Colonists didn’t oppose merely being taxedPublished 9:14am Tuesday, August 2, 2011
Column: Pothole Prairie
There has been a lot of talk in recent years about why America declared independence and what we fought the British over. And, to my ears, it has been somewhat of an elementary characterization of history.
For starters, you can’t get into a political conversation these days without someone bringing up that colonists supposedly fought for independence because we didn’t want taxes. Sometimes people argue that the colonists didn’t want laws, either. Bare-bones analogies are made to the Boston Tea Party of 1773 and the general sentiments of the colonists at the time.
Such claims are false.
People who read historical non-fiction literature and, as adults, like to digest more than the few paragraphs everyone learned as children in school indeed know that participants in the Boston Tea Party didn’t protest being taxed. They protested taxation without representation.
Parliament had passed the Tea Act on British America, and the colonists had no say in the measure whatsoever. See, the British needed tax revenue to pay war debts, and Tea Act gave the East India Company a monopoly on tea in the colonies and with an extremely low price. Even with the tax, the price was often lower than smuggled tea.
Meanwhile, the colonists had been pushing the issue of rights they felt they had as British subjects. One such right was representation in the government that taxed them. If they had a say in how their taxes were being spent or in how the taxes were levied or, yes, whether the taxes were too much at times, they felt they could improve the status of the American colonies.
Another aspect was the economy. The Tea Act’s deference to the East India Company being able to sell at such low prices was going to put colonial companies out of business. Plus, if the tax on tea stood, then they feared British taxes on other products.
Finally, let’s not forget that Boston Tea Party organizers John Hancock and Samuel Adams were tea smugglers and were about to have their income curtailed. They used the “taxation without representation” issue to whip up public opposition to the Tea Act and ultimately get about 50 men to dress up as Mohawk Indians and raid the Dartmouth, Beaver and Eleanor in Boston Harbor. They split open 342 chests of tea and dumped them in the harbor.
The Boston Tea Party became significant mainly for what happened next. The crime polarized opinion in the colonies. Many patriots saw the damage as necessary, in light of the circumstances, for sending a message to the crown. Loyalists saw it as destruction of private property. Parliament and King George III, in reaction, only took sterner actions in 1774. These measures, called the Intolerable Acts by colonists, resulted in moderates becoming sympathetic of the patriotic cause of independence, which before had been seen as a radical notion.
The Declaration of Independence backs up the notion that the issue wasn’t about high tax but about taxation without representation. It gives a list of “abuses and usurpations.” Most of it describes how King George and Parliament had failed to follow the laws, failed to pass laws, closed off public records, obstructed justice, acted on whims, cut off trade and such.
The first item says: “He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”
Americans wanted law and order. We still are a nation of laws.
It is not until the 17th item that taxes are brought up — clearly not at the top of grievances. It says: “For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.”
See, the signers of the Declaration of Independence weren’t opposed to taxes. They wanted popular rule. It’s as simple as that.
Strange claims are tossed out about the U.S. Constitution, too. The most repeated of these is that the Constitution was framed to weaken the federal government. But even elementary textbooks say the Constitution was created in an effort to strengthen the federal government because it was too weak under the Articles of Confederation.
The preamble alone clearly indicates that this was a goal of the framers: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The fact is, the new country couldn’t manage its war debt under the Articles of Confederation, and that was harming the economy. The Constitutional Convention was convened with the purpose of creating a means to address the debt. There was not so much the intention to ever pay it off as to create a steady revenue flow for bond purchasers because it was deemed good for the young economy.
This is why Congress has broad powers of taxation and incurring debt.
Have you ever heard of the Whiskey Rebellion?
The federal government imposed a tax on whiskey in 1791, and it was accepted in most places. Farmers in western Pennsylvania, however, didn’t like it. (Remember, back then western Pennsylvania was the lawless frontier.) The tax had essentially removed any profit from sales by the small-time whiskey producers, and the issue became a lightning rod for other grievances. The farmers began attacking towns and tax collectors.
After a federal marshal was attacked in 1794, President George Washington, showing his belief in the need for a strong federal authority, sent a militia of 13,000 men to quell the rebellion and ordered the farmers back to their homes. About 20 rebels were brought to Philadelphia for trial.
While the Whiskey Rebellion demonstrated federal authority over domestic matters — namely by bringing troops from various states and using them in another — the issues of taxes and federal authority raised by the rebellion did speed up the creation of political parties. Ultimately, the whiskey tax was repealed under Thomas Jefferson.
Following today’s political scene, I sometimes wonder if the modern-day Tea Party ought to associate itself more with the Whiskey Rebellion. If the issue is not wanting taxes, that is the historical event with the right context, not the Boston Tea Party. I suppose another name just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every other Tuesday.