Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Tea Party was not about Taxes (part 1)

During his examination before Parliament, Franklin, urging repeal of the Stamp Act, brought life in America home for the ministers, most of whom had never cared to fully understand it or its attitude to the mother country.

The cost of the recently concluded French and Indian (Seven Years’) War was a British rationale for the Act. Franklin challenged the MPs’ base assumptions and brought the colonists’ perspective into focus. Boldly, he asserted that the war was not waged for the colonies’ protection: the trade of furs for manufactures and the removal of France from North America were British, and not American, interests. Among his other points:

  • The colonies had established themselves at their own cost and risk;
  • The colonies had defended themselves from their earliest days, and their settlers pushed the natives beyond the Appalachians without help from home;
  • The colonies had already contributed their fair share to the war, having raised, armed, and maintained militias—all funded by “many, and very heavy taxes” laid by their own Assemblies;
  • He equated the colonies’ legal status to that of Ireland at the time; without representatives in Parliament, revenue for the Crown was to be raised by the colonial assemblies or the Parliament of Ireland respectively.

Yet his opponents pressed Parliament’s right and authority to tax its colonists directly. The one-hundred and fifty-second question made reference to the charter given William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, by Charles II:
…[152] Q. Don’t you know that there is, in the Pennsylvania charter, an express reservation of the right of parliament to lay taxes there?
A. I know there is a clause in the charter, by which the King grants that he will levy no taxes on the inhabitants, unless it be with the consent of the assembly, or by act of parliament.
[153] Q. How then could the assembly of Pennsylvania assert, that laying a tax on them by the stamp-act was an infringement of their rights?
A. They understand it thus; by the same charter, and otherwise, they are intitled to all the privileges and liberties of Englishmen; they find in the great charters, and the petition and declaration of rights, that one of the privileges of English subjects is, that they are not to be taxed but by their common consent; they have therefore relied upon it, from the first settlement of the province, that the parliament never would, nor could, by colour of that clause in the charter, assume a right of taxing them, till it had qualified itself to exercise such right by admitting representatives from the people to be taxed, who ought to make a part of that common consent.
[154] Q. Are there any words in the charter that justify that construction?
A. The common rights of Englishmen, as declared by Magna Charta, and the petition of right, all justify it… 
Earlier in the examination Franklin had distinguished “internal” vs “external” taxes. External taxes were duties placed on imports; these became part of the price of the goods, and if the price was too high the goods need not be bought—by this logic, no one was obliged to pay duties. Because British ships defended trade, such duties had never been contested by the colonists. The stamp tax, however, was an “internal” tax “forced from the people without their consent,” and requiring a revenue stamp on all official paper documents—property deeds, wills, marriages, etc.—affected “all commerce among the inhabitants of a place” obliging those far inland “take long journeys and spend perhaps three or four pounds that the Crown might get sixpence.” [BF.337]
… [155] Q. Does the distinction between internal and external taxes exist in the words of the [Pennsylvania] charter?
A. No, I believe not.
[156] Q. Then may they not, by the same interpretation, object to the parliament’s right of external taxation?
In response Franklin continues the questioner’s thought to its logical end:
A. They never have hitherto. Many arguments have been lately used here to shew them that there is no difference, and that if you have no right to tax them internally, you have none to tax them externally, or make any other law to bind them. At present they do not reason so, but in time they may possibly be convinced by these arguments.
This point was brilliantly made and foreshadowed things to come. If in fact taxes were unjustly levied, why should not duties be considered likewise? Did not the artificial prices—indeed the entire British monopoly on trade—affect the prosperity of the colonists? Why accept any restriction, any law passed by Parliament, let alone one so impracticable?
…[82] Q. Can any thing less than a military force carry the stamp-act into execution?
A. I do not see how a military force can be applied to that purpose.
[83] Q. Why may it not?
A. Suppose a military force sent into America, they will find nobody in arms; what are they then to do? They cannot force a man to take stamps who chooses to do without them. They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one.

To be continued… 


The “Q & A” text is taken from: The EXAMINATION of Doctor BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, before an August Assembly, relating to the Repeal of the STAMP-ACT, &c.” which can be found at franklinpapers.org. Search for “Examination, House of Commons” and click on result #4 or #5. 

The clause in Pennsylvania's charter (Q&A #152) can be found at Yale’s
The Avalon Project. Scroll down to the fourth paragraph from the end of the link. Note that the clause does seem to specify duties on goods or merchandise ... to be laden or unladen within the ports or harbours of the said Province... as well as direct taxes. See Q&A #155 above.

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