Remember the WTO protests back in 1999? Breaking windows at Starbucks, police in riot gear? I’ll always remember one protester who, when asked about her group’s grievance, could only say something like, “You know, um, we’re just against, like, all of this,” as she gestured to the Seattle skyline behind her.
How is anybody supposed to join your movement if you can’t even describe it? Not surprisingly, those WTO protests went nowhere.
I have the same feeling about the Tea Party, although I do love their name. The Boston Tea Party was one of the pivotal moments in all human history. But if you invoke history, you better understand it.
The best view on the Boston Tea Party is through the life of Samuel Adams — brewer, tax collector, big-time rabble-rouser and bona-fide patriot. Adams first saw the need for independence in the mid-1760s; to reach his goal, he knew it would take “one firm band of opposition” to unjust British domination. A protest with dozens of messages would not have worked for him. Today’s Tea Party needs a Sam Adams.
Like Gandhi and MLK, Adams always knew the path to success would be in making his movement a principled protest, not the chaotic eruptions of a scary mob. He even pushed his cousin John Adams to defend the British soldiers of the Boston Massacre because he wanted to prove that law and order were the colonies’ guiding principles.
It’s crucial to note that Adams was an elected member of the Massachusetts Assembly. Today the art of political compromise seems a forgotten relic, but for America’s first patriot and the other Founding Fathers, it was the key to success. In the end, Adams brought a new, even radical idea into the mainstream (just as today’s Tea Party aims to do), but he had to convince 12 other colonial assemblies to join him first.
The disconnect the modern Tea Party needs to address is that the system they rail against is the same one Adams devoted his life to create — a system of free elections and shared responsibilities. Tea Party activists need to articulate if their movement is simply about electing better leaders. (Sam would approve — he’d be the first volunteer.) Or is it, to paraphrase some of the rhetoric, leading a revolt against tyranny?
Sam Adams knew actual tyranny, and for him the goal was always a unified, prosperous American republic. That’s what his Boston Tea Party was all about. Is today’s Tea Party true to that history?
Ted S. McGregor Jr. is the Editor and Publisher of The Inlander.