The “tea party” movement: Misappropriating American history


An image used by the modern tea party movement shows colonial patriots dressed as American Indians dumping tea off of ships into the Boston harbor in December of 1773.  When it comes to selecting a signature event, today’s “tea partiers” have chosen poorly.  The tax protests of modern tea partiers have nothing to do with the Boston Tea Party of 1773.

The impetus behind the Boston Tea Party was the Tea Act of 1773.  In response to colonial outrage, Parliament repealed most of the taxes imposed through the Townshend Act of 1767.  However, the hated tax on tea was left in place as a demonstration of Parliament’s authority to tax the colonies.  Irate colonists would have none of it.  Tea laden ships were not allowed to land in New York and Philadelphia.  In Boston, tea was taken from the ships and dumped overboard.

The outrage of the colonists was not about the price that they were forced to pay for tea because of tax; in fact, the price of tea declined in the American colonies as a result of the Tea Act because the East India Company was allowed to directly export tea to the colonies rather than having to go through middlemen in London.  The rage of the colonists was not about the amount of the tax; rather, they objected to the principle of any tax imposed upon them by government officials that they had no voice in choosing.

Modern tea partiers can make no such claim of “taxation without representation.”  At the federal level and in all 50 states, taxes are imposed by elected representatives.  You might not have voted for the current officeholders, but you still had the opportunity to vote.  Americans and Minnesotans today are taxed with representation.  Thus, there is no connection between modern tax protesters and the patriots who dumped tea into the Boston harbor nearly twelve score years ago.

Modern tea partiers have constitutionally protected free speech rights.  Indeed, a fact-based debate over taxation is healthy and should be encouraged.  However, those who advocate for low taxes and less public investment should not misappropriate historic events that have nothing to do with the cause they espouse.  Nor should they pretend to be any more patriotic than the rest of us.