Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Tea Party was not about Taxes (part 2)

Subsequently Franklin published several anonymous satirical essays, notably Rules by Which a Large Empire may be Reduced to a Small One which burlesqued Britain’s bad colonial governance, and the hoax Edict from the King of Prussia. The Prussian demanded tax revenue, trade restrictions, monopoly on manufactures, etc. from the descendants of Britain’s first settlers, “…Subjects to our renowned Ducal Ancestors,” quoting as precedent British impositions on its own American colonies. Both are humorous summaries of colonial grievances, and can be found here.

Franklin made his case with wit. As he had predicted during his examination, the colonists eventually realized the distinction of external and internal taxation was artificial (see Dec 7 post). The Townsend Acts replaced the stamp tax but were just as divisive and eventually repealed, with the exception of the tax on tea.

The duty itself was not the issue. The East India Company’s tea was in fact less expensive and of better quality than the smuggled variety, even with the tax, and the income derived would add little to the Crown’s revenue. This was understood at Parliament; the tax was not meant for income but to keep precedent for Parliament’s authority over taxation. This was the issue, and was hotly contested.

The colonies found new reason to act in unison. Some let the tea rot on the docks. Others sent it back. In Boston the ships were made to stay, but to prevent their cargo being unloaded the “partiers” dumped today’s equivalent of $1 to $2 million of East Indian tea into the harbor. A British military blockade ensued, the united colonies declared independence, and the resulting war lasted seven years.

Franklin and his cofounders did not fight for “freedom” and still less for “freedom from taxes.” The former they were entitled to as English subjects; the latter was and is as improbable as immortality—it was Franklin who said “in this world nothing [is] certain, except death and taxes.”

The founders’ fight was to preserve the centuries-old “constitutional rights of Englishmen,” extant since Magna Carta days and entitling them to, among other things, representational government; if not Great Britain’s, then their own. Their principle is poorly expressed by the overworked word freedom, which suggests license. It has an etymology dating from the antiquity they so admired. And it is best when poignantly, didactically paired to the word responsibility. That is—liberty.


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