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Who Started the Tea Party?: The Surprising Roots of Today’s Populism

In 1975, the New York Times Magazine published a cover story called "Who Owns 1776?" written by J. Anthony Lukas and illustrated with haunting photographs of angry Americans dressed in 18th-century costume. Lukas had been filing reports for the Times from Boston during the bicentennial of the American Revolution, which happened to coincide with Boston's busing crisis, a crisis Lukas would chronicle in Common Ground. At the time, though, Lukas was finishing a book about Watergate. It was called Nightmare.

Today's Tea Party, which is obsessed with the American Revolution, turns out to have very little to do with what happened in the 1770s but everything to do with what happened in the 1970s.Today's Tea Party, which is obsessed with the American Revolution, turns out to have very little to do with what happened in the 1770s but everything to do with what happened in the 1970s. What Lukas saw, in 1975, was a country whose story of its origins was falling apart. "As the nation launches its Bicentennial celebration," Lukas wrote, "a horde of eager homesteaders have staked their claims on the rich soil of American history." An East Boston group opposed to a 1974 court ruling integrating Boston's public schools called itself "One If By Land and Two If By Sea." The left-wing activists of the People's Bicentennial Commission styled themselves "Twentieth Century patriots determined to complete the unfinished agenda of the American Revolution." In March of 1975, a militant anti-busing organization called Restore Our Alienated Rights hijacked the re-enactment of the Boston Massacre, carrying a coffin that read, "R.I.P. Liberty — Born in 1770-Died 1974." Meanwhile, the black Equal Rights League planned a ceremony honoring Crispus Attucks, as if the 18th-century sailor killed during the Boston Massacre were an ancestor of the civil rights movement. In April, during a re-enactment of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, anti-corporate activists carried signs reading, "Big Business is Coming!" In South Boston, Lukas spoke to Nancy Yotts, an anti-busing activist, who said, "How can we celebrate our country's history when we are being denied the very rights we fought for in the Revolution?" Bryan Rushing, director of Boston's Museum of Afro-American Heritage, told Lukas that he found the Bicentennial disgraceful: "It's a birthday party for a 200-year-old white man. When he was a baby he had a black nanny and when he got older he had black servants and blacks working his land. Now that he's 200, the black man still doesn't sit down at his table. He serves the cake."

Lukas had come to understand this political free-for-all as something called "parallelism," a term Calvin Trillin coined in an essay published in the New Yorker in January 1974, after Trillin attended the bicentennial of the Tea Party in Boston, in December of 1973, during which members of the People's Bicentennial Commission disrupted the official re-enactment by boarding a replica of an 18th-century ship carrying signs that read "Dump Nixon, Not Tea" and calling for the president's resignation, claiming that Nixon was like King George. But then that stunt was interrupted by protests led by the National Organization for Women ("Taxation without Equal Rights is Tyranny"), by people carrying signs that read "Gay American Revolution" and by the Boston Indian Council, a group of real Indians who complained about another bunch of protestors — the Disabled American Veterans — who had dressed up fakes.

"Then as now," is how all parallelisms begin, Trillin explained, a political maneuver that seemed, during the bicentennial, to be growing more cynical by the day. Then as now, we are fighting a tyrannical government. Then as now, we are taxed without representation. Then as now, we are struggling for liberty. This, of course, is the argument of today's Tea Party.Then as now, we are struggling for liberty. This, of course, is the argument of today's Tea Party. The time for Revolution has come again, Tea Party activists argue: a revolution against the tyranny of the stimulus package, of health care reform, of the bailout. At Tea Party rallies, impassioned speakers, many in 18th-century dress, cry out that Americans have forsaken the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and our national heritage. These beliefs are very often ardently, passionately held. But the agony of this political moment has less to do with the present than with wounds suffered during the 1960s and 1970s, years of pain — civil rights strife; the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy; the tragedy of Vietnam; the shootings at Kent State; and the travesty of Watergate — a nightmare, in a nation that longs to dream.

÷ ÷ ÷

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American history at Harvard, a staff writer at the New Yorker, and the author of The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in...
    Used Trade Paper $8.95
  2. Nightmare: The Underside of the... New Trade Paper $44.50
  3. The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea...
    Used Hardcover $6.95

3 Responses to "Who Started the Tea Party?: The Surprising Roots of Today’s Populism"

    Miss Gretchen October 11th, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    Great to see Jill Lepore here at Powell's! How I wish I could be at the event on October 24th for her new book. The link doesn't seem to be there, above:
    I always enjoy Ms. Lepore's articles in The New Yorker, and I look forward to reading this book.

    Mike Lesko October 27th, 2010 at 10:00 am

    I'm not sure that a single mission statement can be created for the Tea Party, it is certainly not just an uneducated gang of hate mongers spreading fear as many have mused. The best article onthe topic that I've read was in the WSJ (link below, I hope). Citizens are reacting to the destruction of basic beliefs like hard work brings rewards and sloth brings no good.

    Steve G. October 29th, 2010 at 9:31 am

    While there is unhappiness with the status quo, I think the story is incomplete without taking into account the manipulation of much of the public's anger by cynical billionaires. So to counter the story from the WSJ (owned by one of those cynical billionaires), is this article from Frank Rich of the New York Times:

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