Boston and Modern Tea Party; Aversion To Taxes

People tend to mistake the essence of the Boston Tea Party in one vital but obscure respect. The Boston Tea Party is well known for the saying "No taxation without representation." People assume that it’s a battle cry against high taxation but that would be false.

An NPR profile of tax historian Joe Thorndike’s work on the Boston Tea Party related to the modern Tea Party protesters:

Thorndike, who is also director of the Tax History Project at the nonprofit group Tax Analysts, says many people seem to think the Boston Tea Party was a protest about high taxes. But it wasn’t; he says it was about that famous phrase in fourth-grade history books: “No taxation without representation.”

It was the idea of being taxed by a government that they didn’t have any say in.

“What the original Tea Party was trying to drive home was that the British did not have a right to impose a tax on the Colonies, because the Colonies did not have representation in Parliament,” Thorndike says. “That’s a very different sort of message than saying, ‘This tax is just too damn high for us.’ I think the Tea Party today — at least it strikes me — is more about just taxes being too high.”

The original Tea Party in 1773 was also sparked, Thorndike says, not just by a tax, but by a government bailout.

England was looking to prop up the British East India Company. So it gave a tax break that enabled the company to undercut Colonial tea merchants, which threatened to put a lot of them out of business.

"They wanted to help bail out this company, which was struggling under a big debt load, if that sounds familiar," Thorndike says, adding that this is similar to what has motivated the modern-day Tea Party movement.

The recent Wall Street bailouts got a lot of Tea Party activists upset. And in both cases people saw the government as favoring big business over the little guy

Thorndike wrote:

It bears repeating that the colonists were not objecting to the financial burden of the tea tax. Or any other tax, for that matter. Instead, they were making a point about political legitimacy. They were more than willing to pay taxes imposed by their own representatives. But they were utterly unwilling to pay taxes imposed by Parliament — a more or less alien power, given the lack of colonial representation.

Historian T.H. Breen recently made that point in an article for The Washington Post. Even after the Tea Party, he noted, colonists in Massachusetts continued to pay taxes originally levied by the Crown. But instead of sending the money to British authorities, they gave it to one of their own leaders. "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," wrote Breen.

I think this is an important point. Parliament did not represent the colonialists. That’s where the issue of "no taxation without representation" comes in–they were willing to pay taxes levied by their actual representatives, not leadership from foreign lands governing for a different constituency.

The real source of Americans’ aversion to high taxes come from a different direction.

Berkeley historian Robin Einhorn’s study on American’s aversion to high taxes — American Taxation, American Slavery:

Americans are right to think that our antitax and antigovernment attitudes have deep historical roots. Our mistake is to dig for them in Boston. We should be digging in Virginia and South Carolina rather than in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, because the origins of these attitudes have more to do with the history of American slavery than the history of American freedom. They have more to do with protections for entrenched wealth than with promises of opportunity, and more to do with the demands of privileged elites than with the strivings of the common man. Instead of reflecting a heritage that valued liberty over all other concerns, they are part of the poisonous legacy we have inherited from the slaveholders who forged much of our political tradition.


[S]laveholders had different priorities than other people—and special reasons to be afraid of taxes. Slaveholders had little need for transportation improvements (since their land was often already on good transportation links such as rivers) and hardly any interest in an educated workforce (it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write because slaveholders thought education would help African Americans seize their freedom). Slaveholders wanted the military, not least to promote the westward expansion of slavery, and they also wanted local police forces ("slave patrols") to protect them against rebellious slaves. They wanted all manner of government action to protect slavery, while they tended to dismiss everything else as wasteful government spending.


The irony is that the slaveholding elites of early American history have come down to us as the champions of liberty and democracy. In a political campaign whose audacity we can only admire, charismatic slaveholders persuaded many of their contemporaries—and then generations of historians looking back—that the elites who threatened American liberty in their era were the nonslaveholders! Today, this brand of politics looks eerily familiar. We have experience with political parties that attack "elites" in order to rally voters behind policies that benefit elites. This is what the slaveholders did in early American history, and they did it very well. Expansions of slavery became expansions of "liberty," constitutional limitations on democratic self-government became defenses of "equal rights," and the power of slaveholding elites became the power of the "common man." In the topsy-turvy political world we have inherited from the age of slavery, the power of the majority to decide how to tax became the power of an alien "government" to oppress "the people."

Just thought it would be interesting to note this part of American history in real context instead of the mythologies many tend to accept as truth.


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