Tea Party Finds Inspiration In Boston History

An old engraving depicts the Boston Tea Party of 1773 i i

hide captionThe Boston Tea Party of 1773, as depicted in an old engraving. Bostonians dressed as Indians dumped 342 chests of tea overboard from three British ships in protest against "taxation without representation." The famous Tea Party took place at Griffin's Wharf, where the ships were tied up. The site remained a landmark even after the waterfront was filled in, leaving the spot several hundred yards inland.

AP
An old engraving depicts the Boston Tea Party of 1773

The Boston Tea Party of 1773, as depicted in an old engraving. Bostonians dressed as Indians dumped 342 chests of tea overboard from three British ships in protest against "taxation without representation." The famous Tea Party took place at Griffin's Wharf, where the ships were tied up. The site remained a landmark even after the waterfront was filled in, leaving the spot several hundred yards inland.

AP

April 15 is not a date that most Americans look forward to. And lately, the grumbling over paying taxes has been louder than usual.

The Tea Party movement has been staging major rallies around the country to protest taxes and government spending, including one in Boston, where the original Tea Party took place.

There's actually a dock in Boston Harbor where historians believe that on Dec. 16, 1773, some colonists came down — with 50 or so dressed up as American Indians — and dumped a bunch of tea in the water.

Joe Thorndike, a tax historian, says the image is colorful. "And it's so ridiculous on some level," he adds. "People dressing up and running on and throwing crates of tea over the side of the ship — it's like a nice little picture we can put in our head."

But are modern-day Tea Partyers carrying on the same ideals as the Founding Fathers?

Thorndike, who is also director of the Tax History Project at the nonprofit group Tax Analysts, says many people seem to think the Boston Tea Party was a protest about high taxes. But it wasn't; he says it was about that famous phrase in fourth-grade history books: "No taxation without representation."

Dressed as American Indians, a group of Bostonians boards a British ship laden with imported tea. i i

hide captionThe protest against British taxation on tea imports, depicted in the drawing above, brought the country one step closer to the American War of Independence.

Edward Gooch/Getty Images
Dressed as American Indians, a group of Bostonians boards a British ship laden with imported tea.

The protest against British taxation on tea imports, depicted in the drawing above, brought the country one step closer to the American War of Independence.

Edward Gooch/Getty Images

It was the idea of being taxed by a government that they didn't have any say in.

"What the original Tea Party was trying to drive home was that the British did not have a right to impose a tax on the Colonies, because the Colonies did not have representation in Parliament," Thorndike says. "That's a very different sort of message than saying, 'This tax is just too damn high for us.' I think the Tea Party today — at least it strikes me — is more about just taxes being too high."

Bailouts: Then And Now

The original Tea Party in 1773 was also sparked, Thorndike says, not just by a tax, but by a government bailout.

England was looking to prop up the British East India Company. So it gave a tax break that enabled the company to undercut Colonial tea merchants, which threatened to put a lot of them out of business.

Modern-day Boston Harbor near the spot of the original Boston Tea Party. i i

hide captionModern-day Boston Harbor near the spot of the original Boston Tea Party.

Chris Arnold/NPR
Modern-day Boston Harbor near the spot of the original Boston Tea Party.

Modern-day Boston Harbor near the spot of the original Boston Tea Party.

Chris Arnold/NPR

"They wanted to help bail out this company, which was struggling under a big debt load, if that sounds familiar," Thorndike says, adding that this is similar to what has motivated the modern-day Tea Party movement.

The recent Wall Street bailouts got a lot of Tea Party activists upset. And in both cases people saw the government as favoring big business over the little guy.

Boston's Modern-Day Tea Party

The Greater Boston Tea Party is planning a modern-day demonstration. The president of the group, Christen Varley, says that a year ago she was a housewife who decided to get involved in politics.

"You know, I was very dissatisfied with bailing out banks, bailing out auto companies — too big to fail — and thought as a newcomer to Massachusetts, we should definitely be having one of these Tea Party things here, because this is where it all started," she says.

Varley says she feels a connection to the original Tea Party.

Christen Varley is president of the modern-day Greater Boston Tea Party. i i

hide captionChristen Varley is president of the modern-day Greater Boston Tea Party. The group is planning a rally on the Boston Common.

Chris Arnold/NPR
Christen Varley is president of the modern-day Greater Boston Tea Party.

Christen Varley is president of the modern-day Greater Boston Tea Party. The group is planning a rally on the Boston Common.

Chris Arnold/NPR

"The root of it is we believe in limited government and personal responsibility and individual liberty — those are our core principles," Varley says.

When it comes to taxes, the Obama administration has actually cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans through a federal income tax credit.

But Varley says she doesn't believe that — no matter what the government says. And regardless, she says she's worried about what's to come with the rising deficit.

Meanwhile, some historians say the modern Tea Party movement has become enough of a force in politics that it will probably garner at least a small mention in the history books.

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