I was born and raised just a handful of miles from where General Sullivan started his long (and doomed) campaign north against the native Iroquois Confederacy and the British; in the town where I was raised, there lived a Declaration of Independence signer and on one day every year, ‘Heritage Day’, we celebrate the fact that where we live, over 200 years ago, was one of only three locations where the Declaration of Independence was publicly read. A few miles west of me, the Liberty Bell was carried and hidden during the British occupation of Philadelphia.
And the county in which I lived raised 9 companies to fight in the continental line, and one of those individuals is my direct ancestor. Of those individuals raised to fight in the militia, almost all my direct ancestors were called to duty (though not all saw action). My childhood home rested on what was once Leni-Lenape territory; land that was, in a large sense, stolen from them by the family of William Penn. The area, called the Forks of the Delaware, was where the Treaty of Easton was signed, and where during the 1760′s, dozens of settlers were forced to flee their land, their homes, because of raids by the natives–some were killed. General La Fayette, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin were among those who visited the town and spent time in its local establishments.
I raise these points because I want to be clear that not only do I have an keen interest in the American Revolution, but I have practically grown up around symbols and places directly related to it. Anyone with a sliver of situational awareness, who comes into my hometown, is immediately aware of its rich history. Even the very flag of our town is modeled after the stars and stripes (13 of each). One might say all this history is what spurred me on my own research.
One of the most important functions of the historian is to be able to explain why things happen–not just that they happen. Sometimes it is important to express that something that is believed to have happened actually never happened at all. In this way, the historian must always follow the evidence and not simply presume something based upon preconceived notions. When it comes to the American Revolution, it takes a real patriot (in my humble opinion) to recognize the complexity and nuance of the times rather than presuming a fantasy or mythology about it.
One of things you learn is that a lot of our modern mythology of the period comes from after the time of the Revolution. It is situated first upon America’s second war with the British–the War of 1812–and before and after the American Civil War, when many of the veterans of the Revolutionary War were dying (much like our present situation with veterans of WWII–basically 60-80 years after the war ended). What we had were concerned citizens who started to realize that the founding of our nation–used so poetically during the War of 1812 and the American Civil War–may be lost to posterity if histories and biographies and lineages weren’t put to paper immediately. And what followed were grandiose accounts of heroism and embellishments of deeds–not often by the veterans themselves, but certainly by those taking notes. A picture of a perfect American movement were formulated in the minds of readers everywhere. But this world is not one founded upon fact; it is a ‘master story’ wherein the sitz im leben and the cultural milieux of the day are all forsaken for what is essentially a world based in propaganda.
The issues of independence were not always black and white; the grey area between the extremes was the frontier farmer who–though a pacifist–was forced to fight a war which pulled him away from his family, leaving them vulnerable to British and native attacks. It was the the burning of native villages and the murder of their people that helped forge this nation; while people were decrying British tyranny, they were murdering native women and children (though native attacks were just as brutal). It had been luck–sometimes more than tactical advantage–that had brought victory for beleaguered and wary continentals on the battlefield. And without the aid of the French (granting us arms and soldiers to fight, and experience with which to train Continental troops) who knows what might have happened. The British were not the only enemy that had been faced; local corrupt government officials, put in place by opportunity, were as ruthless as some of the British dragoons.
In our modern time, these issues–our ancestors’ issues–are relatively unknown to the masses who wave their flags on the 4th of July. Instead, anachronistically, certain individuals will try to make their own petty issues the issues of the patriots who fought to create this nation. Like spoilt children, these modern day ‘tea baggers’ attempt to subjugate the past; they confuse ‘not always getting what they want’ with ‘tyranny’ and don’t have the slightest clue what the word ‘tyranny’ means. They link modern hot-button topics like gun control and women’s rights to the Revolution, as if Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams got together because the British were trying to enact stricter regulations on the sale and distribution of firearms (they weren’t), or as if Patrick Henry decried ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!–because I don’t want a public option or universal healthcare!’ The absurdity of it is astonishing (and speaks to the troubles of America’s education system–clearly standardized testing has failed us).
At the time of the American Revolution (which broke out in 1775, not 1776 as some of these website owners seem to think), the British had troops in country already. In other words, aggressive foreign troops were on colonial soil–we don’t have that problem in the contemporary United States. Additionally, the issue of representation was really important. The problem was not that American colonists had to pay taxes (the taxes, compared to Englishmen on the mainland, were relatively low) but that they were unfairly taxed without any representation in parliament. In these contemporary United States, we have so much representation we don’t know what to do with it all (and barely anyone writes to congressmen anymore and not everyone who can vote does vote–essentially nullifying the whole purpose of having representation).
The modern myth is that the American government is acting tyrannically. But the problem with this myth is that the government is “of the people, by the people”. We elect our own officials every few years. We have a series of checks and balances in place precisely to prohibit a dictatorship. And yet somehow–in some bizarrely paranoid and delusional worldview–there exist individuals in this country who actually believe that the United States government is a tyrannical one lead by a ruthless dictator (that the majority of this country elected twice). Since these individuals are partially responsible for the government (you know, since we have free and open elections), one has to wonder what that says about them.
The irony here is that those involved in the Tea Party do not seem to have a grasp of what the term ‘patriot’ means, nor do they even seem to be able to follow their own rhetoric. Their website claims that they are a ‘grassroots’ organization, but the Koch Brothers’–who help found the organization–are anything but (as their activities suggest). Their claim that they are a 501(c)4 organization that does not endorse political candidates is simply false. They claim that they want limited government help, but that doesn’t stop members from collecting from the government any chance they can get.
If I can be so bold, the only thing this modern day Tea Party has in common with the founding patriots of this country is the level of illiteracy (if their constant grammatical and spelling errors are anything to go by) and the style of clothes (though Revolutionary War patriots didn’t hang tea from their hats). Their concept of a Neocon or Libertarian system was so foreign to the founders that they would not have recognized it as a legitimate form of government; instead they used the ideals most commonly associated with French revolutionary and philosophical thinking and the Bill of Rights was most dependent upon Classical ideals of democracy (though in a form of a Representative Republic). Interestingly enough, the modern Neocon movement is one that would take away representation from the people and place it in the hands of the wealthy elite. These are the same people supported by the Tea Party (who claim falsely that they were hijacked by Neocons, but in actuality their founders *are* Neocons).
To bring this back around, the most glaring (and damning) missive came from Michele Bachman (whose conspiracy theories always amuse me) who claimed that the POTUS had released information about the IRS “scandal” (of which it is not) as a way to ‘wag the dog’. But ‘wagging the dog’ is something that conservatives have been doing since the days of Bush II.
If you haven’t seen ‘Wag the Dog‘ (1997), you should. Robert De Niro stars in the film, so you know that someone is getting shot. The premise is a simple one (yet prescient): How do you keep power when the country doesn’t like you (through either a scandal or something else)? You use the media to spin something new; you start a fictional war. You create an incident, you rally support by claiming you’re a patriot, and then fabricate a war which, under the guise of patriotism, is entirely supported by a populace who does not want to be considered a traitor (or condemned as committing treason). Ring any particularly loud bells? It should.
Michele Bachman’s base are precisely the group most ‘wagged’ by the dog. They steal the language of the American Revolution to fit their own selfish means; words such as ‘patriot’, ‘liberty’, ‘tyranny’, ‘freedom’ and they alter the meaning of these words, take them out of context, and utilize them to justify their own political agendas. Granted, both parties do this, but I don’t ever recall seeing Obama in a whig and tricorne.
In my opinion, modern day Tea Partiers have hijacked and diminished the vital roles of our ancestors and disgraced their sacrifices–and for what? For more corporate power over the American worker, who cannot get a job because Tea-Party-backed legislators are making it easier to send work overseas? For lower wages for the American family so poverty is a bigger issue in this country? For poor healthcare and zero accountability? The Tea Party would demolish all the progress this country has made; they seek to deny rights to others so fervently by spouting slogans like ‘read the constitution!’ and ‘protect our rights!’ And they would so eagerly forget about the religious oppression which drove so many of our ancestors to the port cities of the United States–like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia–to escape such persecution; they forget this, and then demand more religion in our modern government.
The real tragedy here is that they fail to see how completely inconsistent their own rhetoric has become; America is not rushing in to confiscate their weapons (though they have no problem wearing assault rifles in public, around children), no one is shutting them down, they still publicly assemble–their rights are still firmly intact, all the while lamenting them as if they have already been stolen away.
In conclusion, we need to stop allowing this sort of rhetoric to continue. If it seems as though I’m bringing the hammer down hard on the Tea Party, or that I’m being unfair, it is only because they are the ones so adamant about using this rhetoric. To be clear, and I must stress this, liberals should not be using rhetoric of the founding fathers either. However, the Tea Party seems to have completely adopted this rhetoric and have most prominently used it and that is problematic. No current political party in the public eye has any basis for which to claim solidarity with the Sons of Liberty. We just don’t live in such a world anymore; our policies, our goals, our sitz im leben is not theirs. They fought and died so we wouldn’t have to face such challenges again. Despite protestations from the Tea Party, we still don’t face those challenges. We have, instead, a whole new range of challenges ahead of us and hijacking the past to incite the present is just plain dishonest.