In today's Washington Post, the distinguished historian of colonial and revolutionary America, Timothy Breen argues that today's tea parties are very different from the original. In particular he argues, among other things that "the American patriots of 1773 and 1774 worked hard to promote unity," and that "the colonists did not protest taxation. . . . They protested against taxation without representation, an entirely different matter."
That's fair enough, if, among other thigns, the correct comparison is with the Revolutionary movement on the whole. But the comparision is not apt. The coercive acts of 1774 changed the stakes and the nature of the tactics the were proper to resist. In 1773, the stakes were lower, and the nature of the protest was different. In 1773, few were thinking of revolution. They were simply trying to block the enforcement of one law. In every colony other than Massachuetts, local authorites let that happen. Only in Massachusetts did the governor force a confrontation.
Beyond that, there's the growing problem of unresponsive government. The modern administrative state is, in some ways, like the old Brithsh government. It is not based upon consent in a robust sense. When representatives don't read the bills on which they vote, and therefore don't truly consent to the actual contents of the bill, and when they delegate much of the actual code-writing to the permanent bureaucracy, consent ain't what it used to be. As Charles Kesler noted recently:
Today's Tea Party movement sees a similar threat of despotism--of monopoly control of health care, corrupting bailouts, massive indebtedness, and the eclipse of constitutional rights--in the Obama Administration's policies. The Tea Party patriots may mistake the President's motives when they compare him to King George. But they are right to suspect in the very nature of modern liberalism and the modern state something hostile to the consent of the governed and to constitutional liberty. The republic will owe them a debt of gratitude if Obama's plans end up just as wet as George III's, floating in the salty tea pot of Boston Harbor.
One could even say, given the size and scope of the U.S., in some ways it would not be improper to quote the resolves of the Stamp Act Congress which held that, "That the people of these colonies are not, and from their local circumstances cannot be, represented in the House of Commons in Great Britain." All Americans are represented in Washington. Even so, one can still hold that "local circumstances" mean that extensive efforts to govern the intimate details of our local communities are, by nature, improper for the central government. There's a reason why Sam Adams did not want to have a strong central government. He knew that it could, over time, grow to be remote from the people, even if the national legislature was selected by elections.
Finally, Breen seems to suggest that the patriot movement of the 1770s was not controversial. Ha! He is correct, however, to say that they were concerned with making compromises in the name of unity. But perhaps one could say that tea party support of Scott Brown resembles those efforts at unity.
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