Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Cultural Divide

“Taxation without representation” was the core of the argument. So why didn’t Parliament just give the colonies a few seats and then outvote them? 

Franklin’s arguments found friendly MPs who made notable appeals, such as Burke’s for reconciliation and the Earl of Chatham’s for the colonists’ rights. But with George III’s  hold on the Commons’ majority via patronage and bribes (BF.487) and the premiership held by his man Lord North, the king's petulance about the colonies’ “filial ingratitude” and his indifference to antiwar commercial interests probably scuttled any consideration of the idea.

And had the colonies been given representation, would that have sufficed? Van Doren suggests the two countries had already drifted too far apart. The ancestral “rights of Englishmen” for which the founders fought had been reshaped and amplified by 150 years of colonial self-reliance and local government, the Quaker’s rethink of social class and religious tolerance, and the near-complete absence of aristocracy and centralized power. These first colonists, who funded and defended their own expeditions in the unknown and unforgiving landscape of the New World, gave birth to a new society—and a culture no longer British.

Meanwhile, France had its own revolution around the corner. Its absolute monarch and courtiers were prone to ostentatious, even ridiculous displays of wealth and privilege—perhaps root to the modern Frenchman’s mistrust of wealth, considering it “vulgar” and worthy of taxation just because it is thereCulture endures.

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.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

(Parenthetical Post)

My videopost of October 19 was an animation of a talk by Ken Robinson, who claims among other things that our educational system “conceived…in the economic circumstances of the industrial revolution” was “modeled on the interests of industrialism, and on the image of it.” I leave that debate to educators. 

Meanwhile, Stanley Fish, in his most recent column suggests that the privatization of higher education is moving towards the interests and values of—investment bank(er)s: “the cost of courses will be indexed to the likelihood of financial rewards down the line. A course’s ‘key selling point’ will be ‘that it provides improved employability...’” My favorite refutation of the idea can be found in highlighted comment #126.

Fish’s June 7 post suggests an alternative, and was of particular interest to Dr. Eliot.

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… 


Notes

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.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

On Public Speaking

Franklin was no orator. He said barely a word at the constitutional convention, preferring to have his written comments delivered by another. Yet the shy will not be consoled that Franklin’s famous diplomatic career was launched not by his brilliant writing or powerful friendships but by his one major public interview, an event that bridges the homely anecdotes of the Autobiography to his founding-fatherhood. It established him as the expert on colonial affairs and as America’s de facto ambassador to Europe:  a lengthy, often hostile, and very public examination before the House of Commons on February 13, 1766.

Parliament was debating repeal of the Stamp Act passed the year before. Its injustice caused colonial dissent among both the Assemblies and occasional violent mobs. Franklin was invited as expert witness to explain Americans’ resistance to the Act. With the feelings, facts, and statistics of his homeland on the tip of his tongue Franklin faced the opposition with acute observations, extensive preparation, and practiced delivery.

Hints for the budding public speaker: know your material, know your audience, and know what to expect. Franklin anticipated many of the questions and memorized his answers; he foresaw likely lines of attack, and practiced with ministers friendly to his cause; these same MPs posed prearranged questions for Franklin to answer with theatrical effect.

The exchanges advanced his fame when reprinted in Europe and America. Van Doren’s description is certainly the highlight of his book and worth the entire read. A fuller account of his four-hour interrogation can be found at franklinpapers.org (search for “Examination, House of Commons”). Unfortunately, I can't find the official record from Parliament; though Hansard is online, its records only began in 1803.

One hundred thirty years later, a young Winston Churchill, not yet elected to Parliament, in his essay The Scaffolding of Rhetoric did not understate the value of effective speaking:
Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable. (Written in 1897, Churchill portends his own days in the political wilderness, lonely decrying the 1930s rise of Nazi Germany.)
“More durable than that of a king…” Eripuit Coelo fulmen, mox Sceptra Tyrannis as Turgot described Franklin: “He seized the lightning from Heaven and the scepter from the Tyrants.”

To be continued…