President Obama and members of the Democratic Party (with the connivance of the MSM) are portraying the Tea Party movement as out of the mainstream of American political tradition. Pauline Maier in her book, From Resistance to Revolution, reveals that citizens’ defense of liberty has a long and honorable history.
She writes, “18th century Americans accepted the existence of popular uprisings with remarkable ease. The consensus was they happened “in all governments at all times …” They were not encouraged, “but in certain circumstances, it was understood, the people would rise up almost as a natural force, much as night follows day, and this phenomenon contributed to the general welfare.”
Such uprisings occurred when the normal channels failed to produce redress for abuses. Thomas Jefferson observed that expressions of popular dissent tended to hold rulers “to the true principles of their institutions’ and so provided “a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” And, in 1768, William Samuel Johnson, (a signer of the Articles of Confederation) wrote: “The only effectual way to prevent them is to govern with wisdom, justice and restraint.”
Today’s Tea Party participants are united in the belief that Washington has ceased to govern with restraint. Thomas Jefferson’s description of an overreaching government is relevant: “The multiplication of public offices, increase of expense beyond income, growth and entailment of a public debt, are indications soliciting the employment of the pruning knife.” Yet, we are repeatedly assured that all these zealous, bankrupting pursuits are consecrated by necessity. William Pitt, pleading the American cause in London before the Revolutionary War, defined necessity: “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”
Colonial resistance took the form of organized protests by groups calling themselves “Sons of Liberty” (and other variations on that theme). The name, Maier writes, indicated an awareness of being “‘born free’ as the heirs of the institutions hard-won by their fathers in England and America, which they, like faithful sons, should maintain.” Committees of Correspondence were established to unify the colonies and newspapers publicized each new British depredation.
However, as Maier explains in Chapter 9, “The colonists did not seek change, they set out to defend a constitutional system which had been established, they believed, with the Glorious Revolution of 1688.” They believed England was violating freedoms protected by the British Constitution and they petitioned to have the offending acts withdrawn and colonists’ rights respected. As the New York Independent Reflector pointed out at the time, revolution was justified only where there was “a total Subversion of the Constitution.”
Paraphrasing political writers of the period, Maier describes the colonists’ awareness that corruption further endangered their liberties. By 1770, they were realizing they had little hope of prevailing against it. Support for the government was “regularly bought or rewarded….” Loyalty bought baronetcies, commissions in the judicial customs service and judicial appointments.(In 2010, the currency of corruption is earmarks, and special dispensations provided to states to purchase votes.)
Drawing on newspapers of the time, correspondence between key figures, previously unpublished documents, and the political writings of the Founders, Maier provides an absorbing, detailed (and laboriously footnoted) account of the colonial resistance movement and its ideological journey from resistance to revolution.
As a result of that journey, the Founders bequeathed us much wisdom: “The principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. “A wise and frugal government,” he said, “which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned – this is the sum of good government.“
Benjamin Franklin wanted the citizens of the new nation to be wary of seduction by oratorical splendor: “Here comes the orator! With his flood of words, and his drop of reason.”
It has become clear to many, (as swelling Tea Party memberships testify), that the oratory that won election in 2009 masked a vision of government inconsistent with core American values, and in violation of the constraints imposed upon government by our founding documents.
The Founders were not starry-eyed dreamers. They were realists and cynics who sought to confine government by limiting the tasks it is permitted to perform. Jefferson wrote, “My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.” He saw the dangers of “too much” very clearly: “I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.” He also described what would occur should prevention fail, “Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.”
The colonists understood that without liberty, all was in jeopardy. “Our fathers fled hither for Religion and Liberty,” Ezra Stiles wrote in 1775, “If extirpated from hence, we have no new World to flee to, God has located us here, and by this…commands us to take a stand…” In today’s world, those words gain added significance.
The America of our inheritance has never been perfect, nor would many make that claim. Most Americans understand that perfection cannot be achieved by imperfect human beings, or by government edicts. Daniel Webster had it right: “There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters.”
Much has changed since the nation’s founding, but the constants that unite us as a people remain. The colonists objected to taxation without representation. Modern day protesters object to a government that, by its acts, has abandoned representation to impose what is ‘good for us.’
England’s failure to redress impositions on Americans’ freedoms ultimately led to Revolution for, as the colonists realized at last, they had no other means to avoid enslavement. Americans today are able to seek relief through the ballot box. That is the purpose of the Tea Party movement, and why it is the object of such invective by those whose sinecures are threatened.
Some have already decided not to run for re-election. Most are betting that Tea Party determination will wane before November. They believe we will return to our jobs, our families and our television sets and the momentum will fade. Then they will be able to continue conforming the nation to a version of America the Founders would find unrecognizable.
We have truly reached a crossroads and if, by deliberation or inattention, we chose the road most travelled, there may be no other opportunity to reclaim what we, and all succeeding generations, will have lost. Alexis de Tocqueville echoed Jefferson’s prediction: “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” We are perilously close.
George Washington warned: “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” Across the centuries, John Adams also sent a message: “Posterity: you will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it.”
The choice is our’s.