Is the Gadsden Flag Racist?


This flag was designed in 1775 by Christopher Gadsden, South Carolina planter and delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress.  The rattlesnake, as best as I can tell, was used as a symbol for the British colonies as early as 1754 when Benjamin Franklin published his famous cartoon “Join or Die.”

Join or Die.php

The Gadsden flag is an iconic symbol of the American Revolution.  As a historian of 18th-century America I have had one hanging in my home office for years. (Although it is now partially covered by books and Springsteen memorabilia).

Dont Tread

A couple of additional facts about the flag are necessary.  First, Gadsden was a South Carolina slave holder.  Second, this flag has recently been used by libertarian and Tea Party groups to protest what they see as government overreach into the lives of ordinary Americans.

And now there are some claiming that because Gadsden was a slave holder the flag is racist and thus offensive.  According to this Washington Post article by Eugene Volokh, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has receive a complaint from a person who felt that “the Agency subjected him to discrimination on the basis of race (African American) and in reprisal for prior EEOC activity when, starting in the fall of 2013, a coworker repeatedly wore a cap to work with an insignia of the Gadsden Flag, which depicts a coiled rattlesnake and the phrase ‘Don’t Tread on Me.'”

Read the entire complaint in Volokh’s piece.

I think it is time for some historical perspective here.

Enter J.L. Bell at Boston 1775.

Here is a taste of his post, “Investigating the Meaning of the Gadsden Flag“:

…some people commenting on those stories assume that a federal authority has ruled that the Gadsden Flag and associated “Don’t Tread on Me” slogan are racist because of their roots in the slave society of Revolutionary America. That shows they didn’t read the ruling or Volokh’s column.

The anonymous employee who filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission did make that claim:

Complainant stated that he found the cap to be racially offensive to African Americans because the flag was designed by Christopher Gadsden, a “slave trader & owner of slaves.”

The historic claims are correct. In 1774 more than ninety men, women, and children were enslaved on Gadsden’s two rice plantations. He paid Customs duties on the cargo of at least two slave ships, in 1755 and 1762.

Furthermore, Gadsden’s South Carolina was a society built on slavery. At the time of the Revolution, historians estimate that more than half of its human population was enslaved. Because the British military freed and evacuated so many people, that fraction went down by the 1790 census, but South Carolina still had a larger percentage of its population in bondage than any other state. By the early 1800s through the Civil War, the state’s population was once again mostly enslaved.

However, the E.E.O.C. rejected the claim that the Gadsden Flag is offensive because of its historical origin:

After a thorough review of the record, it is clear that the Gadsden Flag originated in the Revolutionary War in a non-racial context. Moreover, it is clear that the flag and its slogan have been used to express various non-racial sentiments, such as when it is used in the modern Tea Party political movement, guns rights activism, patriotic displays, and by the military.

In doing so, the E.E.O.C. also confirmed that “the modern Tea Party political movement” expresses “various non-racial sentiments” through the flag, which looks like a tacit rejection of the complaint’s suggestion that the Tea Party is an expression of “white resentment against blacks.”

The potential problem with the Gadsden flag, the E.E.O.C. ruling said, lies not in its past but in the way it’s being used today:

However, whatever the historic origins and meaning of the symbol, it also has since been sometimes interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages in some contexts. For example, in June 2014, assailants with connections to white supremacist groups draped the bodies of two murdered police officers with the Gadsden flag during their Las Vegas, Nevada shooting spree.

One hopes that fans of the Gadsden Flag loudly decried how those terrorists used it.

Read the entire post here.

David Brooks: Ted Cruz is a Pagan Brute

e3b01-cruz-at-value-voters-summit-2015I couldn’t agree more here with David Brooks. Remember, Brooks is a guy whose flirtation with evangelicalism is informed by people like the late John Stott and Tim Keller.

Here is a taste of his column, “The Brutalism of Ted Cruz.”

The case reveals something interesting about Cruz’s character. Ted Cruz is now running strongly among evangelical voters, especially in Iowa. But in his career and public presentation Cruz is a stranger to most of what would generally be considered the Christian virtues: humility, mercy, compassion and grace. Cruz’s behavior in the Haley case is almost the dictionary definition of pharisaism: an overzealous application of the letter of the law in a way that violates the spirit of the law, as well as fairness and mercy.

Traditionally, candidates who have attracted strong evangelical support have in part emphasized the need to lend a helping hand to the economically stressed and the least fortunate among us. Such candidates include George W. Bush, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum.

But Cruz’s speeches are marked by what you might call pagan brutalism. There is not a hint of compassion, gentleness and mercy. Instead, his speeches are marked by a long list of enemies, and vows to crush, shred, destroy, bomb them. When he is speaking in a church the contrast between the setting and the emotional tone he sets is jarring.

And more:

The fact is this apocalyptic diagnosis is ridiculous. The Obama administration has done things people like me strongly disagree with. But America is in better economic shape than any other major nation on earth. Crime is down. Abortion rates are down. Fourteen million new jobs have been created in five years.

Obama has championed a liberal agenda, but he hasn’t made the country unrecognizable. In 2008, federal spending accounted for about 20.3 percent of gross domestic product. In 2015, it accounted for about 20.9 percent.

But Cruz manufactures an atmosphere of menace in which there is no room for compassion, for moderation, for anything but dismantling and counterattack. And that is what he offers. Cruz’s programmatic agenda, to the extent that it exists in his speeches, is to destroy things: destroy the I.R.S., crush the “jackals” of the E.P.A., end funding for Planned Parenthood, reverse Obama’s executive orders, make the desert glow in Syria, destroy the Iran nuclear accord.

Read the entire column here.

Tea Party Conservative Evangelical Changes His Mind on Guns

Rev. Rob Schenk is a pro-life, evangelical, Tea Party activist who is fighting for life in a way not usually associated with the people who make up his church constituency.  Here is a taste of Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s The Washington Post article on Schenk. 

 Following the excerpt is a trailer for “The Armor of Light,” a documentary about his quest to stop gun violence in America.

Schenck, who believes that most Christians should not own a firearm for defense purposes, is trying to encourage Christians towards becoming more visible in the gun use debate.
“Pastors and the church as a whole should be speaking very loudly into legislation on guns, especially on the state level,” he said. “Our voices are conspicuously absent from the discussion and the debate.”
Directed by Abigail Disney (the grandniece of Walt Disney), the “Armor of Light” film opens showing Schenck, a longtime antiabortion activist, carrying a dead fetus during protests in 1992.
“In my community we talk about the value of every human life. Usually that’s in the context of abortion,” he says in the film. “And if we believe life begins at conception there’s a whole lot of life beyond conception until natural death.”
Schenck was the original founder of D.C.’s multi-site National Community Church in 1994, but now he spends most of his time on Capitol Hill or in churches around the country. He leads a group called Faith and Action, saying that his natural constituency would be conservative, those who have Republican or Tea Party affinities.
Since the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, Schenck has been preaching at churches across the country about gun violence.
Schenck said that his organization has lost significant financial support over his activism. According to Faith and Action’s most recent financial statements from 2013, the organization receives about $1.9 million in contributions and grants, and Schenck’s salary that year was $168,333.
“There are some things worth the cost, so I’ve come to the conclusion that this is one,” he told an audience at the AFI DOCS film festival in Washington in June


Today’s Tea Party History Lesson

Today’s lesson comes from Marilinda Garcia, a Tea Party candidate for Congress from New Hampshire:

When she said that the United States “experiment in collectivism died before the country was founded” I thought she was going to reference the Plymouth Colony. She didn’t go there.  Instead she referenced Jamestown.  Oh boy!
A few comments:
The people of Jamestown did not starve to death because they lacked private property.  They starved to death from disease and because they did not grow food.  They were so busy trying to strike it rich in the mercantile economy by growing exotic crops like silk and dates that they did not grow anything to eat. 
Moreover, if the move toward private property (I am assuming that Garcia is making some vague reference to the Headright System here) brought economic success to the colony, such success was based on the ability of some colonists to get rich on tobacco.  And in order to get rich on tobacco, one needed a lot of servants and slaves.
So here is my revision to Garcia’s history lesson:  the “defining characteristic of America was born” in Jamestown.  All those “innate” geniuses created an American dream for themselves by “experimenting” with indentured servanthood and later slavery.  I think a famous historian once wrote a book about this called American Slavery-American Freedom.

Wilentz: Today’s Tea Partiers are the "Anti-Jacksonians"

John C. Calhoun:  Gotta love the hair

Over at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz rejects the idea that the Tea Party somehow represents the democratic spirit first championed by Andrew Jackson.  He writes:

Where does the Tea Party fit in this conflicted American political tradition? Several commentators have linked modern right-wing populism, including, most recently, the Tea Party right, with the political traditions of Andrew Jackson and the Jacksonian Democrats of the 1830s. It is as if Cruz were the incarnation of Old Hickory and the assault on Obamacare akin to Jackson’s assault on the Second Bank of the United States.
“The tea party is Jacksonian America,” William Galston of the Brookings Institution recently observed in The Wall Street Journal, “aroused, angry and above all fearful, in full revolt against a new elite—backed by the new American demography—that threatens its interests and scorns its values.” Galston based his argument on an essay written by Walter Russell Mead inThe National Interest more than a decade ago, which drew a straight line from the Jacksonians—imbued with what Mead described as a folkish anti-intellectualism and an anti-elitist mistrust of big government—to the Silent Majority of disillusioned New Deal Democrats who turned to Richard Nixon and later to Ronald Reagan to save them from civil rights reformers and arrogant, secular Eastern intellectuals.
Instead, Wilentz sees a different historical trajectory.  This one connects the Tea Party to the anti-Jackson, states rights, nullification-driven politics of John C. Calhoun.  He writes:
A strong nullifying political current connects the Calhounites to the secessionists of the 1860s, then to the anti-Reconstruction Southern Democrats, then to the Dixiecrats of the late 1940s, then to the post-civil rights white Southerners who have made the “Solid South” solidly Republican—and now to the Tea Party insurgents.
Read the entire piece here.  

Christie vs. The Tea Party in 2016

I admit that I am a sucker for these kinds of predictions, but I have to agree with Andrew Sullivan that a Chris Christie vs. Ted Cruz vs. Rand Paul Republican primary fight would be very entertaining.  Here is a taste of Sullivan’s post:

If Christie runs, and the egomania of last night makes it all but inevitable, he will at some point have to encounter and beat a serious Tea Party candidate. It could be Ted Cruz or Rand Paul or both. It will not just be a personality battle. Christie’s positions on climate science, Medicaid expansion, gun control and immigration reform – cited by Chait – are red flags to the base Christianists and extreme libertarians. Given Christie’s temperament, I’d say it will be a very entertaining but brutal battle for the soul of the party. Christie’s embrace of Obama during Sandy, his state’s marriage equality, his Northeastern roots, and the big establishment money behind him will also polarize the elites and the base. And his political style is not exactly to pour oil on troubled waters. He’ll say something mean and nasty at some point, and it could either cement his stature or make him look very small.

I can see him trashing Paul as someone who’s never run anything and who’s a surrender monkey in foreign policy. I can also see him lambasting Cruz for his recklessness and extreme partisanship. I guess what I’m saying is that I doubt he can win the nomination without a deep and damaging divide emerging – and maybe even a third Tea Party candidate. That’s not a good starting point for a general election, however wide his appeal in the country at large.

Glenn Beck and the "Man in the Moon"

Will you be in Salt Lake City during the Independence Day?  If so, you may want to check out Glenn Beck’s latest extravaganza: “Man in the Moon.” 

Here are some things you can experience:

  • If you have $250 you can get a “museum tour” with David Barton
  • If you have $1000 you can get a “museum tour” with Glenn Beck.
  • Other “museum tours” are more reasonably priced.
  • A book signing with David Barton

Here is a brief description:

Mercury One will be in Salt Lake City July 4th, 5th and 6th, putting on a two conferences, a speaker series, a museum, a comedy night and its second annual “Day of Service.”  Purchasing tickets to these events will help support Mercury One all year round.

I wonder if Beck will once invoke the “Third Great Awakening.”

Mitt Romney’s Move to the Center and the Failure of the Tea Party

In yesterday’s Washington Post, E.J. Dionne astutely points out that Mitt Romney’s move away from the conservative positions that got him the GOP nomination basically means that the Tea Party has already lost this election.

Here is a taste:

The total rout of the right’s ideology, particularly its neoconservative brand, was visible in Monday’s debate, in which Romney praised one Obama foreign policy initiative after another. He calmly abandoned much of what he had said during the previous 18 months. Gone were the hawkish assaults on Obama’s approach to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, China and nearly everywhere else. Romney was all about “peace.”

Romney’s most revealing line: “We don’t want another Iraq.” Thus did he bury without ceremony the great Bush-Cheney project. He renounced a war he had once supported with vehemence and enthusiasm.

Then there’s budget policy. If the Romney/Paul Ryan budget and tax ideas were so popular, why would the candidate and his sidekick, the one-time devotee of Ayn Rand, be investing so much energy in hiding the most important details of their plans? For that matter, why would Ryan feel obligated to forsake his love for Rand, the proud philosopher of “the virtue of selfishness” and the thinker he once said had inspired his public service?

Romney knows that, by substantial margins, the country favors raising taxes on the rich and opposes slashing many government programs, including Medicare and Social Security. Since Romney’s actual plan calls for cutting taxes on the rich, he has to disguise the fact. Where is the conviction?

The biggest sign that tea party thinking is dead is Romney’s straight-out deception about his past position on the rescue of the auto industry.

The bailout was the least popular policy Obama pursued — and, I’d argue, one of the most successful. It was Exhibit A for tea partyers who accused our moderately progressive president of being a socialist. In late 2008, one prominent Republican claimed that if the bailout the Detroit-based automakers sought went through, “you can kiss the American automotive industry good-bye.” The car companies, he said, would “seal their fate with a bailout check.” This would be the same Mitt Romney who tried to pretend on Monday that he never said what he said or thought what he thought. If the bailout is now good politics, and it is, then free-market fundamentalism has collapsed in a heap.

Beck’s $30 Million "Roller Coaster History Lesson"

Glenn Beck is going to give the nation a history lesson on Saturday night.  I don’t know if I want to pull myself away from Phelps and Lochte to watch it, but his talk at “Beckstock,” um, I mean “Restoring Love” should be interesting to say the least. 

In this interview with Bill O’Reilly, Beck announces that he will have $30 million worth of historical artifacts with him on the field at Dallas Cowboys Stadium.  As I reported earlier this week, Beck claims to “unveil a piece of history that has never been seen before” that will “explain who we are as a nation.” the latest video at

In all seriousness, Beck deserves credit for being consistent with his small government views.  As he mentions in the O’Reilly interview, he will have over 35,000 of his followers on the streets of Dallas on Friday morning performing acts of service to the community.  As Beck puts it, “If we want small government that means someone else has to do it, and that means us, and it is our responsibility.”  If Beck’s vision for “restoring love” or “restoring the culture” is about serving others in our communities, then I am all for it. But something tells me that there is more to it than this.

Wait a minute, isn’t this kind of community service a form of social activism?  Does this mean that Beck is a community organizer?

As readers of this blog know, Beck and I have had our moments.  But I must commend him for this aspect of Restoring Love. 

As for the history lesson:  Well, we will just have to wait and see. 

David Morgan on the Paintings of Jon McNaughton

I had never heard of Jon McNaughton before, but when I saw the image attached to David Morgan‘s recent piece at Religion & Politics I recognized his work immediately.  McNaughton is the painter of “One Nation Under God,” a painting that has become quite popular among the so-called teavangelicals.  (You should also check out his “The Forgotten Man” and “Wake Up America!). According to the editors of Religion & Politics:

In McNaughton, Morgan finds something old: a jeremiad against the current American political establishment. He also finds something new: a coalition of evangelical Christians and conservative Mormons, a union that could prove highly influential in the 2012 presidential contest.

Here is a taste of his piece:

A few years ago, political commentators wondered if a new partnership was emerging in American politics between evangelicals and Catholics. But neither group has turned out to be as monolithic as some expected. One Nation Under God, The Forgotten Man and Wake Up America! suggest a new coalition, one personified in Glenn Beck (and now perhaps Mitt Romney): a union among conservative evangelicals and Mormons. It is noteworthy that Joseph Smith is not among the worthies who step forth from the mist of the American past. But we do see at least one Mormon: among the righteous stands a black male college student—perhaps a counterintuitive choice to represent McNaughton’s own faith, as black men were banned from the Mormon priesthood until 1978. This man holds a copy of a book by the oft-described “faith-based political theorist” Willard Cleon Skousen, a writer frequently touted by Beck. The Five Thousand Year Leap (1981) proclaimed that the Constitution was inspired by the freedom fighters of the Bible, not the free thinkers of the Enlightenment. The cause around which the new coalition gathers is the Christian Nation—although whether this alliance can endure remains to be seen. The artist himself told The National Review that he left the GOP during the presidency of George W. Bush, who, McNaughton said, “ruined the Republican Party.”

A Tale of Two Minnesota Congressional Districts

In case you have not heard, Michelle Bachmann, an evangelical Christian, recently wrote a 16-page letter to her fellow Minnesota congressman, Keith Ellison, a Muslim, about her concerns over the supposed Muslim infiltration of the federal government.

Bachmann represents Minnesota’s Sixth Congressional District.  Ellison represents Minnesota’s Fifth Congregational District.  Bachman is a self-proclaimed “teavangelical.”  Ellison is a Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus and is vice-chair of the Congressional Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Equality Caucus. 

Over at Religion & Politics, Carleton College history professor Michael D. McNally explains how these neighboring Minnesota districts can elect such very different representatives to Washington.  Here is a taste:

Despite Michele Bachmann’s own strongly evangelical identity, her district is no more demographically evangelical than Ellison’s. In 2000, only 9 percent of Bachmann’s district was affiliated with an evangelical faith. Hennepin County, about half of which comprises Ellison’s district, also is 9 percent evangelical. There is a higher share of Roman Catholics in Bachmann’s district–30 percent compared with 23 percent in Ellison’s, and this is largely because the western counties of her district were historically settled by German Catholics. Lake Wobegon references to Minnesota Lutherans aside, the state has a rather significant Roman Catholic population, and certain regions have a deep tradition of Catholic identity. While a drive through that part of her district features no small number of graphic anti-abortion billboards, along with the flagship American Benedictine monasteries of St. John and St. Benedict, it also includes a Laotian Buddhist retreat center and the city of St. Cloud, which is home to a relatively large black population—around 12 percent in Census data—many of whom are of African, and especially Somali, descent.

If their respective districts offer far more muted contrasts than Bachmann and Ellison themselves suggest, it is certainly true that both members of Congress engage their religion and politics in highly contrasting ways, and that those contrasts are important to their electoral success in those districts. It may be by less handsome margins than her Fifth District counterpart, but Bachmann is reelected in light of, not in spite of, the identification of her religious identity and her political positions. It is hard to imagine her national name recognition, and the pride that can come with that star-power on the part of even those constituents who do not share fully her conservative Christian views.

The Connection Between the Tea Party and the Christian Right

Not all members of the Tea Party movement are evangelical or fundamentalist Christians, but according to David Campbell and Robert Putnam, the authors of American Grace: How Religion Divides Us and United Us,  many of them are.

In a column in today’s New York Times, Campbell, a political scientist at Notre Dame, and Putnam, a prominent sociologist at Harvard, conclude that Tea Parties have the following beliefs in common:

They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.

More important, they were disproportionately social conservatives in 2006 — opposing abortion, for example — and still are today. Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.

This inclination among the Tea Party faithful to mix religion and politics explains their support for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. Their appeal to Tea Partiers lies less in what they say about the budget or taxes, and more in their overt use of religious language and imagery, including Mrs. Bachmann’s lengthy prayers at campaign stops and Mr. Perry’s prayer rally in Houston.

Yet it is precisely this infusion of religion into politics that most Americans increasingly oppose. While over the last five years Americans have become slightly more conservative economically, they have swung even further in opposition to mingling religion and politics. It thus makes sense that the Tea Party ranks alongside the Christian Right in unpopularity.

Again, I think we should be careful about saying that everyone affiliated with the Tea Party embraces these beliefs, but it appears that Campbell and Putnam have some evidence to prove that a large percentage of them do.  Perhaps this explains why so many evangelicals are flocking to Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann.

What Would Madison Do?

Over at her excellent blog, My Stories, Beth Lewis Pardoe offers some sane and reasoned historical thinking about the Tea Party Movement, factions, tyranny, and James Madison’s (perhaps flawed?) understanding of a republic.  Here is a taste:

Poor James Madison thought he had the risks of republics beat.  He stood Hume’s ideal government on its head in order to prevent tyranny of the majority with the creation of so many electoral units that even if a majority tyrannized one, they could never terrorize the whole.

He failed to imagine that if a mere minority of congressional districts fell victim to the tyranny of their internal majorities, their congressional representatives could hold the full federation hostage.  Whoops!

Read the rest here.

The Worst of Tea Party Revisionism

In light of the Sarah Palin-Paul Revere incident (see tomorrow’s Patheos column where I will address this incident in a more formal way), Kara Brandeisky of The New Republic has assembled eight of the worst examples of how the Tea Party candidates have used American history to promote their political agendas.  I have listed them below, with some of my own commentary. But if you want to see pictures and get a more thorough understanding of these historical errors, I encourage you to read/view the piece

1. Michelle Bachman stated that Lexington’s “Shot Heard Round the World” occurred in New Hampshire.  This is just blatantly wrong.  Lexington is in Massachusetts.  I might also add that the “shot heard round the world,” which comes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn” (1837), was actually not heard around the world, literally or figuratively.  🙂

2. Herman Cain, a restauranter, talk-show host, and a 2012 presidential candidate, chided Americans for not reading the Constitution. He then told them that “there’s a little section in their that talks about ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.'”  Of course this phrase is in the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution.

3. Michelle Bachman stated that America has always been a land of opportunity for people, and then added, “It didn’t matter the color of their skin….”  Sorry Michelle, I don’t think the slaves in colonial America had much “opportunity.”

4. Glenn Beck’s stated that the 3/5ths compromise was placed in the Constitution to abolish slavery.  I have never heard this one before.

5. Christine O’Donnell, in a debate with Chris Coons, her opponent in last year’s Delaware Senate race, stated: “You’re telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?”  Technically, the words “separation of church and state” are not in the United States Constitution or the First Amendment, but the First Amendment does say that there can be no establishment of religion.

6. Speaking before a group of evangelical women, Sarah Palin stated: “Lest anyone try to convince you that God should be separated from the state, our Founding Fathers, they were believers.”  Apart from the fact that this statement does not make grammatical sense, Palin does not seem to be aware of the First Amendment.

7. During her recent visit to Mt. Vernon, Sarah Palin did not realize that it was George Washington’s slaves who made Mount Vernon into a “Beautiful, Educational, and Inspiring place.”  To call attention to this one, however, may be a case of hitting below the belt since it was actually Palin’s ten-year-old daughter Piper who commented on “how hard he (Washington) must have worked to keep that farm going!”

8. Rand Paul equated universal health care with slavery and then said that our founding documents opposed slavery.  Actually, the Constitution, as it was written in 1787, allowed slavery to exist.

More on the Tea Party and the American Founding

William Hogeland, the author of the progressive American history blog, Hysteriography, has been debating Michael Patrick Leahy, a Tea Party activist, about the ways in which the Tea Party uses American history to promote its cause.

The debate is taking place at “Line of Fire blog, but Hogeland is also offering summary at Hysteriography.  Here is a taste of their ongoing exchange: 


The Tea Party movement, for example, has laid its claim on the founding period, and to a great extent that claim is indeed an economic and financial one. Casting the modern welfare state as a form of tyranny, in large part because of what they see as its excessive taxation, Tea Partiers invoke the famous American resistance to Parliament’s efforts to raise a revenue in the colonies without the consent traditionally given by representation. . . . The Tea Party thus edits out an alternative view of government that prevailed among the ordinary 18th-century Americans who were all-important to achieving independence. . . . The internal struggle for American equality was as important to the founding as the high-Whig resistance to England, but the Tea Party can’t deal with the populist leaders and militia rank-and-file who wrote the socially radical 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution, or the Shaysites of Massachusetts who marched on the state armory, or the so-called whiskey rebels who inspired federal occupation of western Pennsylvania.


Mr. Hogeland condescendingly assumes that tea party activists are unfamiliar with these three historical incidents. To the contrary, we are more familiar with their relevance to our modern circumstances than is Mr. Hogeland himself.

As an historian, Mr. Hogeland should familiarize himself with the three core values of the Tea Party movement, which we’ve loudly proclaimed in every venue possible for the past two years: (1) Constitutionally limited government (2) Free markets and (3) Fiscal Responsibility.

As he well knows, both the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution and the Shays Rebellion of Massachusetts took place before the ratification of the Constitution. As for the “Whiskey Rebels” of western Pennsylvania, their complaint against the early Federal government was that it passed a law that unfairly taxed small whiskey producers at much higher rates than large whiskey producers in urban areas. It was a violation of their individual liberties and the principles of free markets for the government to pick the “winners” (large urban manufacturers) and “losers” (small rural manufacturers).


Are Tea Party Members Libertarians or Social Conservatives? We have touched on this topic here before, but Robert Jones, writing at The Washington Post, nails it.  Here is a taste:

Tea party caucus leader Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) flip-flop on this issue illustrates the bind many tea party supported candidates must feel. Just last month, Bachman appeared on a webinar sponsored by the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List and declared that she would fight “eyeball to eyeball” to keep the rider to defund Planned Parenthood in the budget bill, saying, “The next time we vote on the continuing resolution we have to insist on defunding ‘Obamacare’ and defunding Planned Parenthood…. My opinion is there is a point where you draw the line in the sand and you have a hill where you die on. I think this is our issue.”

But just last night, Bachmann reversed herself in an interview with John King on CNN, saying, “Well, my opinion is this. I think that we should have clean bill that makes sure that the paycheck gets to the troops on time.”

Bachmann’s waffling on this issue, and the lack of a clarion call from the tea party to have a clean budget bill, may be because tea party elected officials grasp a complicating truth: rank and file tea party members are not libertarians but social conservatives.

Heading into the elections last October, Public Religion Research Institute released data from our American Values Survey that showed that Americans who identify with the tea party do not fit the libertarian mold tea party elites use to describe the movement. We found nearly half (47 percent) of rank and file Americans who consider themselves part of the tea party movement also identifying with the Christian right movement. In fact, this revelation led to the coining of the term “Teavangelicals” by David Brody at Christian Broadcasting Network.

Moreover, we found that on hot-button issues, Americans who identify with the tea party are not libertarians favoring limited government involvement and maximum personal liberty. Instead, they are much more socially conservative than the general public: less than one-in five support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, and nearly two-thirds of those identifying with the tea party movement say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

New Pew Study: Most People Who Agree With the Religious Right Also Support the Tea Party

A new study by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has concluded that “Tea Party supporters tend to have conservative opinions not just about economic matters, but also about social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.”  In addition, “they are much more likely than registered voters as a whole to say that their religion is the most important factor in determining their opinions on these social issues.”

What the study doesn’t tell us is whether or not the members of the Tea Party, 87% of whom said “government is almost always wasteful,” believe that abortion and gay marriage should be ended by government intervention.

In many ways this study shows the schizophrenic and contradictory character of the Tea Party.  Its members do not want the government interfering on their right to own guns, but I am guessing that they have no problem with the government legislating morality when it comes to abortion or gay marriage.

Religion and the Wisconsin Labor Protests

Over at Religion in American History, Heath Carter has a very thoughtful piece about the relationship between religion and labor in the context of the recent situation in Wisconsin.  Here is a taste:

To have a fuller sense of the relationship between religion and labor in present-day Wisconsin one would need to pay close attention to the rhetoric that everyday people are using on both sides of the debate – who is marshaling religious language and arguments to support their view, and to what effect? (It would be interesting, for example, to study the language on signs that demonstrators on both sides are carrying). In addition, one would need to know more about what happens this weekend, in synagogues and churches around the state: will rabbis, priests, and ministers broach the labor dispute, and if so, what notes will they strike? Most interesting to me – and most difficult to recover – are the conversations that will happen over meals following those religious services: in the restaurants and kitchens where ordinary people will debate the meaning of religion for economic life. It is in those places and amongst those people that lasting change begins. 

Would the Tea Party Have Opposed the U.S. Constitution?

David Sehat addresses this question in an op-ed in The Christian Science Monitor.  The piece is another reminder of the inherent contradiction between the Tea Party’s anti-big government rhetoric and their dogged defense of the Constitution.  Sehat writes:

It was exactly this point on which the Constitution’s opponents focused, much like our current small-government party does today. They worried that the power of direct taxation would upend the dominance of the states, making them mere auxiliaries of a powerful national government. As a result, they sought a modification of this taxing power that still preserved the autonomy and even the primacy of the states

In the Virginia ratification debates, for example, opponents of the Constitution sought an amendment that would allow the states themselves to requisition federal taxes, so that all money flowed though the states to the federal government in order to maintain states’ rights over taxation. Explaining the amendment to Thomas Jefferson (who was in France), the Federalist and Founder James Madison noted that the purpose of such a proposal was to “mutilate the system” by attacking its taxing power so that it could no longer “answer the purpose for which it was intended.” That purpose, in Madison’s view, was the creation of a government of national supremacy fit for a true nation.

The Constitution’s proponents saw quite clearly that the fate and character of the nation was at stake in the Constitutional debate, so they spoke more explicitly about the connection between a strong government and our national health than tea party proponents care to acknowledge. Only if the federal government was strong could the nation survive, Federalists claimed. And the federal government could only be strong if it was able to apply taxes directly on citizens in a way that many states might not like.

This trade-off was necessary for the perpetuation of American freedom, at least as the Constitutional framers understood it. In the words of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney during the South Carolina ratification debates, the Declaration of Independence had recognized a fundamental fact that had led to the constitutional moment of 1787: “our freedom and independence arose from our union,” he claimed. And so important was union to freedom that without the national power necessary for union – which preeminently included the power of taxation to pay for debt – Pinckney concluded that “we could neither be free nor independent.”

So the next time newly elected tea party proponents talk about freezing the debt ceiling in order to “starve the beast” of national government, keep the arguments of Federalists such as Pinckney in mind. Keep them in mind when tea party proponents call for the roll-back of the federal health care law, which they regard as an illegitimate incursion into states’ rights.

Keep them in mind when you hear about secession balls, which are popping up around the South and coincide with both the ascension of the tea party into office and the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. And keep them in mind when tea partiers rehearse the long-discredited idea that states have the power to nullify federal laws.

The states-rights, neo-secessionist, small-government ideologues who seem to have taken over the Republican Party might have a coherent political philosophy. But that philosophy is not the philosophy of the constitutional framers. It is the philosophy of the Constitution’s opponents.