While conservative demonstrators hearken back to the Boston Tea Party, Smith (Men and Women: A History of Costume, Gender, and Power, 1990, etc.), the curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, suggests that our revolutionary forebears had quite a different view of freedom.
The author explores how Americans, from the late 1760s to the 1780s, understood the freedoms they believed to have rightfully possessed as colonial British subjects. “When they renounced subjecthood to George III,” she writes, “many Americans understood themselves to remain subject to and members within a larger society.” The broad coalition that called itself Patriots was organized around a notion of the common good rather than the right to individual freedoms. They recognized themselves as “neighbors and brethren” and formed “a coalition that joined colonists across lines of region, belief, interest, and social class.” Despite the colonial restriction of the franchise, the accepted power of the common people to execute the laws established a realm of freedom. This encompassed the role of juries and spectators in determining the outcome of judicial decisions, refusal to collect unfair taxes and the right to demonstrate and protest. Smith establishes a crucial distinction between the modern conservative view—that government is best when it governs least—and the pre-Revolutionary belief that government should be held accountable for “its obligations to execute laws that protected lesser people from the excessive ambitions of the great or would-be-great.” During the Revolutionary War, scarcity and the establishment of a paper currency caused a severe inflation and price gouging, which was countered by “a mobilization on an unprecedented scale.” Committees frequently met at county courthouses to establish fair prices and provide supplies to the needy. While our notions of individual freedom have broadened and deepened since then, writes Smith, “Americans have lost…awareness of the breadth of the Revolutionaries’ eighteenth-century project, which asserted public power to counteract the coercions of the market."
A well-conceived challenge to the claim to historic legitimacy of today’s Tea Party demonstrators.