THE BLOG
07/16/2010 11:21 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Which Tea Party?

Tea Party activists, I owe you an apology. I used to think that the country was divided between blue states and the "irony-free zone." I realize now that the Tea Party is, in fact, a lot funnier than Democrats ever were.

When the leadership of the Tea Party accused the NAACP of belonging with "the other vile racist groups that emerged in our history," they were obviously just kidding around. In fairness the NAACP president started the scuffle when he said that the Tea Party "must expel the bigots and racists in your ranks or take full responsibility for all of their actions." If you said that to the sober leaders of the Democrats or Republicans, they would probably have to admit sheepishly that keeping bigots and racists in your party is a bit off-putting.

But not so the Tea Party. It responded with wild satire. The national Tea Party spokesperson, Mark Williams, told National Public Radio, "I don't recall the NAACP ever speaking out when George Bush was portrayed as Curious George." How's that for a brilliant retort? Now, who ever thought George Bush was curious about anything?

Then Williams really knocked it out of the park by calling the NAACP "professional race-baiters" who "make more money off of race than any slave trader ever." Williams is not only a bold comic in the tradition of Lenny Bruce, but also someone with a unique take on American history. After reading a witty comeback like that one can only conclude that the Tea Party is an April Fool's hoax that just get's better over time.

Some people think that the Tea Party seriously opposes taxes and big government. But, come on, does anyone really think it's a violation of the Constitution to raise taxes? If so, you'd have a hard time explaining Article I, section 9, which authorizes Congress to impose all sorts of taxes.

If you thought that the Tea Party took its name from the Boston Tea Party, you would be mistaken. The Boston Tea Party had nothing to do with high taxes. The Boston Tea Party was organized in response to the British Tea Act of 1773, which did not increase taxes. In fact, the Tea Act was intended to rescue the bankrupt East India Company, the General Motors of the eighteenth century. It exempted tea shipped by the East India Company from the usual three-pence tax. In effect, the British Government subsidized the East India Company so that it could undercut its competitors.

That's right. The Tea Party was a violent demonstration against a corporate tax exemption. And it protested corporate monopoly power by destroying the property of what was then one of the world's largest corporations. The anarchists rioting against global corporations at the meeting of the G-20 have much more in common with our Bostonian ancestors than say Sarah Palin has.

The Tea Party's historical antecedent isn't the Boston tea party. It's the second-most-famous tea party in history: the one the Mad Hatter threw for Alice.

Somewhere the Cheshire Cat is laughing.

Joel Richard Paul is a professor at the University of California Hastings Law School and author of Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution. JoelRichardPaul.com

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