Like all “good Americans,” today’s Tea Partiers believe the destruction of the tea was a patriotic act in noble defiance of an unfair tax by a tyrannical government. This, however, is not exactly true, nor was that act of protest much of a precedent for today’s political disruptions.

Beyond the fact that both Tea Parties – then and now – were organized as hell-raising events, this is where the similarity ends.

Current Tea Partiers protest government, which they swear by-God threatens the existence of the private enterprise system they hold dear. The Tea Partiers of old, on the other hand, were not protesting an existential threat to private enterprise so much as an economic threat posed by one.

It was not government tea they threw overboard, after all. It happened to belong to a private enterprise known as the British East India Company.

The Tea Act imposed by the English parliament in 1773 did not make tea less affordable, nor did it even raise a new tax. It merely extended a three-penny tea duty, imposed six years previously as part of the Townshend Duties.

When these taxes, excepting that on tea, were repealed, colonists continued to boycott English tea, buying smuggled Dutch tea instead. What the Tea Act did do, however, was to endow the East India Company with a legal monopoly on the colonial tea trade.

By allowing the East India Company to bypass English middlemen, its tea, even with the three-penny tax, would now be cheaper than the Dutch tea, and it would be legal. By some accounts, it even tasted better.

The colonists were not being forced to buy English tea. Indeed, they had been boycotting it for years. And certainly it would be a stretch to claim that an unsold heap of tea posed a threat to anybody’s liberty.

Why then would anyone risk destroying the valuable cargo of a politically well-connected business entity? Was this a manifestation of political idealism? Or was it actually a preemptive economic strike against a private enterprise – a transnational corporation, in fact – that had the audacity to try to make a buck at the expense of American smugglers?

This is hardly textbook-heroic stuff.

Maybe that is why the term “Boston Tea Party” did not enter the American lexicon until 1834 – three generations after the act of vandalism it was invented to glorify.

Now, nine generations having passed since the festive “Tea Party” label was invented, modern Americans can safely imagine – without a single good reason to do so – that the destruction of the tea was somehow patriotic.

This is the fictive legacy that today’s Tea Partiers rush to embrace, while failing utterly to grasp the significance of what happened that winter night in Boston Harbor.

By passing the Tea Act, the English government was not attempting “to socialize” the British Empire “with tax and regulatory policies,” which, Tea Partiers now insist, is the ulterior motive behind the actions of the Obama administration toward the U.S. economy.

On the contrary, parliament essentially was acting as an agent on the behalf of a privately-owned corporation by endowing it with a trade monopoly in disregard of the interests of its American subjects. Certainly the obvious analogy cannot be hard to draw in these days of taxpayer-funded bailouts of privately-owned corporations.

But by clamoring that “government is the problem,” Tea Partiers remain deaf to the crucial message that government is only a mechanism that can be put to use by those who control it.

Political Luddites

By attacking the machine, rather than the powerful corporations that often manipulate the machine for their own benefit, the Tea Partiers are actually claiming a legacy far removed from the American experience.

Forget the “Sons of Liberty.” Ned Lud is their man – and he was an Englishman who famously resisted what was then deemed progress, destroying a mechanical knitting machine called a “stocking frame” in 1779, six years after the Boston Tea Party.

The machine wove stockings, and recent improvements to its design were putting skilled weavers out of work. To use current terminology, English weavers’ livelihoods were being “outsourced” from right under their noses.

Employers cut not only wages, but quality, by mass producing shoddy goods at lower prices for the mass market. So, the quasi-legendary Ned Lud became an English folk hero for smashing the machine.

Several decades later, at the time British redcoats were burning Washington D.C. during the War of 1812, Ned Lud’s act of protest gave rise to English “Luddites” who instigated a domestic rebellion, diverting British forces not only from the conflict in America but a war against France.

The civil insurrection was no small matter, with a historian noting that, at one point, more British troops were fighting domestic insurgents, the Luddites, than Napoleon’s troops in Iberia.

Claiming “King” or “Captain” Lud as their inspirational leader, enraged Luddite artisans led campaigns to trash and burn the textile machinery they saw as their immediate oppressor. Luddism loomed as such a threat that parliament, acting on behalf of the corporate machine-owners, passed legislation making machine-breaking a capital offense in 1812.

The poet Lord Byron made his first speech in the House of Lords denouncing the measure, but to no avail.

Contrary to some historical mischaracterizations, Luddites were not a mob of dimwitted automatons, so dense they could not understand they were being victimized by economics, not hosiery machines.

Although they acted desperately – perhaps foolishly – they were skilled workers who understood perfectly well how “free-market” economics was impoverishing them. For this reason, Luddites have been called the “counter-revolutionaries of the Industrial Revolution.”

But in the end, the Luddite rebellion did not prevail. The corporations did.
Within two generations, unskilled English textile mill workers had become so debased that practically every child in the smog-ridden factory town of Manchester was affected by rickets, a skeletal deformity that afflicts children workers who never see the light of day.

At the same time, and for the same economic reasons, entire families of Irish immigrants had become virtual wage slaves in the textile mill towns of New England. Yet this should have come as no surprise.

Adam Smith, the “Father of Capitalism,” had foreseen the result of an unregulated, industrialized, free market in The Wealth of Nations. Published in 1776 – only three years before Ned Lud started smashing stocking frames with a hammer – Smith’s classic work predicted:

“The man whose whole life is spent in the performance of a few simple [mechanical] operations…has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention…and becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become….

“[T]his is the state into which the laboring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.” [emphasis supplied]

Government, as it happened, eventually did “take some pains” to prevent the ruthless exploitation of human beings by the more powerful “artificial persons” called corporations.

The American people, seizing their democratic government as a hammer to forge social justice, had by the dawn of the Second World War eradicated many of the abuses inherent in any unbridled free-market system.

Small children would no longer languish in mills and mines. The virtual serfdom of the “company store” was abolished. Workers achieved the right to demand a fair day’s pay without risking being gunned down in the streets by their bosses.

And by the 1960s, all adult Americans were guaranteed their right to vote – for the first time in 350 years of North American civilization. This was but a part of what the mechanism of government accomplished once it was wielded by the people, for their common good.

To this, the modern Tea Party-goer replies: “Government is the problem.” And they wave their “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, depicting their own government as their oppressor, not a foreign empire and its mercantile entities, like the East India Company.

They demand that the American people re-embrace the Republic of the sacred Founders – having forgotten that the original Republic embraced chattel slavery, indentured servitude, debtor prisons, and the disenfranchisement of the majority of the population.

They insist Americans peruse the Federalist Papers that parsed out the intent of our constitutionally-limited government – having forgotten it was the Federalist Party of Washington, Hamilton and Adams that not only objected to the Bill of Rights, but passed the first law in United States history making free speech illegal.

They fancy themselves as tax protesters in the tradition of the Patriot Fathers – having forgotten it was the “Father of Our Country,” George Washington, who not only signed the first unfair tax bill into law, but who personally rode at the head of an armed multitude bent on hanging any and all Americans who dared protest paying whatever tax their new “limited government” demanded.

Today’s Tea Partiers may flatter themselves as constituting the last of the true-blue patriots, protectors of Natural Law, defenders of the Faith, lovers of Liberty, and the last best hope of man on Earth. But they are not. And neither were the guys who dumped the tea into Boston Harbor.

The Tea Party-goers are instead perverse and pathetic caricatures of King Lud. Having no stocking frames to wreck, these American Luddites are tilting at government windmills, as if mindlessly vandalizing the mechanisms of power would stop the wind from blowing.  

Jada Thacker, Ed.D, is the author of Dissecting American History: A Theme-Based Narrative. He teaches U.S. History and Political Science at a private educational institution in Texas. He may be contacted at jadathacker@sbcglobal.net .

To comment at Consortiumblog, click here. (To make a blog comment about this or other stories, you can use your normal e-mail address and password. Ignore the prompt for a Google account.) To comment to us by e-mail, click here. To donate so we can continue reporting and publishing stories like the one you just read, click here.

Back to Home Page