It was a Bitter Cup of Tea Then, and the Same is True Today

I’m begging anyone in these parts with green bloodlines to please put down the “tea.” Every time anyone in or around Boston, or the rest of Massachusetts, imbibes the Tea Party brew, a historical fog envelops him or her. The lessons of the past evaporate, the concoction’s residue a soggy, sorry blend of simplistic bromides, cultural, racial, and ethnic epithets, and distortion of the past.

What’s old is new – but your ancestors, who left behind the old sod in search of something better, would recognize and recoil from today’s Tea Party. In all likelihood they would let you have a proverbial piece of their mind if you are drinking from this fetid cup. They would remind you that in their day, a band of “real Americans” bellowed, “I want my country back!” They would remind you of the coffin ships that carried them from famine-wracked Ireland, of the “Irish Need Not Apply” signs they encountered, and of worse. In their day, the 1840s and 1850s, it was the Tea Party’s antecedent – the Nativists – who infected the local and national landscape, a hate-filled party that not only appeared locally and nationwide, but also ruled Massachusetts and other regions politically for a few years. They called themselves the “Know-Nothings.”
What they knew all too well was that they loathed anything Irish, anything Catholic, any immigrant, anything they deemed “un-American.” They proclaimed that they needed to save the nation from going broke to pay for “Paddy and Bridget,” who were arriving in unprecedented waves. In short, the Nativists “wanted their country back.” Sound familiar?
The Tea Party’s predecessor was attractive to many men in and around Boston, and in the spring of 1854, they carried elections in Boston, Salem, and other cities. With the fall Massachusetts legislative and gubernatorial races looming, the Know Nothings had their collective eye on higher office, from which they could enact laws targeting foreigners and Catholics. Across the nation, the movement’s ranks had swelled to over a million by 1854, their confidence leading them to anoint themselves the “American Party.” They always invoked the patriots of the American Revolution – the real Americans. Again, sound familiar?
We hear today’s Tea Partiers similarly evoking the heroes of the Revolution, anointing themselves as the modern incarnations of the men who so loathed “taxation without representation” that they dumped British tea into Boston Harbor. They identify with the “shot heard round the world” in April 1775 – even as their pinup Congresswoman, Michelle Bachman, crows that the legendary shot sounded above the green in Concord, New Hampshire. For anyone who needs reminding about the real Tea Party, not the present-day band, please pick up a copy of the great historian Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History. It was not simply about taxes.
But back to the Boston Irish. The immigrants of the 1840s and 1850s were subjected to similar distortions about the Revolution, the Founding Fathers, and the new nation’s “Judeo-Christian” principles. Anyone who was not a native-born, Anglo-Protestant was not a real American, but, rather, the outsider, the other. We hear that the Tea Party is about nothing more or less than America’s skyrocketing debt and taxation. Our Irish ancestors would not be fooled. The words “I want my country back” would reveal the faces of many Tea Partiers for what they are. This is not to say that there aren’t many of them who honestly believe that tax, debt, and policy issues drive the movement. The nation’s fiscal woes worry me, too. However, at Tea Party gatherings, the placards and portrayals of the “other” who sits in the White House cannot be dismissed as merely the “lunatic fringe.” While our Boston Irish ancestors and all African-Americans obviously have had a troubled history, the Irish of the mid-nineteenth century in Massachusetts were most certainly “the other.”
In the 1854 gubernatorial race, Henry Gardner, a staunch Know-Nothing, won as his party took every Massachusetts Congressional election, all statewide offices, all forty Massachusetts Senate seats, and every Massachusetts House seat save three. Stunned by the rising tide of Nativism in Boston and beyond, Charles Francis Adams wrote in his diary, “The political news is amazing. The new mysterious order has carried every office in the state. … There has been no revolution so complete since the organization of government.” Those same words ring true in regard to the November 2010 elections that swept Tea Partyers into power in the U.S. House.
I believe that for the Tea Party, and for our nation’s future, there’s a historical lesson in the Know Nothing/American Party’s fate. The ascendancy of the Know-Nothings proved mercurial. In 1856, the American Party ran Millard Fillmore in the presidential election. While many Boston voters likely cast their ballots for the former president, he won but one state, Maryland. The onset of the Civil War would shove the Know-Nothings into the backwaters of history. While prejudice toward immigrants would endure, the Boston Irish had been galvanized by what the Know-Nothings had done: Seize power through the ballot box. The immigrants proved far better at holding on to that clout than had the nativist bigots. Which is why today’s Boston Irish should think long and hard and remember their own families’ history before sipping the tea. As countless adages preach, we ignore the past at our peril. Distorting and oversimplifying the past carries similar danger.
Peter F. Stevens is a member of the BIR staff.