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Tea Party or Whiskey Rebellion?
How George Washington Handled Armed Protestors

George WashingtonArmed protestor William Kostric outside presidential town hall in Portsmouth NH

And The Threat They Pose Today

By Robert C. Keating

November, 2009--Over the summer of 2009, protestors with loaded firearms started showing up at town halls on healthcare reform, even at several hosted by the President of the United States. Other protestors carried signs that threatened, "We come unarmed...this time." These self-proclaimed "tea party patriots" claimed to be acting in the spirit of the Boston Tea Party, and quoted Thomas Jefferson: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots."


Many of these Americans weren't just protesting against government reform of healthcare. Many were protesting the government itself, saying that it had grabbed too much control since the election of Obama. (Where were these people during the eight years of George W. Bush?)


Obama was an imposter, many of them said, an "undocumented worker" whose presidency was illegal because supposedly he wasn't born in the United States. His birth certificate and two Honolulu newspaper birth notices were ignored. For that matter, so was the nearly 9,000,000 popular vote majority by which Americans had just elected him President of the United States.


"Tea Party Patriots" May Have the Beverage Wrong


In reality, today's protesters have little in common with the colonists who dumped British tea in Boston harbor in 1773 ostensibly to protest King George's taxation without representation. By arming in protest against a popularly elected U.S. government, they have more in common with the early Americans who launched the Whiskey Rebellion nineteen years later.


Whiskey was the main money crop on the frontier of western Pennsylvania. One in every six farmers there operated a still, and many took up arms to oppose the 7¢/gallon federal tax being levied on their whiskey. In 1794 they brought back an old symbol to signal their outrage and rally support.

The liberty pole, a tall staff flying a red flag as a symbol of dissent, had been used throughout the colonies in the 1770s to protest British rule. Raised in town squares or along roads, liberty poles became a new rallying point for protestors from Bedford to Pittsburgh.

The Whiskey Rebellion was no tea party

The Whiskey Rebellion was no tea party


Concerned at the threat to the republic posed by the angry protestors, President George Washington invoked martial law. He ordered 12,000 troops to confront the rebels, and rode out with a large force from Harrisburg. The march marks one of only two occasions in U.S. history that a sitting president personally commanded an army. (The second was James Madison's command of forces defending Washington during the War of 1812.)


Frederick Kemmelmeyer painting of President George Washington reviewing the Western army at Fort Cumberland October 18, 1794, the day before they arrived in Bedord, Pennsylvania

Frederick Kemmelmeyer painting of President George Washington reviewing the Western army at Fort Cumberland October 18, 1794, the day before they arrived in Bedord, Pennsylvania


While the President paused in Bedford, some militias moved further west to confront settlers around Pittsburgh, where the first shots were fired. The forceful military response quelled the disturbance. In early 1796, 27 Pennsylvanians were fined between four and fifteen shillings for setting up their "seditious" liberty poles. (The federal government continued to have trouble collecting the Whiskey Tax, and finally repealed it in 1803.)¹

Ironically, few were to benefit more from the whiskey tax's repeal than George Washington himself. After his presidency, his distillery made rye whiskey at Mount Vernon, and by 1799 it showed a profit of $7,500 for 11,000 gallons.)


Something Rotten in the State of Dissent

Today's movement, like the Whiskey Rebellion, co-opts anti-British, colonial imagery to make its anti-tax points. But since the shots fired in today's skirmishes have thus far only been rhetorical, the government's response has been alot more relaxed than George Washington's.


However, more than one politician is egging protestors on to take it to the next level. Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) has urged her constituents to be "armed and dangerous" against the global warming bill, and to go to Washington to "see the whites of the eyes" of their Congressmen to fight the healthcare bill. With similar zeal, Senate candidate Sharron Angle (R-NV) told an interviewer, "I feel that the Second Amendment is the right to keep and bear arms for our citizenry....This is for us when our government becomes tyrannical...I'm hoping that we're not getting to Second Amendment remedies. I hope the vote will be the cure for the Harry Reid problems."


Ms. Bachmann and Ms. Angle are lucky that George Washington isn't around today. He'd probably lock them up.


Demonization of a President, 2009Demonization of a President, 2009


On November 5, 2009, Rep. Bachmann held a "Kill the Bill" rally on the Capitol steps, in a failed attempt to defeat healthcare reform. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) said afterward that he saw nothing objectionable about the signs displayed at the rally, which showed the President as an African witch doctor and the Joker, pictures of assault rifles, "HUNTING SEASON FOR RINOS," "GET THE RED OUT OF THE WHITE HOUSE," and a photo of naked corpses under the headline, "NATIONAL SOCIALIST HEALTH CARE: DACHAU GERMANY 1945."


With fat cats taking home million dollar bonuses with taxpayers' bailout money, there's plenty for any rational American to be angry about these days. But many of the self-proclaimed "Tea Baggers" are so angry that they fail to see how blatantly they are being manipulated by the fat cats themselves. They hoist "Kill the Bill" signs provided by the same insurance lobby-linked groups that bus them to the rallies, such as Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks.


Like a strange army that has banded together to defeat itself, today's protestors are fighting against healthcare reform that would, among other things, protect them from being unfairly dropped or left uninsured with a pre-existing medical condition. The law they're opposing could help save their life, yet they choose to demonize it and everyone in favor of it.


Proud Tea BaggerProud Tea Bagger


The Tea Party protestors' role as insurance company pawns was never more obvious than when they carried mass-produced "Bury Obamacare with Kennedy" signs at the September 12, 2009 D.C. rally, mere days after the burial of Senator Ted Kennedy, whose legislative accomplishments had benefited them more than any of the politicians' at their rallies.


Where Can This Ugliness Lead?


The mean scene recalled another Kennedy. When JFK traveled to Dallas in November of 1963, the atmosphere was just as charged. "In that third year of the Kennedy presidency," William Manchester wrote in Death of A President, "a kind of fever lay over Dallas country. Mad things happened. Huge billboards screamed, 'Impeach Earl Warren.' Jewish stores were smeared with crude swastikas...Radical Right polemics were distributed in public schools; Kennedy's name was booed in classrooms; corporate junior executives were required to attend radical seminars."²

A retired major general ran the American flag upside down, deriding it as "the Democrat flag." A wanted poster with JFK's face on it was circulated, announcing "this man is Wanted" for--among other things--"turning the sovereignty of the US over to the Communist controlled United Nations" and appointing "anti-Christians...aliens and known Communists" to federal offices. And a full page advertisement had appeared the day of the assassination in The Dallas Morning News accusing Kennedy of making a secret deal with the Communist Party; when it was shown to the president, he was appalled. He turned to Jackie, who was visibly upset, and said, "Oh, you know, we're heading into nut country today."


Demonization of a President, 1963Demonization of a President, 2009


In researching Death of a President, William Manchester discovered that in a wealthy Dallas suburb, when told that President Kennedy had been murdered in their city, the students in a fourth-grade class burst into applause. Such responses...were encountered throughout Dallas.


Manchester also learned that in 1963 there had been 110 murders in Dallas--"Big D"--in what he described as the city's "dark streak of violence." "Texas led the United States in homicide, and Big D led Texas," he wrote. He would come to believe that Dallas's charged political climate had been a factor in the assassination, helping to further unhinge the already unstable Lee Harvey Oswald.


He also discovered that Kennedy had been warned not to make the trip. "Evangelist Billy Graham had attempted to reach Kennedy...about his own foreboding. The Dallas mood was no secret," he wrote. And Senator William Fulbright (D-AR) had pleaded with Kennedy: "Dallas is a very dangerous place. I wouldn't go there. Don't you go." Manchester learned that the last words Kennedy probably heard were spoken by Nellie Connally, the governor's wife. Delighted by the enthusiastic crowds along the motorcade route, she turned around in her seat and said, "Mr. President, you can't say Dallas doesn't love you." And then the first shot rang out.³

Stop The Insanity


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently warned that today's violent rhetoric reminded her of the charged atmosphere in San Francisco leading up to the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Republican leaders bristled at the reference; one even accused Pelosi of fomenting violence.


But the fact is that to date, not a single Republican leader has strongly called for more civil dialog.* That is ominous in a country where it's easier to buy a gun than a health plan. Are there no grown-ups on the right who might feel a duty to step up and help prevent another tragedy...one that no amount of tea, or whiskey, could help us recover from?

¹ Burton Kummerow, Christine O'Toole & R. Scott Stephenson, Edited by Laura S. Fisher, Pennsylvania's Forbes Trail, Taylor Trade Publishing, 2008

² William Manchester, The Death of a President, Harper and Row, 1967

³ Sam Kashner, "A Clash of Camelots," Vanity Fair, October 2009

* After the November 5 rally, when protestors chanted "Nazi, Nazi" as Republican leaders stood on the Capitol steps, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) said the poster showing naked corpses under the headline, "NATIONAL SOCIALIST HEALTH CARE: DACHAU GERMANY 1945" was "inappropriate," and the Hitler references were "not...very helpful." In August, when Rush Limbaugh said that Hitler and Obama both "ruled by dictate," Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in the House, did not respond publicly to calls from Jewish groups to condemn the remarks. (TalkingPointsMemo.com, November 6, 2009)

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