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The Tea Party, Patriotism and the American Protest Tradition

When William Barbee, a sixty-year-old electrical contractor from South Carolina attended a Tea Party rally in September 2010, he wore a frilly collar, burgundy breeches and an overcoat, along with stockings, garters and silver-buckled shoes.  The entire outfit, which was topped off with a tricorner hat, cost him $400.  According to the Wall Street Journal, retailers across America reported a run on all manner of colonial-era dress during 2010—there was even a modest comeback for the powdered wig (albeit synthetic versions).  And while Barbee’s choice of costume might seem eccentric attire for a twenty-first century political demonstration, it was really just a particularly colorful example of a well-established tradition.  Although they have not always displayed the same fondness for tricorner hats, Americans involved in numerous causes from across the political spectrum have invoked the founding fathers, cited the Declaration of Independence, and laid claim to America’s creed of liberty, freedom and equality.  In short, patriotism has been at the heart of the modern American protest tradition.

The civil rights movement made extensive use of patriotic protest.  In testimony before the 1960 Democratic Party national convention in Los Angeles, for example, Marion Barry—chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—urged America to live up to the ideals of its founders, and claimed that civil rights activists were revitalizing “the great American dream of ‘liberty and justice for all.’”  Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “I have a dream” speech of August 1963, famously explained that his vision of a nation free from racial discrimination and bigotry was “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream” and that supporters of black rights were simply calling on America to “...rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed:  We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”

While often associated with anti-Americanism, the New Left and anti-Vietnam War movements also embraced patriotism.  In organizing the Assembly of Unrepresented Peoples in August 1965—an ambitious attempt to bring together civil rights, antiwar, and antipoverty activists—Students for a Democratic Society’s Tom Hayden and historian Staughton Lynd drew inspiration from the Continental Congress.  In November 1965, during a keynote speech at an antiwar rally in Washington, SDS president Carl Oglebsy declared that those opposed to the war in Vietnam were motivated by “the vision that wise and brave men saw in the time of our own Revolution.”  Six years later members of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War retraced Paul Revere’s famous route in reverse in order to “spread the alarm” against the war in Southeast Asia.  After camping overnight at Lexington and Concord, and Bunker Hill, the protest ended with a reading of the Declaration of Independence on Boston Common. 

Activists in the gay rights and women’s rights movements have also relied heavily on patriotism when pushing their claims for equality.  From 1965-1969, for instance, protesters gathered outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia every July 4 for an “annual reminder” that gay Americans were denied the freedoms promised in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  In the mid-1970s, as part of its campaign to repeal New York State’s anti-sodomy law, the Gay Activists Alliance argued that “sexual freedom” was fundamental to a person’s “right to pursue happiness,” and on July 4, 1976—America’s two hundredth birthday—a contingent of gay rights activists marched along Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, dressed as the founding fathers, as part of the day’s gay pride parade.  Perhaps the most powerful invocation of Americanism by the gay rights movement came two years later.  In a speech delivered to 200,000 supporters in San Francisco, Harvey Milk explained that “On the Statue of Liberty it says:  ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’” in the “Declaration of Independence it is written:  ‘All men are created equal and they are endowed with certain inalienable rights,’” and “in our National Anthem it says:  ‘Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free.’”  Milk continued, “For…all the bigots out there:  That’s what America is.  No matter how hard you try, you cannot erase those words from the Declaration of Independence.  No matter how hard you try, you cannot chip those words from off the base of the Statue of Liberty.  And no matter how hard you try you cannot sing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ without those words.”  The contemporary struggle for gay marriage has continued the tradition of patriotic protest—epitomized in the image used by Marriage Equality USA of the Statue of Liberty holding aloft a bouquet of flowers.  Feminists have also appealed to Americanism.  On August 10, 1970, for instance, a coalition of women’s groups occupied the Statue of Liberty, with National Organization for Women activist Cindy Cisler explaining that “it is ironic that a woman symbolizes the abstract idea of liberty, but in reality we are not free.”  During a public debate in Memphis about the possibility of Tennessee repealing its ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, members of the local NOW chapter protested with placards that stated “1776 Was for Women Too.”  And at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, delegates gathered under the official slogan “To form a more perfect Union” (taken from the preamble to the Constitution), sang the national anthem, and laid claim to America’s founding values.  The spirit of patriotism was captured in a banner carried by activists from Wisconsin:  “Women’s Rights: As American as Apple Pie.”

As the Tea Party movement demonstrates, patriotic protest has also been important for conservatives.  During the 1970s, appeals to Americanism featured heavily in the opposition to the use of busing to achieve school desegregation.  In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, at a massive antibusing rally on September 8, 1970, the 10,000-strong crowd was told that it was their “patriotic duty” to keep their children out of school rather than comply with the city’s busing plan.  The rally ended with Jane Scott, a local activist and mother, dressed in red, white and blue, leading the crowd in a “rousing version of ‘God Bless America.’”  In Pontiac, Michigan, housewife and antibusing leader Irene McCabe marched all the way to Capitol Hill—claiming that she and her fellow activists sought to “retain freedom, just like George Washington.”  In Boston, housewives took to the streets, often wearing tricorner hats or with tea bags in their hair-dos, and waved American flags, recited the pledge of allegiance, and sang patriotic songs as they claimed to be fighting for the same “freedoms” as their Revolutionary forebears in opposing “forced busing.”

Opponents of abortion have also deployed patriotic protest.  In her 1976 campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Ellen McCormack asked, “Who would have imagined that our country would abandon so quickly the key principle of our Declaration of Independence…the inalienable right to life?”  Writing for the American Life League a decade later, New Hampshire’s Senator Gordon J. Humphrey, a leading opponent of abortion, explained that it was “horrifying to realize that a nation committed to life, liberty and justice allows the legal wholesale slaughter of its most precious resource—children.”  Meanwhile opponents of abortion who, every January since 1974, have gathered in Washington, D.C., to protest Roev.Wade have cited the Declaration of Independence’s “unalienable” “right to life,” sung patriotic songs, and waved the flag.

April 15, 2009—Tax Day—saw numerous Tea Party demonstrations across the United States amid opposition to Barack Obama’s economic stimulus bill.  Protesters in Washington’s Lafayette Park sang the national anthem, carried signs that stated “America: Of the People, By the People, For the People,” and—in a reference to the Boston Tea Party of 1773—wore tea bags “hanging from umbrellas or eyeglasses.”  In Boston itself, several hundred gathered on the Common, some wearing colonial-era costume.  Meanwhile in a separate action across town gay rights activists—some sporting tricorner hats and colonial dress— “threw boxes of tea, labeled…‘Tax Forms’” into Boston Harbor and chanted “Equal taxes, equal rights” to protest the fact that, despite same-sex marriage being legal in Massachusetts, married same-sex couples were unable to file joint federal tax returns.  It was all quintessentially American.

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