The Tea Party movement is a healthy reminder that the United States began as a tax revolt.
From the 1765 Stamp Act Congress, when the American Colonists first called their representatives together to declare their “undoubted rights … that no taxes be imposed on them, but with their own consent,” to the Boston Tea Party eight years later, when the Sons of Liberty dumped a shipload of tea into the harbor rather than accept Britain’s right to tax that normally soothing commodity, the Founding Fathers militantly denied that “all the fruits of [the Colonists’] labour and industry may be taken from [them] whenever an avaricious governor and a rapacious council may incline to demand them,” as future chief justice John Jay put it in 1775.
After all, they reasoned as they took up arms against their king, government exists to protect “certain inherent rights … namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety,” as George Mason summed up Lockean orthodoxy in Virginia’s Bill of Rights. Therefore, when a government invades rather than safeguards property through taxation without consent, it cancels its own legitimacy.
The Founders had no quarrel with citizen-sanctioned taxation, but in shaping their new government, they never forgot, as future president James Madison wrote, that “the apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of property is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality, yet there is perhaps no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party to trample on the rules of justice.” To forestall that danger - specifically, the danger that the propertyless majority would tyranically tax away the property of the minority - they constructed their beautiful governmental framework of limited and enumerated powers, with its checks and balances for extra restraint. Madison and his fellow Founders understood, long before Lord Acton, that “all men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree” - and nowhere more so than in the matter of taxes.
So, it was exhilarating to hear CNBC financial reporter Rick Santelli invoke these great doings of two centuries ago in his famous February 2009 outburst that gave birth to the Tea Party movement. Two days earlier, newly inaugurated President Obama had signed his $787 billion stimulus act, which taxpayers ultimately must finance and which went in part to keep bloated state and local governments from having to fire the unnecessary “swarms of officers” that “harass our people, and eat out their substance,” as the Declaration of Independence described King George’s tax-financed Colonial officials. The next day, Mr. Obama proposed a $75 billion mortgage-modification program to save sinking borrowers from foreclosure.
Why doesn’t the president have a referendum “to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages?” Mr. Santelli demanded. Turning to the commodity traders behind him at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, he asked, “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage, that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” Discomfited by the roar of anti-bailout booing from the floor, Mr. Santelli’s New York anchorman warily observed, “These people are like putty in your hands.”
“No, they’re not,” Mr. Santelli countered. “This is America. Cuba used to have mansions and a relatively decent economy. They moved from the individual to the collective; now they’re driving ‘54 Chevys - maybe the last great car to come out of Detroit. We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. I’m going to start organizing …. I tell you what, if you read our Founding Fathers, like Franklin and Jefferson - what we’re doing right now is making them roll over in their graves.”
In what other country could a TV reporter, without missing a beat, invoke his nation’s founding ideas - and on top of that, give rise almost instantly to hundreds of Tea Party groups with tens of thousands of members grounding their opposition to President Obama’s redistributionist program on a similar appeal to the Founders?
The signs at their rallies echo Madison’s contempt for such “improper or wicked project*” as “an abolition of debts” or “an equal division of property.” “Born free, taxed to death,” read one poster at a Wyoming Tea Party, while another proclaimed, “Obama aka Robbin’ Hood wants to steal from those who work to give handouts to those who won’t.” In Georgia, a Tea Partier flourished a placard that read “Free markets, not free loaders.” And everywhere appeared signs saying “Honor the Constitution” or “We are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
What unifies the many Tea Partiers interviewed on the PJTV Web site - mostly middle-class, conservative whites, often older than 60, with a strong sprinkling of military veterans, small-business owners, independent voters and young people among them - is their fear that the president’s various Great Recession bailouts, along with his government takeover of health care, will change America from the limited-government, individualistic, free-enterprise regime that the Founders created to a statist, big-government regime that will curb liberty in the name of redistributionist “fairness” and will burden their children and grandchildren with impoverishing public debt.
“Every step the government takes, takes us further away from the Constitution and toward big government,” said a young Marine veteran at a Florida Tea Party.
“We want the government just to leave us alone, let us live our own lives,” said a Texas Tea Partier before government-controlled health care passed. “I’ve got three businesses, two of them barely hanging on because of all this crap. Got one doing well because it’s local. If they pass health care, you can write off four more unemployed people, because I won’t be able to pay them. You can’t keep taking our rights away.”
Summing up a universal Tea Party sentiment, Freerepublic.com founder Jim Robinson said at a Georgia rally, “I would like to see this country go back to the Constitution - get rid of all this socialism.” Mainstream journalists have pounced on this idea. What big-government programs would he like to eliminate, interviewer Charlie Rose demanded of former House majority leader Dick Armey, a Tea Party ally. Medicare? Social Security? Gotcha!
The New York Times triumphantly quoted the discomfited ambivalence of 30-year-old Keli Carender, organizer of the first Tea Party, about Medicare and Medicaid. “Some days I’m very Randian. I feel like there shouldn’t be any of those programs,” she said. “Sometimes I think, well, maybe it really should be just state, and there should be no federal part in it at all.” But these journalists don’t understand that to the Tea Partiers, saying that we’ve already replaced the Founders’ limited government with a medium-sized welfare state is no argument for scaling it up to a European-sized one. As one sign asked of health care nationalizer Mr. Obama at a Wyoming Tea Party, “Medicare is going broke, Medicaid is going broke, and you want us to believe what?”
Like any grass-roots revolt, starting with the Colonial Committees of Correspondence, the Tea Party movement begins with a resounding “No!” As one sign commenting on the president’s health care takeover phrased it, “Ram it down our throats, and we’ll shove it up your” and here followed a picture of a bucking Democratic donkey. The “no” is remarkably sweeping, too. Spluttered a well-coiffed, well-mannered lady of retirement age in Texas, “We have been very angry - I love President [George W.] Bush, but he kept spending money, money, money.”
Passionate, fast-expanding and armed with all the latest electronic technology that Mr. Obama deployed so brilliantly in his campaign - Facebook, Twitter, Meetup.com and so on - the Tea Partiers surely will influence candidate selections and electoral races this year and in 2012. The question is, how fully will they embrace the radicalism of their own radically American creed?
Myron Magnet is City Journal’s editor-at-large and was its editor from 1994 through 2006. He is the author of “The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass” (Encounter Books, 2000). This article first appeared at city-journal.org.