Tea Party, or Shay’s Rebellion

The ad hoc political movement that erupted in the United States during President Obama’s first year in office took as their reference point and justification the Boston Tea Party, an important event in the run up to the American Revolution. There is a different set of events that occurred after the Revolutionary War ended that more accurately reflects the standing and effects of tea partiers in the modern United States, Shays’ Rebellion.

One of many factors that made many American colonists willing to rebel was the inconsistency in English policy towards the colonies. After the end of the French and Indian War, the English government found itself deeply in debt. They also saw the need to keep a large standing army in America to protect the colonists, mostly from Native American attacks, and to govern the colonies. From the perspective of the English, because of the dire need for revenue and the fact that the Americans benefited from much of the ongoing expenditure, they should help pay for it.

Parliament passed in 1764 the Sugar Act, which lowered rates a bit, but increased enforcement, which caused protests. In 1765, they enacted the Stamp Act, which imposed a new tax on the colonies. Protests against the Stamp Act, which was a purely internal tax, gave rise to the complaint about taxation without representation, a key issue in the Revolution.

By 1773, the year of the Tea Party, these grievances were largely unresolved and had festered for eight years. That year, Parliament tried to help the British East India company avoid bankruptcy by giving it a monopoly on shipments of tea to America. Even though the price of the tea was lower than it had been, the colonists resented the imposition of English authority so, after several weeks of protest, colonists boarded three ships in the harbor and threw much of the tea into the water.

As a reference event for “conservatives,” this is a huge problem because it involved the destruction of private property, which was a huge issue for the King of England and other real conservatives at the time. Real conservatives hate to see the destruction of private property.

Two years later, fighting broke out between American colonists and the English. Three years later, the colonists issued the Declaration of Independence. Fighting continued until 1781. The two sides signed a peace treaty in 1783 at Paris. Life continued to be difficult in the upstart republic. There was no uniform currency, leaving banks to issue their own, which was often mostly worthless. Still, many small farmers, which most of the population were, managed to incur significant debts, often in the form of mortgages on their farms. With transportation very rudimentary, it was quite hard for many of the farmers to earn any money and they frequently fell into arrears in their debts. Some of the newly independent colonies passed laws simply forgiving the debts of the farmers, much to the horror of colonial leaders. Massachusetts refused to do so, leading to the eruption of Shay’s Rebellion in 1786. Militias in western Massachusetts shut down the courts and freed debtors from jail.

Again, nothing very conservative about these actions. Opinion in the colonies about Shay’s Rebellion was sharply divided. Daniel Shays, who gave the rebellion its name, had served as an officer in the Revolutionary Army. He and his supporters saw themselves as acting in a way that was not importantly different from the colonists who had first fought the English, sparking the Revolution.

George Washington, James Madison, and other colonial leaders, in sharp contrast, found Shay’s Rebellion horrifying and worried it and any similar events would cause the new republic to fly apart at the seams. Shay’s Rebellion provided significant impetus toward the convening in 1787 of the Convention that would write the U.S. Constitution, the purpose of which was to strengthen significantly the central government of the United States in order to prevent events like Shay’s Rebellion in the future.

The modern tea partiers likely won’t want to admit this, but they really look more like Shay’s Rebellion, a rag tag group of possibly well meaning, but lawless, people who seem more to threaten than to buttress the Republic, than they do like the Boston Tea Party. Since the Constitution that grew out of Shay’s Rebellion had won ratification and served to govern the Republic for over two hundred years when the modern tea party emerged, there was no sense that we needed to reform the government in order to overcome the centrifugal force of the protests. The tea party resembles Shay’s Rebellion in being a huge mistake that captured attention briefly, but which the authorities quickly brought under control and most Americans just ignored. If anything, it may have increased most Americans’ appreciation for the benefits they derive from a strong, stable central government.

At the risk of belaboring the point, the modern tea partiers want to claim the Boston Tea Party as their signature event because it was an important precursor to the American Revolution, a necessary set of events for the United States to become the rich, powerful nation it is. From the modern perspective, in contrast, the participants in Shays’ Rebellion look like misfits and losers who just didn’t know how to get along and who helped bring about the Constitution mostly by being an example of what Americans wanted to avoid.

One other key difference is that, while Shay’s Rebellion at least had the beneficial, if unintended, effect of helping create the U.S. Constitution, it seems unlikely that the tea party, in the long run, will have much long term impact on U.S. politics at all.

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