05/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Teapot Tempest -- Much Ado about Historical Inaccuracies

The Boston Tea Party is arguably the most famous direct action protest in United States history. In 1773, the British colony of Massachusetts stood up to the British government by refusing to return three shiploads of taxed tea to Britain. A group of colonists boarded three ships and destroyed the tea, throwing it into Boston Harbor.

The Tea Party was part of a resistance movement throughout the 13 colonies that protested the Tea Act, which had been passed by the British Parliament. The colonies held that the act violated their rights to be taxed only by their elected representatives. Hence, the slogan that rang throughout the colonies from 1773-76: "No taxation without representation."

Last week, hundreds of thousands of citizens gathered in more than 800 cities to voice their opposition to escalating government spending by participating in the "Tax Day Tea Party."

These "tea parties" were billed as "a grass-roots protest to irresponsible fiscal policies and intrusive government."

A rather ironic twist to hold a protest on April 15, the day tax forms were due. One should consider the artisans and supporters of the tea parties were either noticeably silent, or in some cases, overt cheerleaders from the previous presidential administration who engaged in the unprecedented, and fiscally irresponsible, act of going to war while cutting taxes.

When fired Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neil attempted to warn the Bush administration about growing deficits, Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly opined, "You know, Paul, Reagan proved deficits don't matter."

The aftermath of Cheney's "deficits don't matter" economics is record debt and the first war completely financed on the government's credit card waiting for our children and grandchildren to pay in full with interest. Why no tea party for that?

I don't doubt the frustrations expressed by Americans who came out in protest, but why now? The economic downturn that is besieging the nation did not begin Jan. 20; it has been years in the making.

My problem with the tea parties is it disingenuously plays on the emotions and fears of people in the same manner that portrayed the Iraq invasion and occupation as a legitimate response to the 9/11 tragedies.

Moreover, like the arguments made to justify invading Iraq, originators of the tea party concept take a unique approach to historical analysis to justify their cause.

Taxation was indeed an issue that fueled the Boston Tea Party, but it was also about being taxed by a foreign government. The "Tax Day Tea Party" used an event critical to transforming the 13 British colonies into the United States of America for their own political purposes, thus, cheapening a key point in history.

One of the obvious shortcomings of the tea party is it was a rather monochromatic looking group -- hardly representative of the diversity that is America.

If one accepts the taxation without representation critique, then I would argue that the tea party failed to include or attract those with legitimate concerns.

Where was the post-Hurricane Katrina contingent? How was their frustration represented at the tea party? They could speak firsthand on what taxation without representation means in the 21st century, as could the residents of Washington D.C.

Conversely, there would be little reason for corporations -- which have the benefit of lobbyists and large campaign contributions to ensure representation of their interest -- to bother showing up to an event based on feeling left out.

Can anyone imagine companies that attended the closed-door meetings with Cheney on developing an energy policy, or Halliburton with its no-bid contracts, taking to the streets feigning righteous indignation?

I support anyone exercising their rights to free speech and to peacefully assemble. But there is an incongruent aspect to the tea parties in that they exhibit more anger toward an administration that is less than 100 days old than they did in eight years of the previous administration, whose policies contributed largely to the outrage.

Maybe this wasn't a grass-roots movement, but a desperate political attempt by the party who signed off on the current fiscal debacle to remain relevant. I just wished they had been more accurate with their use of history.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist and blog-talk radio host. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at or visit his website: