Revolutionary War Myth #2: Americans didn’t want to pay taxes

Second in our series “Five Myths about the Revolutionary War” , concerning taxes.

Ask the average American what their colonial forebears thought about paying taxes and she will answer that they didn’t want to—wouldn’t do it, in fact, and went to war over it. But this is not so.

Americans in the Revolutionary period were not against paying taxes to Britain. Again, they were British citizens, thought of themselves as such, and had no problem with paying taxes like any other Britons to support the empire.  The problem was that Americans began to suspect that they were being asked to pay for the French and Indian War (1756-63) all on their own.

In truth, Americans paid far less tax than people living in England. Taxes in England in the mid-18th century were very high. America was taxed less for a few reasons: for many beginning decades in the 1600s the colonies were not able to produce enough to be taxed very much; England was afraid to tamper with the fledgling colonial economies; it was easier and faster to collect taxes in England, where the money could be in London with days rather than weeks or months; and finally most Americans had very little actual cash, relying on bills of credit issued from London.

America also cost England very little until the French and Indian War. While England fought France and Holland in Europe, defending the home island was the main objective, and the people living on it paid the government’s expenses to do so.

But when the war with France came in full force to America in 1756, Britain had to expend a great deal of money and effort to fight and win the war there. Yes, Americans were vital to that war effort, and many volunteered to fight the hated French, but in fact most colonial governments actually charged the British army for their help. British soldiers bought food and supplies at incredibly inflated prices, paid for their board, and fought beside American militia members whose colonial governments hired them out to fight, making a pretty penny for those colonies.

Once the war was over and won for Britain, Americans assumed things would return to normal. But Britain, realizing that its citizens in England were exhausted financially, while its citizens in America had actually made money on top of their usual robust economy, turned at last to those colonies to pay for their war.

The British government might have done it, too, successfully and without any problem, if it hadn’t been impatient. Rather than introduce higher export duties on American merchants and farmers, or some other more gradual measure, it came down hard with sweeping taxes that invaded every aspect of life—taxes on stamps, sugar, and tea that made life harder for all Americans.

Even these taxes might have been accepted, if Parliament had given the Americans some say in the matter. Americans had begun to expect that they should have seats in Parliament.  As British citizens, they should be able to participate in their own government. Perhaps every colony could send two representatives to Parliament, so that Americans could actually make the laws that would affect them. But the British government refused. Despite American claims to the rights of Englishmen, there was no denying that almost from the start of the colonial era there had been a clear divide between America and England, and a sense of alienation on both sides. (see Why did America Rebel against Britain? for more.)

So London did not really accept Americans as Britons, or America as just another branch of England. America was a colony, a possession, a piece of property, and its people were not British citizens but dependents on Britain. There could be no seat in Parliament for a foreign people under British rule.

When the Americans realized they would not be given a say in their own government, including what taxes were levied on them, their willingness to help pay for the French and Indian War evaporated and a rallying cry was born: “No taxation without representation.”

Americans, then, did not rebel against taxes, but against unfair government. Those Americans today who see protesting against all taxation as upholding the Revolutionary spirit and purpose are completely mistaken. Americans realized then as they do now that a government must tax its people. You pay taxes to get services. But it’s only fair to pay taxes if you have a say in them through your government representatives. If the Americans had been given their seats in Parliament, their representatives would have voted for most of the taxes and that would have been the end of it, rather than the beginning of a war.

Next time: The Revolution happened quickly

Truth v. Myth: 5 Myths about the American Revolutionary War

Our 100th post is, fittingly, a Truth v. Myth bonanza.

I was sitting through a slideshow about the Revolution designed for third-graders last week and thinking about the legends we all know by name—Washington crossing the Delaware, Valley Forge, Yorktown—but don’t really understand. Me being me, I was inevitably led to think of five quick myths about the Revolution. There are plenty more, I’m sure, and these aren’t even necessarily the most important ones, but you have to start somewhere. So today we address the first:

Myth 1: Americans were on board with the Revolution.

The majority of Americans did not see any need to separate from Great Britain. While they might not have considered it “home” anymore, they did take a good deal of their identity from being English citizens. As part of the British empire and commonwealth, Americans took pride in Britain’s power and its traditions, and saw no reason why America was not like all of the other British colonies—founded by Englishmen, fully entitled to the rights of Englishmen, quite similar in culture to England, and basically just Englishmen separated by an ocean from other Englishmen.

This is not to say that relations with England, and then Britain, had not always and almost continually been rocky. (See Why did America rebel against Britain? for details.) But picture it this way: states fight with the federal government, and many western states are continually at odds with the federal government about water rights, public park land, gun rights, illegal immigration, and endangered species. But the vast majority of citizens in those states would never get to the point where they felt they were not American, and wanted to secede. Even if they did secede, they would do so in the name of “real” Americanness, which they would feel they were protecting. When states oppose federal policies, they almost always see themselves as upholding true American values or principles.

So with the American colonies. Fight as they would with Britain, they never thought they were less English for disagreeing with London. In fact, as usual, most Americans felt they were often lone protectors of English rights and customs. They were more English than the people back in England, who were losing their way.

Thus, when war began in Massachusetts in April 1775, rebel leaders in Boston were isolated in their insistence that America break with Britain. What could the benefits possibly be? America, even if it won the fight, would be forever cut off from British wealth, prestige, power, and trade. And that wasn’t just “British” wealth, etc., but their own; they were British citizens. Revolution was civil war, and even as victors Americans would be family-killers.

Most Americans thought the answer to the real conflicts with Britain was to get American representatives into Parliament. If Americans could represent themselves as English citizens in their Parliament in London, things would even out.

And so the majority of Americans resisted and continued to resist rebellion and revolution, even as the war progressed. Many Americans who supported the war still hoped that once it was won, Britain would have learned a lesson and relations could be restored. Many Americans remained Loyalists. But the bulk of Americans were really neutral. They supported their colony’s militia, as ever more loyal to their locality than their new nation, and wanted to preserve their own colony’s rights and privileges. When battle came to a colony, the natives fought hard. When it left, they sat back to let the colony now under attack defend itself. Whatever the outcome of the war, most Americans were chiefly concerned with getting their colony the best possible deal—whether as victors dealing with a new federal govermnment, or as losers dealing with Britain.

It would not be until the 19th century that pride in creating a new nation and “overthrowing a tyrant” (rather than severing a family tie) would take over as the common feeling in America. Ironically, it was really after George Washington’s death that the new nation looked back with admiration and pride on its accomplishment. From 1775 to 1783, however, Englishmen in America were decidedly cool toward their great revolution.

Next: did America go to war over taxes?

Should Americans torture?

Time for a civics lesson.

The reaction to finding out that Americans tortured prisoners of war at the Guantanamo prison and in Iraq, and seem to still be using torture now in the Middle East has been a debate over whether torture produces valuable information. That is, do the ends justify the means? Is it worth our while to torture prisoners?

(I have to take a moment here to say torture. Not enhanced or harsh interrogation. We’re talking about the same torture techniques used by the Nazis. Torture.)

This is unfortunate and un-American. The question is not whether torture works. The question is, do the founding principles of the United States support torture? And the answer to that question is no.

Torturing people—prisoners, criminals, anyone—is unconstitutional. It is a violation of the human, civil, and natural rights this nation was founded to preserve. The U.S. has never condoned torture, including during wartime. One of the things that set us apart from the fascists we fought in World War II was our refusal to torture. We upheld the law even in very difficult circumstances. There was no torture of Nazi prisoners by American guards at Nuremberg.

Recognizing the especial temptation to torture enemies captured during war, the U.S. signed on to the 1949 Geneva Convention outlawing the torture of POWs.

One of the principles we are supposedly fighting for in the “war on terror” is the need to uphold human and civil rights. We cannot do that if we violate those rights.

So the end does not ever justify the means when it comes to torture. The “they did it first so we get to” argument often employed to support torture is hardly convincing. As Americans, we are dedicated to the principle of not sinking to the level of terrorists and war criminals. We have passed laws to prevent police officers from torturing confessions out of suspects. It is illegal to torture American prisoners in jail. We have agreed, at Geneva, to laws preventing torture of POWs.

Dressing torture up as “harsh interrogation” or “enhanced” interrogation makes it easier for Americans to condone “some” torture “sometimes.” But we cannot afford, as Americans, with our history, to use Nazi torture techniques—on anyone. Philip Zelikow, of the U.S. State Department, testified to a Congressional subcommittee on May 13, 2009, on torture by Americans and said this:

“The U.S. government, over the past seven years, adopted an unprecedented program in American history of coolly calculated, dehumanizing abuse and physical torment to extract information. This was a mistake, perhaps a disastrous one.”

Coldly calculating torturers—is that how we think of ourselves as Americans? under any circumstances? No. We have not in our history ever officially condoned torture under any circumstances, including war. The only Confederate official put to death after our Civil War was the commandant of the Andersonville prison camp—for torture. It is not a part of our history, nor does it suddenly need to become so. Any goal that can only be achieved through torturing people is not a goal worthy of the United States.

What caused the Revolutionary War?

I’ve been thinking about this question outside the context of New England, looking at the whole of the 13 American colonies (and even the British Caribbean) to figure out what led to revolution in the 18th century.

It’s easy to see how the Puritan New England colonies almost instantly developed a sense of their own nationhood, separate from England. Their religion and civil society were radically different from the ones in place in England. But what about the royal colonies of the Chesapeake, the Middle Colonies, and the South? What spurred them on when their religion was Church of England and their politics were, for the most part, in line with English demands?

I think it must come down to the important coincidence of the English Civil War breaking out just as most of the American colonies got started. Just 35 years after the founding of Virginia, the first North American colony, the English government devolved into civil war, which had many more immediate and long-term consequences for the colonies than we realize. Royalist and Parliamentary factions each turned to the colonies for support, trying to win the loyalty—and trade—of transplanted English people. Then, as Parliament consolidated its victory, it felt it had to build up a massive navy to protect its colonies from takeover by other nations looking to take advantage of the fledgling and conflicted English government. The massive navy led to many developments: increased English governmental meddling with/control over American trade, particularly in the Caribbean; war with the Dutch, which impacted not only trade (Holland being the largest trade partner of most colonies) but the Middle Colonies settled near Dutch holdings; and the new threat that colonies which did not hew to the political and religious dictates sent out from London would be blockaded and invaded by the English navy.

New England, supposed by the Puritan Parliament to be a natural ally, was exempted from the close scrutiny and interference with trade that the other royalist colonies experienced. But New England was cruelly disappointed by the new government, which came to support a religious toleration that was anathema to the American Puritans. New England offered no support to the new government, and its sense of being separate and even at odds with England itself grew even stronger.

Inside the colonies, there was conflict between groups supporting Parliament and those supporting the king. Even worse, men who had no real loyalty to either side used the opportunity to cause trouble. In Maryland, supposed devotion to the Puritan Parliament was the cover for ruining the religiously tolerant society created there by Catholics and Protestants, as Catholics were driven out.

By the time the Stuart line was restored in 1660, the American colonies had experienced almost 20 years of conflict with England. Moreover, those who had been born in England and gone to America felt that the country they had left behind, the king to which they pledged allegiance, the religion they had grown up in, were all gone. England was no longer home as it had been before, no longer the place they felt most comfortable, the place they wanted to re-create in the New World. England became a foreign land, run by people they did not know, embracing religions they did not like, and preventing the profitable trade they had come to depend on.

By the time James II imposed the Dominion of New England in 1686, it seemed like only the last in a series of provoking actions by a mostly alien government in London. When William and Mary were enthroned in 1689, the colonies all looked forward to improving relations with England, which in itself is telling: they saw England and its government almost as a foreign nation they had to establish diplomatic relations with. While William and Mary were popular throughout the colonies, the sense of division was impossible to fully overcome. Even while the colonies felt tied to England, and demanded their rights as English people, they felt they were not really part of England. And the English government felt the same way. A tie had been broken between them during the Civil War. The Americans were really the English-descended people of another nation by the mid-18th century, and as such would never be afforded full rights as English people by England.

If England had not gone through Civil War, I think things might have been very different. There would have been no reason for all but the Puritan colonies to feel alienated from England, or to feel that England itself as they knew and accepted it had ceased to exist. It was an unfortunate coincidence for England that its internal war had to happen just as its colonies were launching, severing the ties of home almost the moment they were stretched across the sea.

Continue the story—see how the French and Indian War triggered the Revolution.