Tea-Partying Like It’s 1860

On Nov. 8, 1860, the secessionists who published The Charleston Mercury greeted the news of Abraham Lincoln’s election as president with righteous defiance: “The tea has been thrown overboard, the revolution of 1860 has been initiated.”

Sound familiar? It turns out that tea-party revivalism is nothing new; it’s been in the public parlance for a long time. But not forever: in the decades after the Revolutionary War public figures aggressively avoided the “tea party” analogy, considering it an act of collective passion beneath the civility of the young republic. It took the clash over slavery and states’ rights to return the “tea party” to respectability and breathe lasting life into one of our country’s most potent political analogies.

From the start, politicians have invoked the words and deeds of the Revolutionary era for their own purposes. When William Jefferson Clinton made his way to Washington as president-elect in 1993, he stopped by Monticello and paid tribute to the man who supposedly inspired his middle name. (Detractors snickered that this couldn’t be true; for a white boy born in Arkansas in 1946, they said, the more likely namesake was Jefferson Davis.)

It was only natural that Northerners and Southerners would try to manipulate the iconography of patriotism as the United States lurched toward its constitutional crisis over the meaning of freedom. Both abolitionists and slaveholders wanted to portray themselves as the real descendants of the Founding Fathers and the proper inheritors of their legacy.

The Boston Tea Party, however, presented a challenge. Benjamin Carp, a historian at Tufts, points to the conundrum in his excellent new book, “Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America.” “The American Revolution was in many respects a rite of passage for the new nation,” he writes. “Seen in this light, the Boston Tea Party was a national moment of adolescent rebellion.” In other words, George Washington and peers were trustworthy grown-ups, but the tea partiers were a bunch of teenage misfits who couldn’t be trusted with the buggy whips. 

For half a century afterward, Mr. Carp reports, a code of silence gripped Boston: nobody wanted to confess that they had tossed tea into the harbor in 1773. Part of their motivation sprang from a desire to escape justice. “For a long period apprehensions are said to have been entertained,” wrote the novelist James Fenimore Cooper in 1839, “by some engaged – men of wealth – that they might yet be made the subjects of a prosecution for damages, by the East India Company.”

No less important was a sense of shame, a belief that the Boston Tea Party was an act of hooliganism. In 1823, William Tudor, the co-founder of the North American Review, warned of how the tea party flirted with mob rule: “Their irregular action was salutary and indispensable at the time, but the habit of interfering in this manner with public affairs was a dangerous one, and it proves the virtue of the people that it did not produce permanent evils.” In his view, it was a good thing the tea party was a single episode of attention-grabbing mischief rather than a continuing movement devoted to violent mayhem.

To the ongoing consternation of historians, most of the original tea partiers took their secrets to the grave; Mr. Carp likens their behavior to a kind of gangland omertà. After they were gone, Edward Everett Hale – a relation of the man who declaimed at Gettysburg for two hours just before Lincoln spoke his 272 words – recalled the environment: “If, within the last seventy-five years, any old gentleman has said that he was of the Boston Tea Party, it is perfectly sure that he was not one of the party of men who really did throw the tea into the harbor. If, on the other hand, any nice old gentleman, asked by his grandchildren if he were of the Tea Party, smiled and put off the subject and began talking about General Washington, or General Gage, it is well-nigh certain that he was one of that confederation.” (Hale’s comment recalls the controversies surrounding two of this year’s senatorial candidates, Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois, who were accused of embellishing their military service records. Neither man was tied to the tea-party movement; both won on Election Day.)

South Carolinians were among the first to see the tea party in a different light. When South Carolina had its first fling with secession during the 1831 nullification crisis, its governor, James Hamilton, compared his state’s actions to those of the “Boston Tea Affair.” Anti-slavery crusader William Lloyd Garrison denounced the comparison – not for besmirching the hallowed memory of American patriots, but because he feared it was entirely too accurate. The tea party, he said, invoked “the demon of civil discord.”

Yet abolitionists eventually had second thoughts about this comparison. As they fought fugitive slave laws in the 1850s, they came to see the tea party a model of enlightened civil disobedience. When a group of Boston vigilantes freed a runaway slave from federal authorities in 1851, the minister Theodore Parker – a man whose words are embroidered into President Obama’s new Oval Office rug – celebrated. “I think it the most noble deed done in Boston since the destruction of the tea in 1773,” he wrote.

The temperance movement also got in on the act. In 1854, several women in DeWitt County, Ill., were arrested for trashing a saloon. Their prairie lawyer, who took the case on a moment’s notice, argued that they were simply acting in the spirit of the Boston Tea Party. The jury found the women guilty, but the judge decided to let them off with fines of $2 each. Local legend says that they weren’t even made to pay, so the ladies were probably satisfied with their legal representation – provided by one Abraham Lincoln.

By the time Lincoln was elected president, the tea-party trope had become an acceptable part of mainstream rhetoric, a statement of civic-minded frustration and protest. The 21st-century Tea Party is simply an extension of that development. Its detractors are likewise trying to return to an older habit and marginalize the movement as crude and dangerous – a position some modern-day Tea Partyers have inadvertently helped reinforce. Last year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, was unwise to hint that his state might become so aggravated by federal overreach that it would consider secession. And in post-election recriminations, many conservatives have criticized Tea Party activists in Colorado, Delaware and Nevada for nominating weak, unpracticed Senate candidates in races that were otherwise winnable for Republicans.

Yet none of these blunders is serious enough to warrant an earlier century’s sense of embarrassment. The Tea Party of 2010 hasn’t engaged in the crime of property destruction and its greatest provocateurs limited their incitements to asking pointed questions at the town-hall meetings of congressional incumbents. On the contrary, by tapping into a storied political analogy, the movement shows a more sophisticated grasp of American history than its critics give it credit for possessing.

Indeed, when they haven’t been trying to popularize vulgarisms like the insult “teabagger,” those critics have at times displayed their own lack of historical acumen. After Sarah Palin warned her listeners at an October rally that it wasn’t yet time to “party like it’s 1773,” several commentators accused her of getting her dates wrong – when in fact Mrs. Palin meant the date of the Boston Tea Party, not the Declaration of Independence. “She’s so smart,” sneered Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas.

By misunderstanding the reference, the movement’s critics advertised their unfamiliarity not only with one of America’s great political events but also one of its age-old traditions – and proved that there’s something to be said for silence.

John J. Miller writes for National Review. He is the author of “The First Assassin,” a historical novel set in 1861.

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Full article and photo: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/17/tea-partying-like-its-1860