Sons of Liberty and the Tea Party Movement

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A Tea Party protest in Hartford, Connecticut, on April 15, 2009.

The Tea Party Movement is a reminder that protest against government tyranny began with the implementation of the Stamp Act of 1765.

In 1773 colonial American patriots introduced the Tea Party rallying song: “Rally, Mohawks! Bring out your axes, And tell King George we’ll pay no taxes…” Led by the Sons of Liberty, mobs tore down the homes of Crown agents, tarring and feathering those sent to enforce taxation measures, and hurled stones at the carriages of wealthy merchants known to sympathize with Crown policy. The contemporary Tea Party Movement has not taken to tarring and feathering, but their activism is becoming more vocal and intimidating, as witnessed by the March 20th mass rally on Capitol Hill.

Similarities of the Two Movements

The Sons of Liberty represented, for the most part, the leading colonial inhabitants. Historian Christopher Hibbert writes that, “the most vociferous in their opposition to the Stamp Act were naturally those whose incomes would be most affected by it.” This included John Hancock, whose family had made a fortune in smuggling. Patriotic activism was easy in a city like Boston where unemployment was high. Historians like Hibbert and Howard Zinn estimate that one-third of the inhabitants did not have regular employment.

The contemporary Tea Party Movement is closely identified with the American upper middle class. They demonize the Obama Administration as Socialist and vow to fight a Democrat-led Congress on health care reform. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein (March 21, 2010) argues that the Tea Party protests “seemed less about health care reform than about redistribution itself.” Opposed to federal regulation, activists worry about higher deficits and seeing their own health care benefits diminished.

The Tactics of Activism

The Sons of Liberty utilized violent tactics, “taking down” the houses of Crown agents and supporters and intimidating tax agents like Andrew Oliver into resigning or suffer the consequences. The actual Boston Tea Party, mythologized as a great event in the cause of liberty, was, by today’s standards, an act of vandalism.

The 2010 Tea Party Movement has not turned to violence, but individual passions took an ugly turn at the March 20th protest. The Washington Post reported racial slurs shouted at members of the Congressional Black Caucus. (Paul Kane, March 20, 2010). Congressman Emanuel Cleaver was spit upon and had to be escorted into the Capitol by police. Protesters also targeted openly-gay Congressman Barney Frank with anti-gay rhetoric. Unlike the Sons of Liberty who galvanized mob action from the urban poor class, the modern Tea Party Movement has scant appeal to the unemployed and poor today.

Liberty and the Interpretation of Constitution

Writing from London in 1774 to his brother Richard Henry Lee in Virginia, William Lee concluded that, “A settled plan is laid to subvert the liberties and constitution of this country, as well as that of America.” Lee was referring to the Parliamentary debate in the wake of the 1773 tea party that would lead to the Intolerable Acts. The conservative political theorist Edmund Burke, protesting harsh Parliamentary retaliation, stated in the Commons that “such remedies [Intolerable Acts]…will create disturbances that can never be quieted.”

At issue were constitutional prerogatives and guarantees of liberty, including – in 1774, the right to trial with a jury of peers. Similarly, the modern Tea Party Movement appeals to the Constitution and their interpretation of the document. This includes how a democratic process works: Tea Party activists howled with contempt when the Democratic House leadership considered using “deem and pass” on the health care bill.

Protest and Activism Part of the American Tradition

The Tea Party Movement is only the latest in a long list of American protest and anti-government activism. It began with the Sons of Liberty but was resurrected periodically in events like Shays Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, Coxey’s March on Washington, and the Kent State Massacre.

References:

  1. Christopher Hibbert, Redcoats and Rebels: The American Revolution Through British Eyes (Avon Books, 1990)
  2. The Spirit of Seventy-Six, Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, editors (Castle Books, 2002)