re just looking for the most robust business environment.
P. Onuf: Right.
Ben Carp: The second reason is this notion of taxation without representation because it’s not as if the Tea Act of 1773 was imposing any new taxes, but tea still had this tax on it that had been imposed during the Townshend Duties of 1767 and so this still offends the Americans. The sub-issue was that the money from these taxes were going to pay the salaries of civil officials in Massachusetts such as Governor Thomas Hutchinson and various judges and since it was Hutchinson’s sons and his friends and other distant relatives who were going to be the hand-picked tea agents for the East India Company, this all looks like a kind of corrupt bargain and so that’s the third thing that the Bostonians were really angry about.
P. Onuf: So, Ben, let’s talk a little bit about how the Tea Party became a central episode in Americans’ self-understanding and mythology of American history. Everybody knows about the Tea Party and it’s something that, well, we all take patriotic pride in.
Ben Carp: Well, yeah, I think because the Tea Party does help to catalyze the American Revolution or it looks like the first chapter in what would then lead to the outbreak of violence in 1775, that it is part of America’s myth of origins and so I think that is why the Tea Party is so often celebrated, but what’s interesting is that the term Boston Tea Party itself doesn’t appear until in the mid-1820s and they didn’t even know who any of the participants were. The members of the Boston Tea Party swore each other to secrecy and most of them seemed to have kept that secret until they died.
P. Onuf: Now, hold it, Ben. That’s a very interesting thing you’re saying. You’d think that these would be, in effect, the first core veterans of the Revolution and they would be proud to be known as the perpetrators of this legitimate reaction to British oppression. Why is it then that they don’t come out sooner?
Ben Carp: Well, in the very beginning, they might have been worried that they’d be prosecuted for treason or at very least, for burglary and property destruction.
P. Onuf: Right.
Ben Carp: But they also have to fear lawsuits from the East India Company even after the Revolution is over.
P. Onuf: So, Ben, if the Tea Party, as we call it today, first got its name in the 1820s, what was it known as before then?
Ben Carp: They just called it simply the destruction of the tea in Boston Harbor.
P. Onuf: And everybody would’ve known what they meant.
Ben Carp: Yeah. It turned out that that was a bit of a mouthful.
P. Onuf: Yeah, right. [laughter]
Ben Carp: The Boston Tea Party is a lot more fun.
P. Onuf: This is the short version. Yeah, yeah. So, first, it was just part of the general understanding. Everybody knew there was a Tea Party but they didn’t call it that, but then by the 1820s, you say it became known and popularized as the Boston Tea Party. What explains, aside from the legal liability questions that you raise, what explains the belated arrival of this new idea of what had happened?
Ben Carp: Well, I think there was this notion that it was all very well to destroy property in the name of liberty if you were living under a tyrannical government where you weren’t represented, but once the Revolution was over and everyone had the right to elect members of a national congress and state legislatures and everything, there was a feeling among a lot of the new American leaders in the new nation that, okay, we don’t tolerate things like tea parties any more. If you’re going to have a government, you can’t just have civil unrest happening all the time and so there was this real reluctance to embrace the Tea Party and instead the people who were telling the histories of the Revolutionary era tried to focus on less disruptive sorts of events.
P. Onuf: I mean, what’s interesting to me about what you’re saying is in the 1820s and particularly the 1830s, is a rising tide of mob violence in American cities and a concern about lawlessness, so how do you sell the idea of the Tea Party at the very time when lots of the better sort are worried about urban mobs.
Ben Carp: Yeah. I mean, I think there are some conservative folks, people like Nathaniel Hawthorne who really just tried to kind of sanitize the event or keep it buried in mystery, you know, or played down the violent elements of the story. I think there was a lot of reluctance, but on the other hand, some of these people who were becoming riled up in crowd actions during the 1820s and 1830s actually revived the Boston Tea Party as their inspiration, people who want to expand the meanings of liberty in various ways, say, hey, we like the idea of breaking down the law in service of a higher purpose.
P. Onuf: So, what are some of the instances, Ben, over the 19th century — we know all too much about the 21st century — of the ways in which the Tea Party could be used by insurgent Americans?
Ben Carp: Sure. In some cases, it’s used for the purposes of civil rights. Women suffragists cite the Boston Tea Party because they feel that they, too, are taxed without representation. In the 1830s, it’s anti-abolitionists, you know, with their various killings, etc., and some people defend the people who were killing abolitionist printers or destroying their printing presses by saying that this is something that we need to do in order to protect the sanctity of the American nation, but then interestingly, in the 1850s, there’s a switch and it’s the abolitionists who say, no, we need to rescue fugitive slaves, etc., and they’re going to cite the Boston Tea Party as their way of saying, no, the higher law or the higher form of liberty that we served is freeing the slaves.
P. Onuf: Yeah. So, Ben, the theme that’s running through all of these events that you’re talking about is the invocation of higher law and the notion that there are circumstances in which the people can resort, legitimately, to violence?
Ben Carp: Yeah, I think it goes back to these concepts of natural rights, right? That, you know, superseding whatever the laws of men might be, but on the other hand, I’m not sure that Americans are totally comfortable with that notion, because if everyone had the right to do that, then we would just— We would revert to a state of nature. We’d all just be violently protesting everything we didn’t like.
P. Onuf: Ben, wouldn’t you say that the deeper problem from the historian’s point of view, is that patriotism in the 1770s before the Declaration of Independence is an anti-government patriotism? In other words, it’s a mobilization against legitimate authority. Of course, all good patriots, as we understand it, support the government and salute the flag and are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for American liberty and independence, so it’s the very context within which the Tea Party takes place that I think creates this fundamental ambiguity. Can you be a good patriot in America by protesting against the government, even threatening to shut it down?
Ben Carp: It’s a very tricky issue. I mean, what you have to argue is that you’re seeking to reclaim the American government from the corrupting influences that are starting to bring it down, which is very similar to how the Americans felt about the British Empire in the 1770s.
P. Onuf: So, in a way, Ben, the kind of mentality that emerges out of the resistance movement and the Revolution is in some ways recognizably still with us today?
Ben Carp: Oh, absolutely.
P. Onuf: Ben, it’s wonderful talking to you. Tell us the name of your book and when we can expect to see it.
Ben Carp: The title of the book right now, I don’t know if it’s a hundred percent confirmed, but it’s The Boston Tea Party: The American Tempest That Inspired a Revolution and it’s due out in September or October of 2010. [music]
B. Balogh: Well, guys, I was hoping that I would learn from this interview that the current Tea Party has no connection to the original Tea Party.
P. Onuf: No such luck.
B. Balogh: But, and I have to admit, I mean, the three things that really jumped out at me from that terrific interview, Peter, one, corrupt bargain. Two, size matters. These people really worry about the bigness of the East India Company, not to mention the British Empire and, third, representation, so I just want to make my case. I want you to listen to some tape. This is from an interview that one of our producers, Catherine Moore, brought back from Richmond, Virginia. She interviewed a number of members of the Richmond Tea Party and the first one is Colleen Owens.
Tape: I think the reason we all joined, or at least for myself, is that I feel like Washington has like this invisible bubble around it and none if the rest of us can penetrate this bubble and get them to even acknowledge or listen to any of our ideas or thoughts or worries that we have.
Tape 2: In my opinion, our government’s not listening to us. Just like in 1773, we’re having the door slammed in our faces in a lot of instances and that makes us a little bit mad.
B. Balogh: That’s Colleen Owens and Phil Scott, both members of the Richmond Tea Party.
P. Onuf: Well, Brian, I’d say that’s a real throwback and it resonates with me because the fear of a distant metropolis, that has been a central and obsessive theme in American history and it’s as if we had London, the old metropolis, which represents everything corrupt and despotic and ever since we won our independence, the metropolis has been emerging within the United States—
B. Balogh: That was us.
P. Onuf: Yeah, and that idea of a bubble where people don’t hear us, where we’re not really represented, that really is a throwback to the kind of talk you would hear in the run-up to the American revolution.
E. Ayers: So, a question could be—is there really a bubble around Washington because these same people would argue other times that the problem with Washington is that it has its nose in every facet of our lives.
P. Onuf: That’s a good point.
E. Ayers: So, the language is powerful, but it can be used by people at every point of the political spectrum in the United States. This is the same language that people would’ve used in, say, the anti-war movements in the 1960s, “so the behemoth of the military industrial complex is running roughshod over this and dragging our young men into the jungles to fight for a war that we…” You know. So, it strikes me that there’s no doubt that this is authentically American ideology
P. Onuf: Uh huh
E. Ayers: But, it is so adaptable to not really have much ideological content to it.
P. Onuf: Yeah. Well, I think you’ve really hit it, Ed. It resonates on the right and on the left and I think what people on the left really recognize is that they’re responding to that same libertarian theme and that is that anti-power, anti-bigness, as if we’re the little guys. There’s also this idea that it’s the little Davids against the big Goliath in kind of a heroic challenging talk-back-to-authority.
B. Balogh: Well, and on that theme of size matters, here’s another clip from Colleen Owens of the Richmond Tea Party.
Tape: I don’t think our government was representing me when they bailed out Goldman Sachs or bailed out the banks or purchased General Motors or any of these other things. They weren’t representing me or anybody else but those big corporations. It was corporate welfare but guess who gets to pay for it. Everybody sitting around this table.
Tape 2: We’re not confident about what kind of leadership, what kind of decision-making, is going on. And it’s not in our best interests but rather in the interest of whether it’s corporations, particularly special interests, when they can go in and have a meeting and turn the whole health care bill around.
Tape 3: Really, the whole East India Tea Company was the first special interest group that was favored unfairly by the government.
P. Onuf: That was Colleen Owens, Phil Rapp and Susan Lascolette of the Richmond Tea Party.
E. Ayers: You know, it’s really interesting, Brian, because you’ll notice that if you weren’t told beforehand that this was a conservative—
P. Onuf: Right.
E. Ayers: Movement, you would think that this is a blistering critique of capitalism. So, unlike the populism of the past, the Tea Party people seem to be speaking for a generalized discontent, not for any particular economic group who’s been disadvantaged. I guess they’re speaking as they imagine it for all Americans who are hard working.
B. Balogh: Well, it’s definitely not anti-capitalist but I do think it’s anti-bureaucratic which makes it anti-corporate, big business, and—
E. Ayers: Oh, that’s good.
B. Balogh: That makes it anti-government big bureaucracy but I want to go back— Actually, both of you guys touched on this point, that these folks think that they are speaking for the majority and that majority is not being represented in Washington, D.C., and I want to suggest that it’s almost exactly at the point when people like whatever form of populism you want to talk about, are no longer the majority or quickly becoming a minority that you get these impulses of populism and I think the greatest example is the very end of your century, Ed, and you’ve written about this very eloquently and that’s the farmers who were the populist moment of the late 19th century but it happened at exactly the moment that the country was rapidly urbanizing that they were not really the majority of the country, as they conceived of themselves to be.
E. Ayers: What you’re referring to, the populist movement, the People’s Party, in the 1890s, the largest political revolt in American history begins in Texas and spreads about to the south and to the west and culminates in the nomination of William Jennings Bryan for the American presidency in 1896 running on the campaign of he’s being crucified on a cross of gold by the rich plutocrats of Wall Street and all that and he went down in strong defeat, but the point is, that that revolt mobilized people across the entire nation and they used language much like the Tea Party people of today.
P. Onuf: Yeah.
E. Ayers: There’s a strong suspicion of any kind of concentrated power, a strong suspicion of anybody who seems to have unearned gains.
B. Balogh: And to just underscore another parallel, Ed. Economic hard times.
P. Onuf: Yeah.
E. Ayers: Well, you’d had the largest economic depression in American history in 1893 and people are looking around—who’s to blame for this. Well, surely, it’s not the farmers who were so hard working. It must be people who do the equivalent of these collateralized debt obligations of recent years who are coming in with these elaborate bond schemes and trusts and all these lawyerly created fictions that allow real people who are growing real wheat or real cotton to be ripped off. It’s very similar to today in the sense of where does virtue really lie? Where does value really lie? Where do the people really lie?
B. Balogh: We’re the real Americans
P. Onuf: Yeah.
B. Balogh: And that was true I think of your folks who dressed up like Indians, Peter, and Ed, your folks who were the salt of the earth farmers.
E. Ayers: Yep.
B. Balogh: It was true of Nixon’s forgotten man who turned into the silent majority. These were the real Americans, hard working, not whining, not protesting under normal circumstances, but they couldn’t help themselves, you know, they got ignored. They got pressed into it.
P. Onuf: Right.
B. Balogh: And they had to defy traditional partisan politics, step outside of it and make a little noise.
E. Ayers: It’s a very interesting point, Brian, because this is not unlike the 19th century when they fell apart, the populist back then did, when they had to get big themselves.
B. Balogh: That’s exactly right.
E. Ayers: To fight bigness, right. And so what’s going to happen now when somebody’s going to try to come in and consolidate the Tea Party.
B. Balogh: Well, and they have.
E. Ayers: And have Tea Party Incorporated, right?
B. Balogh: They have. You have the Republican Party. These people come out of the Republican Party, for the most part, and it’s the Republican Party that’s terribly concerned about them because they threaten to divide the Republican Party so you have folks working very hard to try to do the very organizing you’re talking about and then you also have huge media conglomerates today that simply were not in existence in your century or certainly Peter’s century, Ed, so you have media outlets like Fox News that in many ways are aiding and abetting this movement.
P. Onuf: This is not a mom-and-pop network.
B. Balogh: It is not. I’m not saying they’re the ones behind it, but I do think they are contributing to lending it kind of a national prominence that might not exist otherwise.
E. Ayers: Well, what’s interesting about this from my perspective as a 19th century historian is that in that political revolt, they had to make their own newspapers—
B. Balogh: Exactly.
E. Ayers: Because all the powers that be made fun of them and were completely contemptuous of the populous and so you found in just a few years, the creation of an entire alternative communication structure in the Populist movement. Here, how do you do it when you already have the largest television network fomenting you? How long can that continue?
P. Onuf: Right, and that’s the real question, is the extent to which populist anger in its most recent form is going to be co-opted and used by powerful interests. I don’t want to sound like a Tea Party guy in raising the question of a corporate conspiracy but the very people who are protesting against corporations are perhaps being pawns in a corporate game.
B. Balogh: Well, I have to tell you guys, when I lecture to my students about the leftist student movement and the counterculture in the ’60s, I mark the end of the revolution by the day I walked into Sears & Roebuck Company and found hand-tooled little leather wallets and key chains. There in the heart of the corporate behemoth, Sears & Roebuck, that a corporate co-optation at least in the 20th and 21st century—was one of real threats to the authentically populist movement.
E. Ayers: Well, it makes you want to quote Frank Zappa who said “is that a real poncho or like a Sears poncho?” [laughs]
B. Balogh: That’s great. That is fabulous, Ed.
E. Ayers: Every time the drama is the same in America. The rebels find that it’s hard to stay on the outside in America, that the Democrats want to come take William Jennings Bryan and they sucked up the energy in populism, you know, consumer capitalism came and sucked up the counterculture and killed that. Now, we’ll see what happens with the Tea Party.
P. Onuf: Good thing we’re not in the future business, huh, guys? [music]
B. Balogh: This has been a special Podcast only edition of “BackStory.” We’d love to hear your thoughts. Visit us online and leave us a comment.
P. Onuf: We’ve posted links to further readings about the Tea Party in historical context. You can also listen to any of our past shows and find a link to our Facebook page. That’s all at “BackStoryradio.org. Don’t be a stranger.
E. Ayers: “BackStory” is produced by Tony Field with help from Catherine Moore, Eric Verkerke, and Lydia Wilson. Gaby Alter wrote our theme. Our executive producer is Andrew Wyndham. “BackStory” is produced by VFH Radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. [music]