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Tossing Tea and Stealing Dishes

January 25th, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

If we don’t know our history, we can’t know when we’re being lied to about it.

As a college history professor it is my sometimes unpleasant duty to inform students that they have been misled about history. In fact, I try to impress on them that for this reason alone it is essential for citizens of a democracy not only to know basic facts about history but also to know basic methods of historical investigation. Because if you don’t know history anyone can lie to you about history, and you won’t know any better. And if you don’t know how to determine if something is true, you can be fooled. And the go-to strategy for office seekers is to appeal to popular but false assumptions about history.

It is only fair to mention at the outset that anyone who can get away with this will. No “side” in our political discourse is innocent. But here I’m going to focus on just one group so that we can see how the principle can be applied elsewhere. Here I will briefly examine the so-called Tea Party because of its unconcealed resort to historical fiction in seeking to define its public image.

Let’s start with the name. When you think about “tea party,” as an even moderately educated American citizen you think of the Boston Tea Party. That event was a revolutionary act in 1773 by some of the colonists of Massachusetts against what they felt was an unfair and burdensome tax laid upon them by the British Parliament. Those people who would support the American Revolution that this event contributed to would come to be known as “patriots.” So those who participated in the “Tea Party” are associated with the original “Patriots.” In our collective imagination patriots are virtuous and heroic freedom fighters. Get it? The contemporary Tea Party is so called to claim the image of heroic and valiant patriots fighting for freedoms won in the Revolutionary War, which have somehow been lost.

As in many other things the Tea Party is not subtle about this symbolism. Their web site observes, “The Tea Party includes those who possess a strong belief in the foundational Judeo-Christian values embedded in our great founding documents.”[1] There is no explicit mention of what these founding documents are, although they go on to say, “We stand by the Constitution as inherently conservative.”[2] I think it would be safe to assume that the Declaration of Independence should be included as well. So we have the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

At the start we begin to encounter historical difficulties. The committee of the Continental Congress charged with authoring the Declaration of Independence included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Neither Franklin nor Adams believed that the document was of very great importance, so they left the bulk of the writing to the young and vocally less articulate Jefferson while they participated in the seemingly more important business of the Congress. Both Adams and Franklin, but especially Franklin, were instrumental in editing the document to reflect a less explicitly Christian tone in the final draft than Jefferson originally wrote.

If you are a Tea Party sympathizer my guess is that last statement produced a strong negative reaction. But the fact of the matter is that none of these three authors were what most people would today consider Christians. Both Jefferson and Franklin were Deists, and Adams was a Unitarian. Deist philosophy assumes a God who created the universe and put it in motion and then receded from its day to day affairs, particularly the affairs of humans. Like a clock maker who crafted a clock, wound it up and left it to run on its own. There was no concept of Christ as savior nor was the Bible considered sacred. Reason was the foundation of the created order. Later in his life Jefferson would rewrite the Bible to remove any reference to supernatural occurrences because they offended his belief in the rational certainty of Reason.

So when the document he largely authored refers to the Creator, as in “they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” the Creator they are referring to is this Deist Creator, not the Elohim who acts in the first verse of Genesis.

Further, the document itself doesn’t reflect Judeo Christian values. Given that its authors were among the leading figures of the European Enlightenment (or, “Age of Reason”), it reflects the values of those who elevated Reason over faith. There is some controversy about origins but a simple reading of the Declaration of Independence alongside Enlightenment Philosophe John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government will reveal an uncanny resemblance; in places it seems almost to be plagiarized.

So, for example, when the document affirms that “all men are created equal,” the idea proposed by Locke is that all men are created equal in the state of nature (hence the term natural rights), a theoretical Eden that existed before men began acquiring property. Humans are all equal in that they may all mix their labor with anything unowned to create private property. But the acquisition of property creates inequality. Those who have property have need to defend it, so they institute civil government to do so.

The main idea here is that government is instituted by property owners to defend the property rights of property owners. Chapter VI of Locke’s Treatise equates “liberty” with property. This is the liberty the revolutionaries had in mind when they wrote the Declaration of Independence. Did you ever wonder why, in the beginning of the American republic and indeed most of the democratic movements of the Atlantic world in this era, voting was limited to property owners? It is not only because of racism and male chauvinism that participation in government was limited to white males; it was primarily because only white males could own property, and only property owners were thought to need government protection.

The key to the link between the Declaration and Locke is in chapter XIX of the Treatise, which describes a situation where a government that has been instituted to protect property fails to do so, and in fact becomes a threat to property rights. This is what the American colonists believed to be the case with the imposition of the Tea Act in 1773 and other acts of Parliament before and after. By so doing, according to Locke’s (and the colonists’) reasoning, the government put itself into a state of war with those who created it, who were left with recourse only to force and violence to dissolve and destroy it and institute a new government, which would perform the only purpose for which governments are created: the protection of private property. A reading of the Declaration alongside chapter XIX of the Treatise can’t fail to make this connection crystal clear.

It is true that over the course of the American Revolution the focus of the struggle shifted from property rights to individual freedoms, more like what we today would consider liberty. But one of the ironies of history is that the first time this idea appears in a founding document is in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of the French Revolution in 1789, which states “all men are born and remain free and equal.” In Locke’s reasoning, all are born equal, but are made unequal by the acquisition of property. By the end of the American Revolution many of the revolutionary leaders had become more radical in their ideas about freedom and the meaning of the revolution. But this radicalism would have been unknown to those who dumped British tea into Boston harbor.

All of which leads to the conclusion that the subject of the Declaration of Independence is principally property rights. There is no appeal to Judeo-Christian values in the Declaration of Independence.

So then, what about the Constitution? I find it exceedingly odd that there is such a strong belief in the historical fantasy that the United States is a “Christian” nation when its blueprint, the Constitution, the document that actually defines the United States, contains no reference at all to religion as it was originally written. This was not by accident but by design. The Constitution is, more than anything else, a codification of principles of the Age of Reason, which itself was a rejection of the Judeo Christian worldview. Does it not seem at least interesting that the only reference to religion in the entire document, in the First Amendment, prohibits the establishment of a state religion and the creation of restrictions on the free exercise of religion? Where do we get “Christian” nation from this?

The most common response is to cherry pick certain quotes of the founders and other leaders in the early republic that call upon Christian virtues and make them central to their ideas about public life. And I won’t deny that American culture in the beginning, and diminishing slowly over time, was drenched in the Judeo Christian worldview. Christianity was foundational, ontological. People holding the Christian worldview had every right to their beliefs and values and to practice them in the public sphere. That is what the secularism of the Constitution envisioned. But that doesn’t make the United States a “Christian” nation it makes it a secular one. Later manifestations of Enlightenment secularism, in France and in Latin America for example, would become more radical, more vocally and even violently anti-Christian. But the secularism of the United States Constitution ensures religious toleration, without sectarian affiliation.

So much for the “foundational Judeo-Christian values embedded in our great founding documents.”

Let’s go back to the name of the group: the Tea Party. There is a general statement on the Tea Party web site that says about its founding, “Many claim to be the founders of this movement; however, it was the brave souls of the men and women in 1773, known today as the Boston Tea Party, who dared to defy the greatest military might on earth.”[3]

Well, let’s look at who these “brave souls” might have been. As nearly as we can tell, they were all men.[4] They identified with a colonies wide loose association of activists opposed to Crown taxation known as the “Sons of Liberty.” This was not a formal organization and most often when it acted in public it did so as an unorganized mass. Their motto became “No taxation without representation,” reminding us that their issue was taxes. If freedom was involved, it was freedom from having to pay taxes to the Crown. It should be noted that many people desired relief from taxation, but those who favored radical action and independence and associated with the Sons of Liberty were in the minority even after the Declaration of Independence.

We can get a feel for the kind of organization this was by considering some of the other actions they were involved in. In New York, the Sons of Liberty provoked the British administration by erecting “liberty poles,” which British soldiers would tear down as soon as they appeared. The back and forth between putting them up and tearing them down resulted in several street battles over many years and consequently many injuries and some deaths. In Boston the Sons of Liberty burned the local stamp collector in effigy and then burned down his house. Not content with this, they also broke into, ransacked and destroyed the home of the Lieutenant Governor and stole his dishes. They were also responsible for the destruction of other property including the burning of the ship HMS Gaspee in 1772. Please notice that all of these actions occurred before the Declaration of Independence, which means that today they would more than likely be categorized as acts of terrorism.

In our desire to emphasize the righteousness of our revolutionary cause we tend to overlook these uncomfortable truths. But the Sons of Liberty the contemporary Tea Party wants to associate with were far from the God fearing middle class Christians they want us to believe they are. The actions of the Sons of Liberty more often than not were mob actions. Boston in 1773 more resembled Ferguson than Pleasantville. And the Tea Partiers of 1773 were on the wrong side of the law. Today’s Tea Partiers would no doubt be assaulting them mercilessly with Facebook memes. Today’s Tea Partiers, more than likely, would then have been called Tories.

I’m not going to comment on whether any of the Tea Party’s ideas are good or bad. My point here isn’t to engage the Tea Party in political dialog but to point out how the image of virtuous and heroic patriots standing up for God and country against tyranny doesn’t quite square with the historical reality of the American revolutionary era.

History matters. And as much as we may hate to admit it, accurate history, and the ways to determine accuracy, must be learned from professional historians, not political hacks. If we don’t know our history, we can’t know when we’re being lied to about it.


[1] “About Us,” teaparty.org, 2015, accessed January 24, 2015, http://www.teaparty.org/about-us/#sthash.JwwDNojv.dpuf.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “List of Tea Party Participants,” Old South Meeting House, http://www.oldsouthmeetinghouse.org/history/boston-tea-party/list-participants (accessed January 24, 2015).

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