Tea Parties Then and Now — A Crucial Difference

This April 15 — the day when individual federal tax return forms are due thousands of tea party activists will converge on county courthouses, state capitals and Washington, D.C., to protest the federal income tax. As their name implies and their banners state, they will invoke the Boston Tea Party of 1773 as inspiration for citizens resisting “taxation without representation.”

In some ways, they resemble the original tea partiers, perhaps more than they realize. But they’re dead wrong in their main complaint: today’s tax policies are a direct result of what the Boston Tea Party’s participants most wanted and are something worth celebrating — namely, representative government.
The tea party movement burst on the American political scene in early 2009. Many conservative and libertarian Americans were angered by the $700 billion bailout of failing banks and auto companies at the expense of taxpayers, a measure signed by Republican president George W. Bush before he left office. The newly elected Democratic president, Barack Obama, began working with Democratic majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives to dedicated $787 billion more in federal funds to avert further economic disaster.
The way many people looked at it, both political parties were complicit in spending nearly $1.5 trillion in taxpayer money to prop up banks run by Wall Street fat cats and to expand the federal government in ways whose benefits were not immediately apparent to most taxpayers. Egged on by cable pundits such as Glenn Beck and using the Internet to communicate and organize, a new network of activists across the country quickly latched onto the Boston Tea Party as their common inspiration.
The original Boston Tea Party was also partly a reaction to a government corporate bailout. Britain’s huge East India Company made its money by shipping tea from India to Britain, but many American colonists got their tea smuggled in by the Dutch. The East India Company was in big financial trouble, and English policy makers feared the impact such a failure would have on the economy, just as they rued the tax revenue lost to smuggling.
So in May 1773 Parliament passed and King George III assented to the Tea Act, which allowed the East India Company to sell tea directly to American colonists. It was an ingenious policy: the additional business would help the East India Company stay afloat, the empire would get its taxes, and, because middlemen would no longer be taking a cut, colonists would actually be paying less for their tea than before. Nonetheless, thousands of Bostonians felt alienated and enraged for being forced to accept a policy and tax they had no say about.
Bostonians had no stake in the London-based East India Company and certainly didn’t share in its profits, just as most Americans today see little benefit from the large Wall Street financial firms. Bostonians resented having to pay the tax, despite the fact that they actually paid much less in taxes than British people did, just as many contemporary Americans resent today’s federal taxes, notwithstanding that Americans have a lower overall tax burden than any other developed nation.
Also, Bostonians who made a living selling the smuggled Dutch tea, including some of the city’s richest and most respected merchants (does the name John Hancock ring a bell?), stood to lose a lot of money should the Tea Act be implemented. Most of all, Bostonians objected to the fact that, regardless of the cheaper tea, they had had no say in Parliament, which passed the Tea Act.
Ships carrying East India Company tea soon arrived in Boston harbor, where Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson insisted that the tea be unloaded. On the night of December 16, 1773, somewhere between 50 and 100 men, some of them dressed up as Indians, boarded the ships and threw the tea overboard. Word of the event spread and was celebrated throughout the colonies. Colonists used the event as a symbol of citizen protest against “taxation without representation.”
But the essence of that complaint — “taxation without representation” — is the big difference between the Boston Tea Party’s participants and today’s tea party activists. To be sure, many tea partiers feel that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats truly represent them. But, like it or not, the policies enacted by the federal government were passed by elected representatives and signed by presidents voted into office.
Individual citizens may disapprove of the policies Congress enacts and resent their consequences, but, ultimately, the federal government is the nation’s collective government and writes its laws, not a parliament on an island an ocean away. And the taxes that we pay and how those taxes are spent are a result of an electoral process that the men in the Boston harbor, and tens of thousands more, would subsequently fight for at places like Concord and Yorktown.
So, tea partiers, by all means, protest policies that you don’t like, as all of us have the privilege to do. But put away those “taxation without representation” banners. In today’s United States, representation is never more than an election away.

Andrew M. Schocket is author of “Founding Corporate Power in Early National Philadelphia” and director of American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University.