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The Strange History of the Tea Party Crowd & America's Right Wing Know-Nothings

Today’s Tea Party movement is a bewildering network of crosscutting political emotions, ideas, and institutions -- just like its 18th century predecessors.
 
 
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On a winter’s day in Boston in 1773, a rally of thousands at Faneuil Hall to protest a new British colonial tax levied on tea turned into an iconic moment in the pre-history of the American Revolution.  Some of the demonstrators -- Sons of Liberty, they called themselves -- left the hall and boarded the Dartmouth, a ship carrying tea, and dumped it overboard. 

One of the oddest features of the Boston Tea Party, from which our current crop of Tea Party populists draw their inspiration, is that a number of those long-ago guerilla activists dressed up as Mohawk Indians, venting their anger by emitting Indian war cries, and carrying tomahawks to slice open the bags of tea.  This masquerade captured a fundamental ambivalence that has characterized populist risings ever since.  After all, if in late eighteenth century America, the Indian already functioned as a symbol of an oppressed people and so proved suitable for use by others who felt themselves put upon, it was also the case that the ancestors of those Boston patriots had managed to exterminate a goodly portion of the region’s Native American population in pursuit of their own self-aggrandizement. 

Today’s Tea Party movement, like so many of its “populist” predecessors, is a house of contradiction, a bewildering network of crosscutting political emotions, ideas, and institutions.  What connects it powerfully to a populist past stretching all the way back to Boston Harbor is, however, a sense of violation: “Don’t Tread on Me.”  

Despite a recurring resistance to the impositions of powerful outside forces -- anti-elitism has been axiomatic for all such insurgencies -- populist movements have differed greatly on just what those forces were and what needed to be done to free people from their yoke.  It’s worth noting, for instance, that an earlier invocation of the Boston Tea Party took place at a 1973 rally on a replica of the Dartmouth -- a rally called to promote the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.

From the Know-Nothings to the People’s Party

Over the course of American history, the populist instinct, now resurgent in the Tea Party movement, has oscillated between a desire to transform, and so create a new order of things, and a desire to restore a yearned-for (or imagined) old order. 

Before the Civil War, one such movement that caught both these urges was colloquially dubbed the “Know-Nothings” (not for any anti-intellectualism, but because its members deliberately conducted much of their business in secret -- hence, if questioned, were instructed to say, “I know nothing”).  Know-nothing-ism exuded the desire to move forward and backward at the same time.  During the 1840s and 1850s, it swept across much of the country, North and South.  There were “know-nothing” candies, “know-nothing” toothpicks, and “know-nothing” stagecoaches. 

Soon enough, the movement evolved into a national political party, the American Party, that appealed to small farmers, small businessmen, and working people.  Its attraction was two-fold.  The party vociferously opposed Irish and German Catholic immigration to the U.S. (as well as that of Chinese and Chilean immigrants working in the gold fields of California).  Yet, in the North, it also denounced slavery.  As planks in a political program, nativism and anti-slavery might seem like an odd couple, but in the minds of the party’s followers they were joined at the hip.  As Know-Nothings saw it, the Papacy and the South’s slave-owning planter elite were both conspiring to undermine a democratic society of masterless men.

 
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