THE BLOG

The Tea Party: "What's In A Name?"

04/16/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Shakespeare's Juliet asks a vital question, especially for those with political ambitions and most especially for those easily spurred on by rants on cable TV. So it is that The Tea Party organizers are not the first people to take an unfortunate and inappropriate name for themselves. Everybody makes mistakes. Who decided to name a Canadian construction scaffolding company, "Mammoth Erections?" Or the gas station in Ohio that's named, "Pee Pee Gas?" And how in the world did anyone ever name a Texas restaurant, "Fuk Mi Sushi Bar?" So what were the people behind The Tea Party movement thinking when they choose their name? Yes, I know about the crazy guy on cable, but didn't The Boston Tea Party also inspire them? Whatever their impetus, they made a big mistake. While they aren't the first to make such an error, they are probably the most ignorant. By calling themselves The Tea Party they felt they were aligning themselves with a popular, anti-government, anti-tax movement. The modern Tea Party obviously relished this closeness, this arm-in-arm association with great American patriots like John Hancock and John Adams. After all, hadn't today's Tea Party founders been taught that the original Boston Tea Party was a seminal event in the formation of this country?

American History is taught to all children from the youngest possible age. A simple look turns up books like "The Boston Tea Party" by Pamela Duncan Edwards with illustrations by Henry Cole. This book, like so many others on this subject, is written especially for youngsters, in this case for "ages 4-8". At that age these kids are hardly in pre-school, yet they're already getting their History. Of course, the Edwards/Cole book presents The Boston Tea Party as a tax revolt, a spontaneous uprising by over-taxed, oppressed and unrepresented innocent colonists. Kids learn that the event was an activist, freedom seeking popular uprising, a political movement with deep roots in the colonial community. It was a precursor to an historic, democratic revolution. How admirable.

With this sort of History already in their minds, as soon as our children are old enough to be in school, The Boston Tea Party is right there in their curriculum. There are elementary, middle school and high school lesson plans aplenty. If you're at all concerned about academic credibility and you are looking for a non-profit, academically credentialed lesson plan try the one offered by The National Endowment For The Humanities. It's a full-scale program of three 45-minute classes and it too presents The Boston Tea Party as a direct action by American colonists against the oppressive taxation imposed upon them by a distant English (German speaking) King and an uncaring foreign Parliament, before whom of course these same colonists had no representation. Hence the ideological battle cry of American independence: "No taxation without representation!" From early childhood we're told this all began with the brave colonists who stood up to the biggest power in the world at The Boston Tea Party.

Who wouldn't want to be a member of something called The Tea Party? And - despite its rather widely recognized sexual reference - who wouldn't rejoice in being called a "Teabagger"? Pity the Tea Party organizers. Not the first maybe, but maybe the most ignorant. What if they knew the truth about The Boston Tea Party? What if they had any inkling at all about the other thing?

What is the truth? Yes, The Boston Tea Party was a reaction to The Tax Act of 1773. But, this Act did not place additional taxes on tea being sold to the colonists. The Act did not make tea in Boston or New York or Philadelphia or even in Natchez more expensive. It did just the opposite. After years of putting higher and higher taxes on everything including tea, the English Parliament finally relented in 1773 and eliminated all but the smallest levy against tea sold to the American colonies. The Boston Tea Party was an act of rebellion - no doubt about that. Today it would instantly and unanimously be reviled and labeled a terrorist action. But, unlikely as it may seem, it was an action taken against lower taxes. For the Bostonians, if tea was now cheaper to buy why would the colonists be against it? Why protest cheaper tea?

The truth is - regular colonists did not carry out The Boston Tea Party. It was not the man on the street. Not Joe the Colonist. Quite the opposite. There were those in Boston and elsewhere throughout the colonies who were against cheap tea. No, The Boston Tea Party wasn't organized by oppressed and over-taxed, unrepresented colonists. Instead The Boston Tea Party was a special interest political action organized and led by those most hurt by the British Tax Act of 1773 - tea smugglers. In the year leading up to The Boston Tea Party, colonial smugglers working to evade and escape the English Navy, in cooperation with their Dutch partners, successfully brought in almost a million tons of illegal, untaxed tea to the American colonies. Their vast, lucrative and distinctly illegal import operation stretched from the southern port of Charleston in South Carolina all the way to Boston in the Massachusetts Colony. And who was reputed to be the biggest tea smuggler in the American colonies? He was a prominent Bostonian, a man with a proud signature, soon to be famous throughout the new United States, a man named John Hancock. Hancock's biggest public supporter was another Bostonian, John Adams, himself later to be President of those United States - and his son too.

The Boston Tea Party was really a bit of mob business. It was as much meant to further a special interest agenda as was The Tea Act itself. The Boston Tea Party can reasonably be seen as a skirmish in the commercial war between the British East India Company, who had the Crown's official franchise, and the American criminal enterprise responsible for selling smuggled tea throughout the colonial New World. Had there been an 18th century Deep Throat, he might have warned - "Follow the money!"

And it is from this that the modern 21st century Tea Party takes it name?

Imagine this - right after December 5, 1933, with the repeal of Prohibition, a group of Americans who had prospered illegally during Prohibition, a group organized and led by the likes of Al Capone of Chicago, the Bommartitos from Detroit, Bill "The Real" McCoy from Buffalo, Frank Costello of New York and his buddy Joe Kennedy from Boston - imagine them all disguised as Indians attacking a convoy of trucks carrying cases of now legal whiskey - Johnny Walker, Jim Beam, Crown Royal, Old Turkey - busting all the bottles and spilling the liquor onto the road. Such would be a virtual version of a modern Boston Tea Party.

If the people who have now formed the political enterprise they are calling The Tea Party movement understood American History they might have looked more closely at the event they took to be so inspirational they hijacked its name. We won't even talk about the sex thing.