Ghosts of Daniel Shays: Historians Have Begun Trying to Explain the Tea Party Movement, Unfortunately

Article excerpt

In The Whites of Their Eyes, the leading example of an effort gone mostly wrong, Harvard professor Jill Lepore places the Tea Party movement's demands for a return to founding principles alongside a description of Revolutionary era slavery. She concludes that the current obsession with a set of Founding Fathers stripped clean of their historical racism reveals "a fantasy of an America before race, without race."

Lepore decides that this fantasy is driven by a psychological yearning for "the remembrance of childhood" as a "bulwark against a divided present." In other words, Tea Partiers are trying to hide in a false past from the complexity of the real present. If you're worried about deficit spending and endless bailouts, you're an infantile racist.

Here's a better explanation: Tea Party populism embodies a longstanding American response to elites who seek nakedly excessive personal advantage through corrupt political influence. A few examples from the Founding era will suggest the pattern.

In the decade before the Revolution, farmers in what is now Vermont faced the loss of their property, granted by New Hampshire's colonial governor, when New York claimed the right to sell title to the same land.

This moneymaking scheme had a distinct social color. As the governor of New York explained, it would be "good policy to lodge large tracts of land in the hands of gentlemen of weight and consideration." Smallholders who lost their property could rent it back from its well-connected new owners.

In response to this assault on land titles, the "Green Mountain Boys" of the New Hampshire Grants, led by Ethan Allen, lashed out against the government of New York. They put land surveyors on "trial" before panels of farmers and drove away New York militia. Justices of the Peace who recognized New York land claims saw their homes burned to the ground or pulled down by mobs. As the historian Robert Shalhope has written, Allen believed these attacks were fair play in a "violent struggle ... that pitted a small cadre of wealthy gentlemen against an entire community of settled and industrious yeomen and their families."

That's the pattern: small cadres of the politically connected wealthy against communities of the industrious. Today, we call it Wall Street versus Main Street. It's one of our angriest and most persistent conflicts. At its heart is the "producerist" ethic, the belief among people who make things that the value of their effort is drained away by society's extractive classes. …