Friday, April 9, 2010

Protesting taxes

T.H. Breen, a prominent historian of early America, has an interesting column in the Washington Post, in which he contrasts today's Tea Party protests with their professed models, the colonial rebels against Great Britain:

When Americans protest, whether it is today's Tea Party members or Vietnam Veterans Against the War being arrested on Lexington Green in 1971, they often lay claim to the ordinary patriots of the Revolution. The impulse of many protesters has been to assert kinship with the middling Americans who came forward to resist British imperial power.

Breen bears no love for the Tea Partiers, but wants to retain their heroes as his heroes. In doing so, he goes a little too far in defending their rebellion:

[T]he colonists did not protest taxation. To be clear: They protested against taxation without representation, an entirely different matter. During the summer of 1774, when Parliament punished the city of Boston for the destruction of the East India Company's tea, people throughout Massachusetts Bay continued to pay taxes to the colonial government. At this chaotic moment, rather than keep their money, colonists voted in town after town to no longer transfer tax revenue to Harrison Gray, a treasurer of loyalist sympathies, but instead to send "moneys which they then had, or in future might have in their hands, belonging to the Province" to one Henry Gardner. Anyone who misses this point risks missing the fact that ordinary American patriots accepted the legitimate burdens of supporting a government in which they enjoyed genuine representation.

What Breen says is true, but what he doesn't say is also true: in the first decade after the end of the war, Americans did take up arms against taxes themselves - taxes that were levied by legal entities, to which the taxed parties had elected representatives of their own choosing.

Struggling with the debt it had racked up, Massachusetts levied such heavy taxes1 that, in 1785-86, 1500 farmers2 created an ad hoc army under one Daniel Shays and used force to shut down the local courts, so that those courts couldn't carry out foreclosures for tax delinquency. Although Shays was a veteran of the Revolution, his men were more angry than brave and they were easily routed by a small militia force. Still, the incident scared the hell out of the ruling classes and helped persuade them to get off their duffs and do something about their ineffective national government, a government that couldn't raise revenue to either reduce the debt or pay for an army to put down rebellion. A few years later, a brand new federal Constitution was born.

In 1794, another group of farmers also revolted, this time in Pennsylvania. Again, a large group of men with guns shut down the courts and attacked tax collectors, but this time were overawed by a 13,000 man force led by General President Washington himself. But just like Shays, the Whiskey Rebels3 were represented in the government that taxed them and they objected anyway. It wasn't about representation - it was about taxes. If the Revolutionary generation was as principled as Breen portrays them, then independence seems to have suddenly sapped their virtue.

1 Exactly as Britain had first levied the Stamp Act to deal with its debt from the Seven Years War. Kind of ironic, you might say.

2 Taxes were levied primarily on land, so farmers bore a much heavier burden than did city-dwelling merchants and mechanics.

3 Farmers were turning their corn into whiskey because it was easier and cheaper to transport that way; as with land taxes, the tax on distilled liquors fell disproportionately on them.

1 comment:

James Hanley said...

"If the Revolutionary generation was as principled as Breen portrays them, then independence seems to have suddenly sapped their virtue."

Heh. I like that.