Why did Americans protest taxation without representation?

Posted on September 19, 2018. Filed under: Colonial America, Politics, Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Welcome to part 2 of our series on Bernard Bailyn’s masterful description of the sea change that American colonists’s ideas about representative government went through in the decades before the Revolutionary War.

(We’re in the middle of a series here; if you’re looking for a stand-alone, quick answer to the question, see Revolutionary War Myth #2: Americans didn’t want to pay taxes.)

We left off last time with Americans living happily with a medieval concept of local representation to colonial legislative bodies: we send our representative with a few, specific, brass-tacks practical requests and the concessions that we authorize him to offer in return for those requests being granted. We want a mill, and we’re willing to help build a local bridge in return.

England, on the other hand, had evolved its political system to include the concept of virtual representation: districts composed of multiple towns and counties, or a populous city borough, elect a representative to the House of Commons who will vote on issues of national importance in a way that he believes best represents his constituents’ views on said issues. This is very abstract. This English rep is not going to Parliament with a piece of paper listing the 1-3 concrete things his town wants to have that he is supposed to ask for. He is not going to Parliament representing a single town. He represents many towns, or, if he represents a city borough, the various inhabitants of that borough. He represents hundreds or (as the 18th century wore on) thousands of people, and he represents their thoughts and feelings about issues, not their physical wants and needs. He can’t leave Parliament once he’s requested the 1-3 things his town want. He sits in on all debates, touching towns he is not part of, and issues that may not immediately impact his constituents. In short, he is a modern representative to a national governing body.

Two other modern conditions applied: first, very few people could vote, so any rep necessarily represented the interests of those who could, and this meant that most people were not truly represented. If someone represented a town, he represented the dozen male landowners who could vote and who chose him. Next, even if someone could vote, there was no obligation on their representative to express that constituent’s individual thoughts, desires, or demands. Think of it this way: does your current Senator or Representative in Congress ensure that all your individual demands are satisfied? Of course not. it’s not possible to do that if you are representing more than one person. A rep has to try to represent the majority, and even that is difficult. If your rep does vote the way you want, English authors of the 1760s would have described that as “accidental and not necessary” representation.

Thus, when England began to claim in the 1760s that it had a right to tax the American colonies because they had virtual representation to Parliament, that made sense to English people.

…the principal English argument put forward in defense of Parliament’s right to pass laws taxing the colonies was that the colonies, like the “nine tenths of the people of Britain” who do not choose representatives to Parliament, were in fact represented there. The power of actually voting for representatives, it was claimed, was an accidental and not a necessary attribute of representation, “for the right of election is annexed to certain species of property, to peculiar franchises, and to inhabitancy in certain places.” In what really counted there was no difference between those who happened to live in England and those in America: “none are actually, all are virtually represented in Parliament…” [p. 166]

This worked in England, Bailyn says, because “the practice of ‘virtual’ representation provided reasonably well for the actual representation of the major interests of the society, and it raised no widespread objection.” [p. 167]  People in the city of Bath, for instance, felt that Parliament did a good job steering the nation, even if Bath itself never came up inside its walls. Bath didn’t have to insert its particular, individual, local needs into national legislation because people in Bath believed that those local needs would be met by general legislation—all towns would benefit from good laws, all would suffer under bad laws. If all towns suffered, the laws would change.

Americans, however, did not have this faith in centralized government. Americans in the 1760s  believed they needed to elect men to represent them in Parliament because they still operated in a direct-representation system where

  1. reps represented their single town,
  2. many people in that town could vote (in many American colonies, all adult males could vote; there was no property-owning restriction),
  3. those people had concrete demands they expected their rep to voice, and
  4. they expected their rep to keep all his business local to their town. He was not at the legislature to conduct colony-wide business.

When Americans were told that men from Birmingham or Leeds or Coventry, London or Bath or Norwich, “virtually” represented them because those men were working for the common good of Britain, which would be the common good of the British colonies, they did not buy it. At all. What did these English men know about life in America, let alone in Massachusetts, let alone in the town of Ipswich? A Norfolk landowner knew nothing about the town of Ipswich’s need for a new bridge. A Norfolk man’s vote on a European trade bill would do nothing to get Ipswich that bridge. Even a Norfolk man’s vote to build more bridges in Britain and her colonies would not guarantee that a bridge was built in Ipswich.

Americans believed in local government because it was immediately accountable for its actions. If your town rep did not do your town’s bidding, he was not re-elected. Any distance from the voters, the constituents, was dangerous. Bailyn records a statement by the American Daniel Dulany in 1765 with which “almost every writer in America agreed, was the extent to which representation worked to protect the interest of the people against the encroachments of government.” This is telling: in America, “government” was  a double-edged sword: necessary, but needing to be tightly controlled lest it free itself from its commitments to specific, local needs and rage out of control.

Next, the problem was that maybe English reps really could provide virtual representation to other English people. But as Bailyn sums up Dulany’s argument,

…”no such intimate and inseparable relation” existed between the electors of Great Britain and the inhabitants of the colonies. The two groups were by no means involved in the same consequences of taxation: “not a single actual elector in England might be immediately affected by a  taxation in American imposed by a statute which would have a general operation and effect upon the properties of the inhabitants of the colonies.”

Once a lack of natural identity of interests between representatives and the populace was conceded, the idea of virtual representation lost any force it might have had; for by such a notion, James Otis wrote, you could “as well prove that the British House of Commons in fact represent all the people of the close as those in America.” [Arthur Lee wrote that’ “our privileges are all virtual, our sufferings are real… We might have flattered ourselves that a virtual obedience would have exactly corresponded with a virtual representation…” [The question was] who, precisely, is the American freeman’s virtual representative in England? [168]

So often we’re told that Americans rebelled in 1775 because they didn’t want to pay taxes. This is so crude and so untrue and so much less interesting than the truth, which is that Americans rebelled in 1775 partly because they believed in actual representative government, despite the impossibility that already existed, at that time, of anyone, even a local town rep, truly representing his local constituents. Even small towns in America had populations in the thousands by 1760. Americans were trying to come to grips with that change on their own, in their own back yards, when suddenly England claimed virtual representation and began taxing them.

This claim would drive American colonists to grapple with, and come up with solutions for, the impossibility of 1:1 local government. But they would have to struggle first—and millions of trees would die to provide the paper needed to argue that struggle out from the 1760s through the 1780s.

Next up: struggling to see politics as more than a job

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Adam Ruins Everything–including his own show; or, the American Revolution was not a sham

Posted on April 2, 2018. Filed under: Colonial America, Historians, Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Ah the perils of myth-busting. Before you revel in exposing myths, you have to be absolutely sure all of your facts are straight. It reminds us of the first rule of editing: don’t introduce mistakes into something you’re trying to correct.

Someone who has fallen afoul of this rule is Adam Conover, of the TruTV show Adam Ruins Everything. We enjoyed season 1 of this show very much; there was a lot of effective myth-busting in many different categories—health, economics, politics, etc. But the new season that began recently was a disaster of myth creation in the guise of myth-busting.

The locus of the show is that everything Conover says is backed up by research. His sources appear briefly onscreen as he speaks. But if the first tool of the myth-maker is to create your own facts out of whole cloth, the second is to cherry-pick, mis-represent, and de/re/mis-contextualize facts in the sources you read. This episode, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth,” did all of those things with its sources.

Before we go through it with a fine-tooth comb, the overall point to make is that history is like science in that you must look at all the data. Cherry-picking is what we call looking for data that only supports your position and ignoring data that does not. History also requires objectivity and open-mindedness: if you begin research with the goal of making someone look good or bad, you are not going to do good research.

“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” is so irritated with the positive myths about the American Revolution, and somehow George Washington in particular, that it goes overboard trying to prove that it and he were awful and that all Americans should be ashamed of both.  Now the show must bear the brunt as The HP Clarifies Everything.

The episode begins with Adam contradicting a pompous narrator who says the Continental Army during the Revolution was filled with patriots. Adam swiftly steps in to claim, for the first of many, many times, that the CA was “not made up of patriots, but drunks, immigrants, and farmers looking to get paid.” We’re not sure why immigrants cannot be classified as patriots—Adam implies that all of them were very recent arrivals who could not have had any loyalty to the patriot cause. He continues:

In 1775, as few as 1 in 5 colonists even supported the independence movement. And much of that support came from wealthy, land-owning elites.

WEALTHY MAN: It would be great for me if we were our own country. The king’s taxes are really hurting my bottom line.

But the average colonist didn’t care about patriotism at all.

FARMER: I’ve got a farm to tend. I don’t care which elitist wig-head is in charge.

And on top of that, about a third of the colonists actually supported the British side.

Where to begin with the problems here? First, it’s true that support for independence from Britain did not have majority support amongst American colonists. But to basically say that the independence movement was a tool used by wealthy men to make more money is not accurate, and certainly not myth-busting. To bullet it out:

—You cannot generalize about “the colonies”. Support for independence differed in each colony and each region of the 13 American colonies. Not all wealthy people supported it. And basically no wealthy man thought that separating from Britain, and leaving behind the lucrative trade with England that had made him wealthy in the first place was going to help his “bottom line.” Wealthy men who supported independence were men who were well-educated and believed it was worth the sacrifice of their wealth, at least temporarily.

—The comment about “average” colonists and “farmers” shows a complete lack of knowledge about revolutionary America. What made our revolution extraordinary was that it was debated amongst average people for a long time. Most Americans were farmers. All of the farmers in New England voted for their representatives to their colonial legislatures. Farmers in most of the Mid-Atlantic and South did the same. Americans were very politically active. They were unusual in the British Empire; the political identity and strong views most average American farmers–men and women—held and constantly aired surprised and sometimes amused visiting Englishmen and women. Very few American farmers believed their colony’s government was made up of “elitists,” and they cared very much about who served in their names. Voting rates were high and steady.

—Yes, a third of Americans supported British rule; that is, remaining part of the Empire. But even these were divided about what that should mean going forward, as America grew economically. Even Americans who did not want independence thought that the colonies should elect men to serve in the House of Commons in London, to represent America’s wants and needs.

—They wanted that in large part because they wanted to have some say in taxation, which was not hurting anyone’s bottom line as much as it was reducing America to the status of a vassal state, in that Americans had no say in taxation, and most of the taxes they were protesting throughout the 1760s and 70s had been levied not to raise money but as punishments for political protest—many were literally taxes levied to pay the tax collectors’ salaries. Taxation was protested against on a political level, for its political effects, not because it was hurting a few rich elitists’ incomes. One of the first things you learn when studying revolutionary New England is that wealthy merchants like John Hancock remained quite wealthy during these periods of taxation and trade bans because they continued to operate by illegal smuggling.

There’s another large problem that will become clear in our next post, when the show introduces George Washington as a swindler, liar, and criminal. Not all Americans in the Continental Army were true-blue patriots ready to die for their newly declared country. But that’s the miracle of the Revolution, and the testament to Washington’s leadership: slowly but surely, after the hot patriots served and left the Continental Army, he created a new army of patriots out of individual militia and men who did want to get paid and get out after one year. The American cause of liberty was something that Washington built up out of very little, out of defeat and suffering, through personal example and commitment, and ingrained in the hearts of the men of his army.

So to assume that all the Continental soldiers all had to be held in the army by force and lies throughout the war is simply wrong. The desire to knock Washington off his pedestal leads the show to go horribly off-course into something that goes beyond myth-making to truth destruction. But more on that next time.

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The Federalists on Unlimited National Security

Posted on January 29, 2014. Filed under: American history, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Welcome to part 3 of our series on the Federalist debates; here we see how the men who supported the new constitution answered the Anti-Federalists’ concern that the strong federal government proposed by that document would degrade the republican virtue of American citizens by weakening local government, which they could take a more active, immediate role in. The Anti-Federalists made a passionate case that corruption would follow the distancing of government from the people, and challenged the Federalists to prove them wrong.

The Federalists replied by completely ignoring the whole argument as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Their response focused on foreign policy and national security. A strong central government was absolutely essential to national security, they said—there’s no point worrying about domestic citizen virtue if the United States has been destroyed by a weak foreign policy and national defense. To survive in the world, the US had to be able to negotiate treaties in good faith; other nations had to believe the US would obey international law and live up to the terms of those treaties. For that to happen, the US had to have a strong federal government that could make sure the states lived up to the terms of the treaties. Without this mechanism for good faith negotiating, the US would open itself to invasion and dissolution.

This was no imaginary scenario in 1787. Even as the Federalist debates raged, the US was in violation of its treaty with Britain ending the Revolutionary War. In that treaty, the US had agreed to either return property seized from Loyalists during the war or reimburse those Loyalists for their losses. That was not happening, because state governments were not enforcing those terms, and that was the stated reason why Britain was not removing its army from the western frontier as it had promised to do. The US had also signed a treaty with Spain promising to keep US citizens east of the Mississippi River, out of the lands that would one day be the Louisiana Purchase but were in 1787 Spanish territory. Americans were moving into the regions that would become the states of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky—pressing right up to the Spanish border, and clearly intending to cross it. That could provoke a war with Spain in the west, which could activate a war with Britain in the west as well, and both countries could sweep east and divide up the nascent US between them and that would be that.

We have to have a strong federal government, said the Federalists, to enforce international treaties, deal with foreign powers to avoid war, and to organize a national defense if war cannot be avoided. A strong central government protecting the states will deter other nations from attacking individual states to pull the US apart piece by piece. Of course, the “government” itself wouldn’t fight a war: the government would have to raise a standing army.

This was political dynamite to many Americans in 1787. Getting the British standing army out of America had been a major war aim, and most Americans saw a standing army—an army maintained during peacetime—as a tool of tyranny. What government would resist using its army to keep the populace down, intimidate people, and prevent them from criticizing the government? And who would pay for it—the states? They were already maintaining their state militias; why add the expense of funding a national army? Why couldn’t the US fight any future war the way it fought the Revolutionary War, by sending states militia to join together in one army until the war was over, then to return to their states? When the Federalists added that the US would also have to have a strong navy, the call only confirmed suspicions that these forces would be used to tyrannize over the people, not protect the nation.

The standing army and navy also represented another problem: clearly, to create and maintain these armed forces, the federal government would have to tax the states. The Federalists did not mince words here. They said that the federal government must not only tax the states, but have an unlimited power of taxation.

Remember that under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government could ask the states for money, but could not levy a tax the states were required to pay. Remember also from part 2 of our series that the Anti-Federalists had criticized the idea of the federal government ever levying a tax, and made only the small concession that if a war came up the federal government could ask the states for money to fight it (without a guarantee that the states would pay it; they would, in fact, most likely have refused to pay it, focusing instead on beefing up their individual state defenses/militias). If the Constitution was adopted, that would radically change to allow the federal government to enforce any tax it liked in the name of national security.

The Anti-Federalist writing under the name “Brutus” (we do not know who this was) stated in his/her 8th essay:

“These powers taken in connection, amount to this: that the general government have unlimited authority and control over all the wealth and all the force of the union. The advocates for this scheme, would favor the world with a new discovery, if they would show, what kind of freedom or independency is left to the state governments, when they cannot command any part of the property or of the force of the country, but at the will of the Congress.”

Alexander Hamilton, rather than dissemble, agreed heartily. Yes, he said, the federal government will have unlimited authority over the “force” of the union, and over its wealth when it comes to preserving that union. In Federalist Paper 23, he said that because we cannot predict the future, and know what threats we may face, we have to be ready to face anything, and that means being ready to pay anything (all capitals are his, not ours):

“These powers ought to exist without limitation, BECAUSE IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO FORESEE OR DEFINE THE EXTENT AND VARIETY OF NATIONAL EXIGENCIES, OR THE CORRESPONDENT EXTENT AND VARIETY OF THE MEANS WHICH MAY BE NECESSARY TO SATISFY THEM. The circumstances that endanger the safety of nations are infinite, and for this reason no constitutional shackles can wisely be imposed on the power to which the care of it is committed. This power ought to be coextensive with all the possible combinations of such circumstances; and ought to be under the direction of the same councils which are appointed to preside over the common defense. … And unless it can be shown that the circumstances which may affect the public safety are reducible within certain determinate limits; unless the contrary of this position can be fairly and rationally disputed, it must be admitted, as a necessary consequence, that there can be no limitation of that authority which is to provide for the defense and protection of the community, in any matter essential to its efficacy that is, in any matter essential to the FORMATION, DIRECTION, or SUPPORT of the NATIONAL FORCES.”

If the threats we face as a nation are “infinite”, then our capacity to respond to those threats must also be infinite. You can’t say, We’ll allow the federal government to tax the states to raise $100K for national defense in 1788 because that’s how much we needed in 1787. You can’t even say, let’s double it to $200K just in case. You cannot ever put a limit on the power of the government to tax the states to defend the nation because then you run the risk that what you need is $700 million, and you only have $200K.

This seemed preposterous to most Americans. How could so unexpected a threat arise? What on earth was going to change to make such huge amounts necessary?

In Federalist Paper 34, Hamilton answered this by saying, I don’t know. Who knows? Who can know the future? Who can say what unimaginable threats might arise in 50 or 100 years? You have to remember, Hamilton said, that we are talking about how the US government will function not just in our lifetimes, but for hundreds or even thousands of years:

In pursuing this inquiry, we must bear in mind that we are not to confine our view to the present period, but to look forward to remote futurity. Constitutions of civil government are not to be framed upon a calculation of existing exigencies, but upon a combination of these with the probable exigencies of ages, according to the natural and tried course of human affairs. Nothing, therefore, can be more fallacious than to infer the extent of any power, proper to be lodged in the national government, from an estimate of its immediate necessities. There ought to be a CAPACITY to provide for future contingencies as they may happen; and as these are illimitable in their nature, it is impossible safely to limit that capacity. In framing a government for posterity as well as ourselves, we ought, in those provisions which are designed to be permanent, to calculate, not on temporary, but on permanent causes of expense.

That is, the federal government must have the “capacity” to expand its expenditures when necessary, with no set limits. You can’t limit the government of 2014 to a certain amount of taxation because that’s what worked in 1787; we know, Hamilton says, that what works in 1787 is not going to work in 2014—it just can’t. Change is constant, and we can’t handcuff the federal government by forcing it to remain in 1787 as time marches on. We also can’t force the federal government to beg the states to approve each and every change it needs to stay current, or risk the states refusing that approval.

This Federalist argument is very much alive today. The federal government has defended NSA surveillance on the basis of anticipating threats we can’t even imagine. Some Americans believe that national security should trump personal privacy and liberty; others argue that the federal government should have to justify its actions and expenses to the public. For some Americans, no expense is too much if it is spent to protect the nation from threats real or imagined; others demand oversight of national security expenditures. Hamilton was prescient in his understanding that the definition of “threat” could change beyond all rational expectation. Whether he was right in saying the federal government must have the freedom and power to meet those threats by any means necessary is still a question in the United States today.

Next time we’ll see how this argument led to charges of trying to destroy the union being made by both sides.

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Taxation = Slavery

Posted on August 1, 2011. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Civil War, Economics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

As always, when history is being made in the present, or the present is clearly marked in a historical cycle, we delve into it here on the HP.

In this case, it is the debate in Congress over whether to raise the debt ceiling or default. The main sticking point has been the refusal of a sizable minority of Republicans, mostly belonging to the Tea Party faction, to allow the federal government to collect tax revenue. This group demands tax breaks for the wealthy, including corporations, and the maintenance of tax loopholes that allow millions of dollars of tax revenue to go uncollected.

This is not the place to go into the details of their platform, or the response by moderate Republicans and Democrats. Here, the issue is the extreme instransigence of the Republican minority on the issue of taxation. It has become, to them, a crime for the government to raise taxes or even to collect taxes. To them, there is no compromise on taxation: you are either for it (and therefore un-American) or against it. Again, we’ll leave aside for this post the historical fallacy of anti-tax advocates calling themselves “Tea Party”; read about that here. For now, we’ll focus on the black-and-white issue they have turned taxation into. It’s hard to think of a time when Congress was so completely divided, so unwilling and unable to compromise on an issue; when you look back at our history, only one comparable time comes up—the slavery debates of the late 1850s.

You could not compromise on slavery during those Congresses. You were for it or against it, and this divide worked its way into many other, seemingly unrelated issues, and the uncompromisable issue of slavery could not be resolved. Congress could no longer function to govern the country, and civil war ensued at the 1860 election.

Today, Congress’ refusal to accept compromise on taxation is quite similar to those Congress’ refusal to accept compromise on slavery. But there are two key differences: first, the American people were becoming just as divided over slavery as their representatives; second, slavery really is an issue you can’t seriously compromise on.

Americans in the 1850s didn’t want to fight a war over slavery, but they were rapidly becoming more polarized over it. Even those who didn’t particularly want abolition for morality’s sake blamed slavery for all of America’s ills, and would have gotten rid of it for economic or political reasons. Their representatives’ furor over slavery was not out of line, then, with Americans’ feelings about slavery. It does not seem accurate to make that claim today. Many Tea Party Congress members have said their constituents contacted them to say it’s okay to raise taxes to avoid default, but those members refused to do so out of principle. The extreme polarization in Congress today does not really have its roots in how Americans are feeling.

And taxation is not slavery. It’s not a black-and-white, moral issue that no one can take a moderate stance on. The government raises taxes in order to provide services. It’s a very simple and fundamental tenet of government. We have representation to our government to decide what services and how much taxation, not to stop the collection of tax revenue.

The taxation issue is part of a larger move to reduce the federal government to a negative function: the federal government will not provide social services (no Medicare, Social Security, Head Start, etc.), will not regulate business (protect the environment, police Wall Street, etc.), will not really legislate (instead, Constitutional Amendments will be put in place to handle social issues), amd will not extend civil rights to immigrants, gay people, etc. All it would do under this plan, apparently, is fund wars.

No one really wants to live in that world. It is undemocratic, and unself-sustaining. This experiment with such negative chaos is a dangerous one. The first experiment ended in civil war; it remains to be seen where we are headed in the next 20 years.

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