Representing Colonial Politics in Modern America: The Tea Party Movement and the Need for a Federalist Response
March 11, 2010

Contemporary United States politicians often mention our historic “American values.” These values supposedly hearken back to what our Founding Fathers wanted for the future of this nation. The underlying message is almost always to avoid large government. These values, gallantly fought for by America’s first leaders, are to set us apart from more corrupt nations, in which supporters often present Europe in contrast. Modern politicians and pundits back these claims with abstract history to give their arguments more veracity. Essentially, our modern interpretation is that Washington, Revere, Hancock, Adams, Jefferson, and any man who fired a gun at an enemy in a red coat, meant for us to be free of a cumbersome bureaucracy.

This is, perhaps, best displayed by the current Tea Party Movement: a group of conservatives who have taken the name of a historical milestone. By taking such a name, The Tea Party Movement likens the oppressive government of King George III to the Obama administration; a government purportedly overstepping constitutional bounds. One self-proclaimed member describes that they are dissatisfied with the “unconstitutional, liberal, socialist, progressive, ungodly policies of the federal government.” The name “Tea Party”, though, is an odd choice because the historic participants in the Boston Tea Party were not protesting taxation itself, but taxation without their representation in Parliament.  Although these consistently off base claims will offer a clear image to future historiographers of our time period’s atmosphere – something that’s important to those who appreciate the twists and turns of history – the idea that big government and taxes are contrary to America’s founding principles is simply incorrect and distorts factual history. The idea of a strong federal government is not anti-American and was not anti-American during the time of a fledgling United States.

As much as the Tea Party movement may want to believe to the contrary, their ideals are only a fraction of colonial sentiment. The anachronistic clothing and funny hats may convince a child or layman to history, but during the initial decades of the United States, antipathy for a federal government was only shared by the Democratic-Republican party. This was one single party, in which both today’s Democratic and Republican parties branched out from. I suppose if anyone ever mentions to you that Democrats and Republicans today seem the same, you can reply that they actually were from the 1790s to about the 1820s.

Before the split of the Democratic-Republicans, the Federalist Party was an existing rival group who supported, created, and ensured the survival of a strong United States Federal Government. The Federalists were a party, based mostly in the northern areas of New England and New York, responsible for creating our standing Army, Navy, Coast Guard, banking system and United States Constitution. You can see how the current Tea Party protestors inaccurately perceive colonial history by their claims that the Constitution is an anti-governmental document. Ironically, the actual anti-government Democratic-Republicans were against having a Constitution at all.

If colonial America did not put faith in the success of a powerful and central government, we would not be a united country today enjoying the wealth and success that we have come to assume to be the antithesis of governance. On a side note, it was the same mentality of eschewing central government which persisted to protect “States’ rights” as a means of preserving slavery. This famously led to the Civil War; in which the progressivism and stern governance of Lincoln saved the unity of this country.

As for what the more notable of the Founding Fathers may have wanted, The Federalists were no strangers to their membership. Their roster boasted the likes of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton (pictured above on the $10 bill), John Madison, and John Jay. George Washington, though not an official member due to his being President, and therefore neutral, ideologically agreed with the Federalists. These are same Founding Fathers in which politicians today, such as Mitt Romney, claim disdained government. But with such famed membership and important accomplishments, why have the Federalists faded from popular memory?

The reasons for this interpretation are not entirely clear. One could be relatively safe in guessing that the threat of Communism during the Cold War and that charismatic right-wing leaders, such as Ronald Reagan, shifted Americans’ behavior and self-image to the right. America joined the Allies in WWII to fight Fascism, which was the antithesis of Democracy. It was only shortly after the Allied Victory that America’s concern with preserving Democracy became eclipsed with a preservation of Capitalism in the face of a threat from the USSR. The US’s foreign policy included attacking democratically elected far-left governments, while arming brutal dictators committed to a capitalist economy. Regardless, it is entirely possible that the Cold War transformation of America could have changed its interpretation of colonial history and why the focus on a party committed to a strong, watchful, central government may have lost favor in the United States.

But the Federalists haven’t been completely forgotten in contemporary America. However, unfortunately, their legacy has been misinterpreted. As an ideological rival to the – more liberal – American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a conservative group of lawyers and law students took the Federalist name over 25 years ago. With a membership of over 20,000 practicing attorneys, The Federalist Society attempts to link the colonial Federalist Party with conservative ideals. With a silhouette of James Madison as their club’s symbol, the society is directly invoking the Federalist Party of old to their modern-day cause.

The only conservatives I can think of that would somewhat agree with the old Federalists are the NeoCons; conservatives more concerned with financial and corporate success than any domestic issues. This is because the Federalist party was composed of a great deal of Northern bankers and businessmen, as opposed to Southern farmers and plantation owners. NeoCons, though, cannot completely identify with the Federalists as their business practices are often at odds with the regulations that our Federal Government sets, such as immigration policies, minimum wage, environmental standards, and so on.

The true history of the Federalist Party and early United States needs to be better represented in the social and political spheres of American life today. I think the real silent majority of today acknowledges the benefits of central government, but remains silent because of the stigmas America places on left-wing thought (see: pinko). Perhaps the American left also needs a nationwide, progressive, grassroots organization – like the Tea Party Movement. I do not often commit myself to one political side or the other, but I would enjoy a movement that shows the world that it is perfectly American to want an efficient and powerful central government. Maybe, amid all the dissatisfaction with our current Democrats and Republicans, the spirit of John Adams, George Washington, and Alexander Hamilton will be resurrected with the return of a newly invigorated Federalist Party.

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