What started the Boston Tea Party?

Posted on December 14, 2018. Filed under: Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , |

As we approach December 16, we approach the 245th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. In honor of that round number, we thought we’d re-post our original Truth v. Myth series on this iconic American event.

 

Hello and welcome to our series on the Boston Tea Party. This event, like Washington crossing the Delaware or the winter at Valley Forge, is familiar to all Americans—or at least the name is. Most people are hard-pressed to come up with any details on what happened and why. Here we’ll go beyond the men dressed as Indians and the tea dumped in the harbor and the refusal to pay taxes to explain how events unfolded and we’ll start by showing that one of those three details is all wrong.

Throughout, we’ll be hugely indebted to Benjamin Carp’s fantastic, must-read for all Americans Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America. If you are left wanting more after this series, buy that book and enjoy.

Let’s start, as we must, with taxes. We have all been told that British taxes on everyday American goods like paper, sugar, and tea were bitterly resented by colonists, who refused to pay them. This is an oversimplification and so, inevitably, it’s inaccurate. The issue was more complicated: after the huge expense of fighting the French and Indian War (aka the Seven Years’ War) against France both in Europe and in North America, Britain’s people were taxed to the hilt. They had helped pay for three wars against the Dutch from 1652-1674, as well as several wars with France, including the War of the Spanish Succession (Queen Anne’s War) and King George’s War between 1689 and 1748. By the end of the French and Indian War, Britons living in the British Isles could pay no more without wrecking the economic revolution developing in England at the time (the foundation of modern capitalism).

So the British turned to the Americans for help. The Americans had been the ones clamoring for Britain to put an end to the French and Indian threat on their doorstep, and they had made a lot of money selling supplies at hugely inflated prices to the British Army. Now Britain asked them to help pay up.

Most Americans supported this, with one caveat: they wished that they could have a say in how they were taxed—how much, and on what goods. But since they did not have representatives in Parliament, they could not have a say. American leaders had been petitioning formally and informally for reprentatives to Parliament for years to no avail. So after 1763, when the French and Indian War ended, Britain alone decided the tax rate and the goods to be taxed.

Most Americans would have gone along with this, at least for a while. But the real problem with the new taxation was this: the tax money went, in large part, to pay the salaries of British officials in America. That is, the tax money Americans paid did not a) get directly applied to the war debt; b) did not go to provide any services for Americans, but c) was used to pay the salaries of the royal governors, customs officials, and others.

Think of it this way: today we pay taxes to get services. Our taxes fund social programs like Medicare, Head Start, and others. We may not always like our tax rate, but at least we can say the money is coming back to the people in some important way. But in America in the 1760s, tax money just went to pay politicians. It would be like state taxes going to pay the governor’s salary, the salaries of state representatives, and city mayors, and nothing else—no services.

Worse, in colonial America a large portion of the new taxes went to pay one royal official in particular: the tax collector. So American tax money went to the tax collector who then had every incentive to demand strict enforcement of every tax, and to welcome new taxes.

This was the problem with taxes in post-war America. Americans had no say in how they were taxed, and their money went to enrich the government officials who collected taxes basically as salary.

In Massachusetts, there was a way to fight back. Massachusetts, unlike most of the other English colonies, was founded as an independent colony. It was not under the control of King or Parliament. It elected its own officials, from governor to colonial legislature. In the other colonies, the governor was appointed by the king and and people had no say. This royal governor often appointed members to the colonial legislature. This way, the governor could prevent the legislature from pursuing policies that negatively impacted the crown financially or politically. When Massachusetts was at last brought under direct royal control in 1691, it struck a unique deal: its governor would be appointed by the king, with no input from the people of the colony, but its legislature would remain popularly elected. And in Massachusetts, “popular” had real meaning. Almost every white male was a freeman, with voting rights. Property ownership was not a requirement. So the colony had a truly popular legislature, which took its responsibility of representing the interests of the people seriously. The Massachusetts legislature, called the General Court, would fight the royal governor and tax officials when they attempted to enforce the new tax on tea.

Thus, Massachusetts was particularly able to mount a defense against the post-war taxation, because its legislature actually represented the people. But they were not the only colonies to do so. New York and Pennsylvania launched vigorous anti-tax protests as well, as we’ll see, and criticized Massachusetts for not being radical enough—at least until the night of the Tea Party.

In the next post, we’ll look at the reasons why tea, of all the commodities that were taxed, became the hottest issue, and we’ll explain the customs rules that led Massachusetts men to decide that dumping the tea was necessary.

Next time: why tea?

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

Posted on May 27, 2009. Filed under: Revolutionary War | Tags: , , |

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

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