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Tea Partying: Not a New Thing  

By Frank Gruber

March 15, 2010 -- What do you write about when your beat is local and your locality makes the national news because a restaurant serves whale? (See story -- Restaurant Owner,Chef Charged of March 11, 2010)

I don't have much to say about The Hump. We ate there once and my wife reminds me that the couple next to us at the sushi bar were served lobster with antennae that were still moving.

Throw the book at 'em, I say, for violating the law by serving an endangered species. But let's not get moralistic. If the species in question were not endangered, what would be the difference between hunting whales and hunting deer? In our culture, regardless what the animal rights people say, hunting (or, for that matter, eating meat) is not immoral.

It's likely, however, that the outrage about the whale meat will lead to The Hump and its parent restaurant, Typhoon, losing their lease from the City of Santa Monica. Like many locals, I often eat at Typhoon, and for years it's been the best thing at the airport for anyone who doesn't fly or play soccer. It will be a shame to lose it.

* * *

Friends know that I am from Philadelphia, and one of them recently gave me a book called The Peoples of Philadelphia, a collection of essays published in 1973 about the history of the working class in Philadelphia from 1790 to 1940. (The editors were two professors at Temple University, Allen F. Davis and Mark H. Haller.)

I've been reading the book, and I couldn't help but notice the relevance of what I'm reading to today's politics -- specifically to the fierce battles between the radical right-wing populism of the Tea Party movement and the progressives the country gave power to in the elections of 2006 and 2008.

The antecedents of the Tea Partiers go way back. In an essay in the book about urbanization and violence, historian Michael Feldberg, writing about Philadelphia in the 1830s and '40s, described the politics of the craftsmen and artisans who then, before the introduction of large factories, made Philadelphia the largest manufacturing center in America.

Most of these artisans, as Feldberg describes them, were "native-born Protestants who traced their American lineage to the Colonial period." They identified their enemies as both the emerging large corporate enterprises that were building the railroads and the factories and mills that were putting them out of business with lower cost manufactures, and immigrants, mostly Irish Catholics, who, they feared, were taking their jobs.

Politicians flattered them as "real Americans": "On the Fourth of July, orators praised the craftsmen as the city's backbone, and on election day middle-class candidates vied for the title 'workingman's friend.'"

Sound familiar?

Or how about this: according to Feldberg, "[t]he native artisans gave philosophical legitimacy to their violent defense of social values or economic interest by propounding their own version of American political and social theory. The artisan claimed equality and individual rights as the result of American victory in the War for Independence."

Today, thankfully, so far Tea Partiers who have brought weapons to political events haven't used them, but violence in the 1830s and '40s was common. There were frequent riots in Philadelphia over everything from immigration to the routing of a railroad. As Feldberg put it: "Violence fit neatly into the artisans' version of their Revolutionary heritage. In the Jacksonian era, the Philadelphia artisan still clung to his 'right of resistance' to governmental abuse or unjust market relationships, and he understood the notion of 'popular sovereignty' to mean that the rights of minorities had to be subservient to the will of the majority."

Back then, just as now, anyone with a loud enough voice believed that his opinion was that of the majority.


Everything, then or now, gets worse in times of economic hardship. In another fascinating essay in the book, about, believe it or not, how volunteer fire companies battled each other in Philadelphia in the 1840s, historian Bruce Laurie wrote that although in the 1830s trade unions and the Democratic Party included both native- and foreign-born workers, this changed with the depression of 1837.

With bad times, the trade unions collapsed, and "[u]nable to combat drastic wage reductions imposed by their employers, native-born workers found scapegoats in immigrants, charging that they undermined the earnings of Americans by working for pittance."

However, in another reminder of today's politics, the political conflicts weren't only about money - there was a culture war, too.

The issues then were not abortion and gay rights, but the suspicions were perhaps even deeper: they involved the bitter animosity between Protestants and Catholics. The focal points of this conflict were the temperance movement and what translation of the Bible would be read in public schools.

In Laurie's words, "Protestants in need of moral uplift flocked to temperance societies following 1837. Total abstinence had unique appeal among native-born artisans, who either formed temperance-beneficial societies or organized temperance clubs along craft lines. By rallying to temperance and then to prohibition American Protestants implicitly attacked Catholics, who were so easily identified with the liquor interests."

Today it's hard to fathom, but Protestants and Catholics fought over their Bibles. The Protestants' King James translation was used in the public schools, and in 1842 local school directors fired a Catholic teacher for refusing to read from it. Philadelphia's Catholic bishop protested, requesting permission for Catholic children to have separate religious services using the Catholic version.

I put this forward as a timely reminder of why the Founders were wise to separate church and state.

As Laurie writes, "[b]y resisting temperance and rejecting the eternal truths contained in the King James Bible, Catholics lent credence to the claims of [nativists] that they were at best unfit for the responsibilities of democratic government and were at worst plotting to overthrow it. [Nativists] demanded, therefore, that immigrants not be permitted to vote until they had been in the United States for twenty-one years and that they be barred from holding public office."

A timely reminder that Tom Tancredo and Lou Dobbs aren't that original.

In the essay, Laurie chronicled how various ethnic and political groups formed volunteer fire companies in the neighborhoods of Philadelphia, and how these firemen seemed to spend more time brawling with each other than fighting fires: "Fighting was a time-honored tradition among firemen. Most of the disputes flowed from functional differences. Hose companies fought for water plugs nearest a fire, and engine companies then did battle for prime hose locations. Being first to a fire engendered a great deal of pride, but the honor of extinguishing it was often achieved by fighting off later arrivals. Getting to a fire involved battling enthusiastic rivals who cut tow ropes and jammed carriage spokes with spanners to win the race."

So maybe things have got better since the good old days.

Event Notice:
I'd like to give a plug to the next "Tree-Hugging Day" -- the pro-environmental event created by local activists Jerry and Marissa Rubin. The next iteration of tree-hugging will take place on Saturday, at noon, to celebrate the Spring Equinox. The location is Palisades Park at Colorado Avenue.

Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on

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