Here’s hoping the 2010’s Tea Party story ends the same way the 1850’s Know-Nothings era did

By Peter F. Stevens
BIR Staff

The Boston Irish community of the 1850s would have recognized the ways and means of the Tea Party of today. Those immigrants from the “old sod” would have known exactly what the “I-want-my-country-back” crowd of 2011 was up to and would likely be part furious, part ashamed to learn that any of their descendants were imbibing the tea of Texas Governor Rick Perry, Congresswoman Michelle Bachman, Dick Armey, FreedomWorks, the Koch brothers, et al. (In a case of art imitating life, check out the old Eddie Murphy-Dan Aykroyd comedy “Trading Places” for a look at the uber-rich, bigoted, social-experimenting, morally bankrupt “Duke” brothers played by Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy and you will that some “Koch-like” traits abound.)

The Boston Irish of yesteryear would have sized up the 2011 Tea Partiers for who and what they are – simplistic, doctrinaire, and incapable of the slightest vestige of reasonable compromise (see “Debt Ceiling Debate”) at best, of tolerance at worst. As we plunge into the upcoming presidential election, those in the Irish-American community who have sipped deeply of ideological tea might ask themselves a single, simple question: “What would my great-great-grandparents from any of the counties have thought about the Tea Party?”

I suspect that our ancestors with green bloodlines might have approved a name change for the Tea Party – to the Know Nothing Party. As noted in this space in May, the Know Nothings, aka, the American Party, which infected the local and national landscape, was a hate-filled party that not only appeared locally and nationwide, but that also ruled the political roost for a few years. Its goal was to turn back the calendar to some half-mythical land where “real Americans” held sway and were governed by the Bible in all ways and in all walks of life.”

The Know Nothings (that label comes from the story that whenever they were asked what they were up to, the answer was always, “We know nothing”) worked to deny immigrants and anyone seen as not a “real American” a foothold in the nation. Like Rick Perry, much of their so-called solution to society’s woes mirrors country star Carrie Underwood’s hit song, “Jesus Take the Wheel.”

Too harsh a comment? Aside from Perry’s evangelical stadium event a few weeks ago and his campaign for drought-stricken Texas to pray for rain, a look at the 1850s “Platform of the American Party of Massachusetts” is illuminating. The Know Nothings, like the Tea Party, feared “the imminent peril of Freedom, both from internal and external foes.” They asserted “that the Bible as the source and fountain of all true and national liberty should be made.”

Yes, the Tea Party shrieks that its tenets are fiscal sanity and no taxes. I’ll leave it to economists to determine how sane the Tea Party cadre’s willingness to let the nation default on its debt was, and is. What I don’t need anyone to explain is the Tea Party’s avowed crusade – yes, crusade – to achieve the ouster of the “other” from the Oval office, no matter the cost to the nation’s well-being. One can certainly be vehemently opposed to the president on any and all policy issues, but it flies in the face of reason to state that the Tea Party’s antipathy toward him is all about taxes and politics.

Again, people are entitled to their beliefs, but not their own facts, half-facts, and outright distortions. Anyone in the Boston Irish and Irish-American community who holds the current political tea to his or her lips should look carefully into history’s mirror for a glimpse of the lives of their forebears some 160 years ago. They were then the other. They were then the outsider. The code words of today once applied to them.

The Boston Irish saw a fractious, bitter presidential election in 1856, when the Know-Nothing American Party mounted a viable campaign for the White House. They ran a former president, Millard Fillmore. And while many Boston voters no doubt cast their ballots for him, his ticket captured but one state, Maryland, and just a few years later, the Civil War would shove the Know-Nothing era into the fetid backwaters of history.

In the decades that followed, prejudice toward immigrants endured, but the Boston Irish had learned from the Know Nothings: power comes through the ballot box.

If history repeats itself next year, the Tea Party/Know Nothings of the 21st century will fall short of a President Rick Perry or someone of his ilk, and Democrats, Republicans, and independents will all win. Meanwhile, we are left to wonder how long it will be before moderate Republicans, a breed rarely, if ever, seen in public these days, restore sanity to their fissured party. (Which isn’t to say that the the Democrats’ fissures don’t run deep, too.)

To torture the adage, our Boston Irish ancestors of the 1850s surely would have warned their descendants that if “it quacks like a Know Nothing, it quacks like a Tea Partier.”