Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Tea Party -- Then and Now

The Boston Tea Party occurred 240 years ago, on Dec. 16, 1773. Some say it was the actual beginning of the war for American independence. At the very least, it was an important precursor of the Revolutionary War, which officially began in April 1775.
As is widely known, the issue was taxation. More specifically, it was about taxation without representation. The colonialists didn’t mind paying taxes as such. They just didn’t want to send the money raised to King George and a government in which they had no voice.
A large majority of the colonialists were from Great Britain, and they liked their tea. The British, though, levied taxes on the tea they shipped to the Colonies—three pence per pound (equivalent to about $1.15 now). That may not seem like a lot, but the colonialists were consuming well over a million pounds of tea a year.
On that December evening in 1773, some 5,000 people met in the Old South Meeting House to debate British taxation. That gathering-place was the sanctuary used by Old South Church, which was founded in 1669; the church constructed their new facility in 1729 and in the 1770s it was still the largest auditorium in Boston.
After the meeting some of the protesters, many disguised as Indians, boarded three British ships in Boston Harbor and threw 342 chests of tea into the water. (The value of that tea would be worth about $1,700,000 today.)
That happening is what came to be known as the Boston Tea Party, although that term was not used until the 1820s.
A 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier (1813-88), half of the Currier & Ives combo
In 1973, the U.S. Post Office commemorated the 200th anniversary of that act of protest against Britain by issuing a set of four first-class (8-cent) stamps, together making one scene of the Boston Tea Party.
More recently, in 2009 grassroots political protest spawned what came to be termed the Tea Party movement. That movement is credited with electing 28 U.S. Representatives in 2010, helping the Republicans take control of the House.
At the beginning of this year, there were 48 Representatives who were members of the Tea Party Caucus, chaired by Michelle Bachmann. All are Republicans, including two of the eight Representatives of Missouri (where I live).
While there are numerous economic matters that are of great concern to the Tea Party movement, one of their main concerns is not raising taxes. In fact, they want to reduce the size of government and lower taxes as much as possible.
Even though there is a similarity in name, these modern-day “patriots” are quite different from those who participated in or supported the 1773 Boston Tea Party with the slogan “no taxation without representation.”
The current Tea Party seems to want representation with no (or at least very little) taxation. Those are two widely different matters.
The efforts of the original Tea Party in 1773 meant the loss of revenue for the British government, but it didn’t mean lower taxes for the colonialists.
The contemporary Tea Party movement works so their members, and many other U.S. citizens, would pay some less in taxes. And it is mainly the poor and needy who are the losers, with cuts in “food stamps” and now soon in unemployment benefits.
So, in looking back at the Boston Tea Party that took place 240 years ago this week, let’s be careful to note that its purpose and consequences differed greatly from those of the current Tea Party movement.


  1. Informative and, more important, clarifying! Thanks, Leroy.

  2. Libertarians have convinced themselves that all taxes are theft, and government is basically a criminal conspiracy. So, from that viewpoint, the Tea Party followers have a point when they identify with the cry of "no taxation without representation." They just feel that no government really represents them. Personally, I find the whole theory a lot like a two-year-old throwing a tantrum, announcing "But it's not fair!"

    Now a two-year-old can be sent to time out. Other than through a long term electoral solution, there is no easy plan for dealing with the Tea Party, unless Speaker Boehner's recent outburst turns out to be more than political theater. He is the only person in the position to send the Tea Party to time out.

    Thomas Jefferson may not have actually said the popular, "That government governs best that governs least." In any event, there are two ways to read it. To the Tea Party this seems to mean that the less government, the better. However, another way to read it is as a benchmark, where the challenge is to successfully govern with the least necessary interference with society. I believe this is the better reading. This still leaves a lot of room to debate the best role and methods for a modern effective government. That would be a valuable debate.

    1. Craig has given us a very good analogy with the 2-year-old and tantrums and time out. But I think his serious comment about Jefferson's quote deserves more attention. I think there is a case to be made about creating dependency by the government trying to do everything. Children can learn from their mistakes, if they are allowed to make them. On the other hand, there is a role for parents (government) to restrain a child from running out into traffic, for example. One might see collapse coming with climate change, and might look favorably on China's example as a protective parent restraining population growth and converting from coal to solar and wind by fiat. We who consume the most may be like spoiled children, and need less "representation" and more parenting by a benevolent dictator . . .

  3. Thinking Friend Michael Olmsted of Springfield, Mo., sent the following comments (with permission to post them here):

    "A big part of being a part of a democracy is understanding that we work TOGETHER for the good of society. Wholesale eradication of systems and support is no solution: it is butchery. Society without a heart and moral compass morphs into 'haves and have-nots,' which has no connection to Christian principles or equality.

    "Government in democracy can only work when people work together to solve problems instead of warring to win their ideological position. Differences ... arguments ... frustrations ... these are part of life which can divide us with no hope of resolution or they can spur us on to solutions that are best for society as a whole.

    "You are correct: the modern Tea Party has no connection to the Boston Tea Party except there is anger in both. May God help us all!"

  4. Local Thinking Friend Temp Sparkman wrote (with posting permission):

    "Thanks for the history lesson on the real Tea Party and the ill-conceived new Tea Party. I can only hope with you that the present group awakens to its corruption of the original one and learns how to negotiate with other representatives on matters of public interest."