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Advice From the Original Tea Partiers

Four tactics that should be of use to the descendants of Paul Revere, and not only on Tax Day.

By 4.15.10

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In 1773 our forebears expressed their disapproval over Parliament's taxes by dumping several hundred crates of tea into Boston Harbor instead of paying the duties attached to the import. The more things change.…

Modern-day tea partiers are in good company, but they can do more than pick up their protests from our ancestors. They can also peel a few pages from their playbook. While researching the life of Boston patriot Paul Revere, I came across four tactics that may serve his descendants.

1. Keep it principled. An objection to a policy should transcend the immediate annoyances and problems of its content, passage, and implementation and touch at something more fundamental. The devil might sometimes dwell in the details, but people get lost in details. Beelzebub can be just as threatening in the broad strokes -- not to mention more easily recognizable by a greater number of people.

As the colonists saw it, without particular representation in Parliament any tax measure coming from London was unjust. Had the colonists obsessed on the details of the Stamp Act or the Townshend Acts rather than constantly returning to the chorus of no taxation without representation (the most basic issue at stake) they would have found it impossible to rally.

This is more crucial today than in yesteryear. As weedy as legislation in the days of King George III might have been, bills are far more tangled today. If contemporary tea partiers harp on minutia, they will get bogged in it. Keeping it principled prevents this problem as well as aids with Tactic Two.

2. Keep it simple. Samuel Adams and James Otis could plumb the philosophical depths of the quarrel between Britain and America, but the original tea partiers were also good at ensuring the average Joe knew his way around the conflict. A great example of this is a 1782 letter that Paul Revere wrote to his British cousin, who accused the Americans of unjust rebellion.

The English "covenanted with the first settlers of this country, that we should enjoy 'all the Libertys of free natural born subjects of Great Britain,'" Revere explained. "They were not contented to have all the benefit of our trade, in short to have all our earnings, but they wanted to make us hewers of wood, & drawers of water," an allusion to the book of Joshua and enslavement. "Their Parliament have declared 'that they have a right to tax us & Legislate for us, in all cases whatsoever' -- now certainly if they have a right to take one shilling from us without our consent, they have a right to all we possess; for it is the birthright of an Englishman, not to be taxed without the consent of himself, or Representative." Revere was a pretty blue-collar guy, but he knew the basic argument as well as any gentleman with a frilly cravat.

Simplicity is crucial. It allows for ease of communication, clarity, and focused response. The more complex the message, the easier it is to get off message. And staying on message is vital for Tactic Three.

3. Keep it up. "Put your enemy in the wrong, and keep him so," said Sam Adams in a 1775 letter to Jonathan Augustine Washington. Adams, Revere, and others were masters of the tactic. Throughout the struggle with Britain, when crown authorities or troops flubbed something or reached too far, the patriots were quick to highlight it, whether in one of Adams's incendiary newspaper articles or Paul Revere's finger-pointing political cartoons. That both validated the cause of the patriots and put the imperial government in the hot seat.

A grievance is like a garden. It requires cultivation. When political anger goes to seed it becomes apathy. No movement can work long-term if its members slide there. Only by keeping the opposition on the defensive can you mount an effective offense. And offense requires coordination, hence Tactic Four.

4. Keep connected. Boston's political culture was dominated by clubs, caucuses, town meetings, and the like. They were the nerve centers. Aside from serving as an express rider for the Massachusetts committee of correspondence (a key role), Revere was also a member of several different political and social groups and served as a link between many others, including the Freemasons.

A historian recently compared the role of the Freemasons in the colonies to Facebook -- a pre-electronic social medium. The comparison works and its application is important. The original tea partiers were able to accomplish what they did in no small measure because they were able to stay on top of the British and keep their own members in the know and on the same page.

The measure of modern tea party success will depend on the same things. 

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About the Author

Joel J. Miller is the author of The Revolutionary Paul Revere and vice president of editorial and acquisitions for the Thomas Nelson nonfiction group. Contact him at JoelJMiller.com.