Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Brief History of Tea Parties & Taxes

I like to read good blogs as much as I like to write my own. This morning I ran across a post by a user named "Science Teacher By Trade" about the proper understanding of the establishment of federal taxes in the United States by George Washington (The Whiskey Rebellion) following the Revolutionary War. This is a very good recap of that moment in history.

History often has a way of becoming mere folklore over years until the truth of what actually happened is twisted beyond recognition many times. That effect is what creates the space for allegations of "revisionist history" particularly when an accurate recounting of history runs counter to how the folklore has evolved. Consider this phenomenon a quirk of evolutionary psychology in the modern paradigm

Anyway, some truth about the founders and taxes:
The first assumption to dispel is that our "Founding Fathers" were resolutely opposed to taxes, and that the Boston Tea Party was due to this opposition. This is true to a limited extent. Following the Glorious Revolution, parliament established a declaration or Bill of Rights. Among these rights was that reserving the ability to Tax for parliament alone. Since parliament was an elective and representative body, this implied that legitimate taxation was restricted to citizens with representation. This wouldn’t become an issue in the Americas for several decades. Following the French and Indian War, Britain was left with a standing army, something it had not really dealt with before. Because of a sense that it was necessary to continue to protect the colonies, as well as the benefits of maintaining an army to restrain French aggression, it was decided to maintain a large force in the Colonies.

This meant that funds had to be found to not only pay for the extremely expensive war that had just been fought, but also to pay for the standing army in the Colonies. Naturally, parliament decided that it only made sense to use taxation to pay for this, and it seemed to follow that since the colonies were benefiting from having an Army for their defense, as well as a war fought partially for their benefit, that they should pay for a large share of the expenses.

This presumption had two problems: first, it assumed that the colonists would perceive the troops as guarantors of security, rather than occupiers. Second, it violated the idea that taxes were linked to representation. In response, mutterings of anger began in the colonies. To be fair, much of the anger was simply due to the fact that taxes were going up to pay for troops that most people did not feel were necessary, especially since the colonies had voluntarily raised their own internal taxes for the war, and had never been fully reimbursed. As resentment strengthened, however, the colonists began to examine their conceptions of natural laws and rights. Ultimately they would realize that fundamentally, the new taxes violated their rights because they had no representation in parliament.

There would be ongoing protests in the future, many which would echo the mob violence of the Boston Tea Party. Curiously, due to a variety of factors, the Boston Tea Party would have no hint of simple anger at increased prices due to taxes. At this point in time, the East India Company had long been competing with Dutch smugglers for the tea imports market in the colonies. Recent acts of parliament had actually made it possible for the East India Company to import tea into the colonies for less than the smugglers were charging. Unhappily, there was a tax attached to these imports that the colonists refused to pay, even though the overall price was less. Due to opposition to the right to impose this tax, the colonists either forced the authorized resellers of tea to resign, or forced the ships importing the tea to return to England without offloading their cargo.

Finally, in Boston the Governor refused to let the ships bearing tea leave until they had paid the tax on the tea they carried. Since this would have forced the company to take a loss (paying the duty without selling the tea,) the ship captains refused to leave, although hostile colonists would not permit their cargo to be unloaded and sold. After a rowdy meeting led by Sam Adams, a large group of men raided the ships and dumped the tea overboard, declaring they would destroy the goods before they paid a tax on them.

Since price was not the issue, clearly the Boston Tea Party was not about paying extra money: it was almost exclusively about taxation without representation, combined with a dose of drunken mob violence. It still became a symbol of valiant resistance to tyranny, especially in American folklore, and would otherwise lose much of its meaning in terms of the specific grievances of the participants.

If more proof is needed that the founding fathers did not oppose taxation per se, but instead just taxation without representation, we can look at our most famous leader of the period: George Washington. In 1794, while Washington was president, an outraged group rebelled against what they perceived as an unfair tax on whiskey (meant to pay down debts from the Revolutionary War.) In response, Washington ordered the rebels appear in federal court, and summoned an army of militia of more than 12,000 men to suppress the rebellion. Whups! By today’s standards, conservatives would apparently be calling old Washington a fascist/socialist enemy of the United States. (Just for the record, Abe Lincoln also presided over tax increases. In fact, the first income tax was progressive and enacted during his administration. Such socialists, our best loved presidents!)

So much for the founding fathers being anti-tax. ...