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Is the "Tea Party" Really An Appropriate Name?

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First calling themselves "tea baggers" - thanks to lack of cultural knowledge about the sexual nature of that term - increasingly this nation-wide collection of populace is being referred to as the "Tea Party." While it surely intended to stoke the "patriotic" fervor of those who see themselves as part of this movement, this appellation is very inaccurate.

The Boston "Tea Party" was populist activism by the colonists in "America" who were protesting the Tea Act of the British Parliament which imposed a tax on tea. The "rebels" felt that they should not pay a tax that was not passed by their elected officials. Interestingly, the Tea Act was passed by the Parliament to save the East India Tea Company from bankruptcy (Encyclopedia Britannica - Boston tea Party). The East India Company was given a monopoly on all tea exported from Britain to the colonies, as well as imposing a tax on that tea. The refrain of "No taxation without representation" was one of the arguments of the rebelling colonists (Wikipedia - Boston Tea Party)

Regardless of frequently claiming to be "bi-partisan" or "non-partisan," the current Tea Party is highly conservative in the contemporary sense of that word. They are anti-tax (meaning individual taxation and increasing taxes for the wealthy), anti-immigrant, and pro-corporate and privatization. They are largely anti-government, which is the supposedly "Libertarian" strain - which in the current popular rendition is largely "conservative" as well. (See site sampling at end of article).

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This is a far cry from the rebel terrorists (and as far as the British were concerned the folks in Boston were terrorists) of the original "Tea Partyers". The Boston Tea Party rebels were acting against British rule in the American colonies, but particularly British taxation. They were acting against monopoly corporatism as represented by the East Indian Tea Company. They were making a first strike for liberating the colonies from Britain.

However, the current "Tea Party" does have close corollaries to another historical party. The party in mind is the "Know Nothings" also known as the American Party which arose roughly 80 years after the revolt of 1773. Both parties were responding to a social environment of slavery (and the conflicts around the institution), and to waves of European immigration. Feagin (1997: 19-20 as quoted in Wolf) characterizes this period as follows:

"In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the 'white race' emerged as a constructed social group for the first time in history." ... "Early English invaders and their descendants saw themselves as culturally and physically different from Native and African Americans, the stereotyped 'uncivilized savages.' Moreover, by the early 1800s the importance of Southern cotton plantations for the U.S. economy had brought a growing demand for Native American land and African and African American slaves. Slavery was being abolished in the North, and the number of free black men and women was growing. In this period, the Anglo-Protestant ruling elite developed the ideology of a superior 'white race' as one way of providing racial privileges for poorer European Americans and keeping the latter from joining with black Americans in worker organisations. By the mid-nineteenth century, not only later English "immigrants" but also "immigrants" from Scotland, Ireland, and Germany had come to accept a place in this socially constructed 'white race' whose special racial privileges included the rights of personal liberty, travel and voting." (As quoted in Wolf, 2008)

The Know Nothings were anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic, though they were split North and South on the issue of slavery. As stated in Wolf (2008):

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The Know Nothings grew out of a secret society called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. They were formally known as the American Party. They were anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic and claimed to be champion of the rights of American male Protestant voters. The northern part of the party being anti-slavery and the southern part being pro-slavery (Anbinder, 1992; Billington, 1952). They took political control of many state and city governments from 1855 to 1860. They supported Millard Fillmore in the 1856 Presidential election and he took 21% of the popular vote and eight votes from the electoral college.

The "nativist" Know Nothing/American Party, were vehemently anti-immigrant, mirroring one of the foci of the current "Tea Party." As noted in Wolf:

The American Party platform included the following:

1. Only native-born Americans could hold public office;

2. A 21 year waiting period before foreign-born could vote;

3. Restrict public schooling to Protestants and have the Protestant bible read daily in classrooms. (Anbinder, 1992)

So called "native" Americans, those white descendants of primarily western Europeans who had been born here, saw the "immigrant" influx as a threat in a number of regards. They saw them as racially and culturally different and inferior to themselves. Samuel Busey (1856) wrote a book called "Immigration and its Evils" in which he presented a detailed discussion of the inferiority of the "immigrants." In the following passage he compares the illiterate American born to the illiterate foreigner.

"The ignorant natives who speak our language have been reared under our institutions, and are acquainted with the practical workings of our government; the ignorant foreigner is totally unacquainted with the language; has not enjoyed the advantages of experience and practical observation of the complex machinery of our government, and is consequently far inferior, intellectually, to the uneducated native. He cannot understand the theory of a free government, because he is destitute of the knowledge sufficient to comprehend its objects, purposes and blessings. He cannot acquaint himself with its practical operation and direct and immediate advantages to himself, because he wants the experience and observation, which birth and habits have taught; besides he is totally unacquainted with our language, and has been reared under institutions hostile to personal liberty, to free institutions, and to a Republican government; hence it is that foreigners are so prone to congregate together, to organise themselves into clubs, societies and even communities, occupying entire sections of a county, State, and of a country. These foreign organisations are dangerous to our established institutions; because, wherever they have been in our country, they have repudiated the fundamental principles of our government. (Bussey, 1856: 127-129)."

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After WWI, white nativism reared its head again in the context of economic turmoil and rising immigration. The depression of the 1930s intensified nativism - now focused largely against Mexicans. It re-emerged again after WWII with the return of troops, and the displacement of the "substitute" workers who had been women, African Americans and Mexicans who had been encouraged into the country to fill labor demands. The racism that arose obviously focused in its hostility against Japanese Americans , "Asians," Jews, "Mexicans," Germans and Italians.

The point here is that nativism is an old theme, and the current "Tea Party" joins a long line of white "nativism" and so-called conservatism.

It seems disingenuous to call them the "Tea Party," and "Know Nothings" seems more appropriate. Regardless, it joins the long theme of racism and exclusion that is the uglier part of the history of the United States. While even loosely this movement does not represent the majority of Americans, they are currently influencing - even defining - the social and political terrain. Their effectiveness, one might even say their very existence, is due to corporate funding and big monied interests on the right. For example, their birthis out of Fox "News" owned by Rupert Murdock. This has given them - or their corporate inventors and sponsors - a media megaphone. If they are allowed to continue to define the social and political terrain, we are likely to see an extremely difficult and challenging time become very destructive and ugly as well.

The Know Nothing and American Party sections are quoted in Chapter 6 of The Dialectic of Social Inequality by Rowan Wolf. 2008.

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Rowan Wolf is an activist and sociologist living in Oregon. She is the founder and principle author of Uncommon Thought Journal, and Editor in Chief of Cyrano's Journal Today.

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