Tax Analysts Blog

Something You Should Know About Tea Parties, Past and Present

Posted on Apr 13, 2010

If the modern Tea Party movement makes you uneasy, then get in line: you have plenty of historical company. The original Tea Party -- the one in Boston -- has long been a touchstone of American nationalism. Kids learn about in grade school, and almost everyone knows the story of Sam Adams, his phony Indians, and the tea in Boston Harbor. But that 1773 example of civil disobedience was not always so fondly remembered. For more than half a century, in fact, it more or less disappeared from the nation's collective memory.

In a recent article for Tax Notes (also available from the Tax History Project), I take aim at some common misconceptions about the original Tea Party. (Especially the notion that it was a protest against high taxes. It was actually sparked by a tax cut, not a hike). Among the items of confusion is the Tea Party's iconic status in American political culture. As historian Alfred F. Young described in his outstanding book, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, the event left many proper Bostonians more than a little uncomfortable. The protest was organized by middle class merchants and some semi-respectable Boston notables (like Sam Adams). But it had many of the trappings of a mob action, including the participation of uninvited activists from the lower and middling orders of colonial society. The Tea Party's unruly quality seemed threatening to many of the city's conservative leaders, and they more or less ignored the event in the decades after it occurred. Not until the 1830s did proper Bostonians acknowledge "the destruction of the tea," and they did so by giving it the name it has today. The "Tea Party" moniker had the effect, according to Young, of taming this unruly event.

So if you think today's Tea Parties are a little uncouth, rest easy knowing that generations of conservative Bostonians were inclined to agree.

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