The Tea Party movement drives the American Left crazy. Liberals have demonstrated an almost desperate desire to write it out of the American mainstream so it can be derided and dismissed without having to be engaged in normal discourse. Early on there was a persistent effort to pin the label of racism on the movement. That fizzled for lack of evidence, and now it turns out, according to polls, that Republican presidential aspirant Herman Cain derives a significant portion of his support from Tea Party adherents. So much for that tactic.
Now the latest edition of Vanity Fair magazine attempts a more sophisticated approach—in keeping with the New York sophisticates who produce that journal. The magazine carries a piece by two economics bloggers—Simon Johnson and James Kwak—arguing that today’s Tea Party movement has nothing in common with the Boston Tea Party or the American Founders or the underlying principles of the grand American experiment. No, it’s etymology is more accurately traced to the Whiskey Rebellion, that antitax revolt from the early years of the Republic that had to be put down by threat of force by George Washington himself, who personally traveled to Pennsylvania as president to lead the anti-rebellion forces.
The dichotomy drawn by these two bloggers is both stark and clever. On one side we have the Founders, most notably Alexander Hamilton. On the other side were the whiskey rebels. Hamilton, write the authors, learned a powerful lesson during the travails of the Revolutionary War: “Hamilton’s conclusion was simple: You cannot run a prosperous and secure independent country without the ability to finance the sudden surge in spending called for by a national emergency—which requires borrowing large amounts of money quickly.’’ And that ability to borrow requires a significant tax base.
They note, accurately, that as the country’s first Treasury secretary Hamilton created the system of public finance that became the economic foundation for America. That system of course encompassed the power to tax, including a tax on whiskey. That riled farmers in western Pennsylvania who produced whiskey. They grabbed their pitchforks and muskets and gathered into an angry mob. That stirred Washington’s decision to lead an effort to suppress this rebellion; the Whiskey Rebellion faded away; and—say Johnson and Kwak—the republic was saved from the likes of today’s Tea Party followers.
So there were Hamilton, Washington and the builders of America—political ancestors of Barack Obama; and then there were those rabble-rousing Pennsylvania farmers bent on destroying the Republic’s power to tax and hence the Republic itself—progenitors of today’s Tea Party.
This is lousy history, pulled together with an all-too-transparent political agenda. So what are the facts? Alexander Hamilton was a great American, but he was a big-government man whose desire to invest power in the federal establishment set off forces of opposition. Indeed, at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, he delivered a six-hour speech in which he strongly urged presidential life tenure. He said he wanted a system as close to British monarchy as the people of the New World would accept. He was politely ignored by his fellow delegates.
The leader of the Hamilton opposition was Thomas Jefferson, who objected to Hamilton’s advocacy of federal power concentration because he believed such concentrations would always lead to abuse. In his first message to Congress, Jefferson vowed to abolish all internal federal taxes and reduce federal expenditures and personnel. He attacked a system in which “after leaving to labor the smallest portion of its earnings on which it can subsist, government…consume[s] the residue of what it was instituted to guard.’’ Hamilton naturally was aghast. He said this attack on Federalism should “alarm all who are anxious for the safety of our government.’’
Thus was born a great political fault line in American politics—the fault line between the politics of Hamilton (later embraced with creative brilliance by Henry Clay) and the politics of Jefferson (later infused with even greater political force by Andrew Jackson). Jefferson’s party dominated American politics for twenty-four years following his 1800 presidential victory, but eventually it split into two factions that would become Jackson’s Democratic Party and Clay’s Whig Party.
Clay wanted the power of federal Washington brought to bear boldly on behalf of domestic prosperity. He crafted a philosophy of governmental activism and devised a collection of federal programs and policies he considered essential to American prosperity—big federal public-works projects; high tariffs; the magisterial Bank of the United States; and federal land sales at high prices to generate federal dollars and hence federal power.
Jackson opposed all this. He believed that concentrated governmental power always led to corruption and abuse. So he advocated a diffusion of power, keeping it as close to the people as possible. He didn’t buy Clay’s vision of building up America from above—through elites fostered by government—because he felt assured that ordinary folk, left to their own devices, would build it up from below. Don’t sell land at high prices to invest the federal government with money and power, he said; sell it cheap or give it away and then watch Americans build towns, churches and commerce through their own ingenuity and hard work.