The Tea Party: An Unflattering Mirror

The Tea Party of course was the popular action organized by Bostonians in 1773 in response to British colonists’ using colonial taxes to pay for British troops garrisoned to monitor — excuse me — the very individuals whose taxes were paying for these troops. And, if this last sentence has you scratching your head, then you are already well on your way to seeing why the contemporary “Tea Party” may be an unflattering reflection of our own already distorted image. Just to be clear, the British were both the colonizers and those who were resisting colonization. The contemporary Tea Partiers, of course, are entirely oblivious to such contradictions. Whatever. . . Something far more significant is concealed here.

What the Tea Partiers do know is that the actual participants in the original 1773 Tea Party were very different men and women than the authors of the 1789 US Constitution. Because, it turns out, the 1773 Tea Party was only the first of many. “Tea Parties” continued to be staged throughout and, more importantly, after the official end of conflict between the British crown and the British colonists. Why these popular actions continued to be staged, even after 1783, needs to be flagged. And it needs to be flagged because those who staged these actions–breaking into prisons, freeing prisoners, refusing to pay taxes, breaking into banks, tearing up mortgages and bank notes–were the immediate occastion for the constitutional convention. When the conventioners met in Philadelphia, they met to create a document that would legitimize the right of the United States to tax states and raise a militia that would put down such insurrections, maintain public peace, and, most important of all, protect interstate commerce (

It is among the greatest (dis)illusions of those who lean to the political left in this country that they cannot both press public action and call for support of the US Constitution. The US Constitution was designed quite explicitly to put down insurrection. It was designed to put down inserrection of precisly the variety now expressed by members of the contemporary Tea Party. And they know it.

But we don’t. The members of the contemporary Tea Party know that their actions are contrary to the spirit and letter of the US Constitution. They know that the US Constitution is a fundamentally conservative, even reactionary, document. (Like “movement” leftists, “movement” Dominionists such as Sarah Palin eagerly steer their rank-and-file away from the Federalist Papers and toward the Anti-Federalist Papers, whose authors were outspoken opponents of the US Constitution.)

Our own discomfort with the Tea Party casts an unfavorable light, I am afraid, on our own schizophrenia. And this schozophrenia reflects our own ambivalence over the tortured and tormented historical roots of liberalism and radicalism. Would we have sided with the framers of the US Constitution against the Green Mountain Boys, who felt that federal taxes and commercial law were set against them? Or would we side with the Green Mountain Boys who couldn’t have cared less about US Constitutions, interstate commerce, and the rule of law. Do we despise the contemporary Tea Party because we are elitists, or because we are principled?

Here is my fear. We do not actually believe in democracy. (Nor do Sarah Palin and her minions.) We believe in education, in the leisure necessary to think things through carefully, in thoughtfulness, and in justice for all. None of which are necessarily democratic. But since we do not yet command or are fearful of developing a post-democratic rhetoric, we retract in horror at the “democratic” rhetoric of the Tea Party. We are caught in the very dilemma that the framers of our Constitution first faced (and that other Americans opposed).

Our revolution is not over. It has only just begun.

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