The issues that have defined American politics in recent years are driven, in part, by an amorphous group of activists called the Tea Party. Oddly enough, in 1775, your average Joe America — or Joe “British North America” — would have said the same thing.
Even though the Tea Party’s support has waned in the past 12 months, its proscribed diet of tax cuts and significantly reduced spending will dominate conversation in Washington during upcoming budget battles in the wake of President Obama’s insistence late last year on higher taxes. The party’s argument originates from an original reading of the American independence movement as a predominantly anti-tax expression of collective will. The Tea Party thinks it has been empowered to recapture some core value of the “American way” — small government. It seems to feel that invoking Sam Adams’ memory gives it the right to protest any and all taxes.
Let’s take a look at the actual history:
The French and Indian War, the portion of the Seven Years’ War fought in North America, was incredibly costly for the English crown. Similar to the Iraq and Afghan Wars, the government, lured by the goal of victory on foreign soil, reversed a period of incredible prosperity fairly quickly. The result, in further parallel to today, was a partial victory won at a high cost to the country’s recently stabilized balance sheet.
Herein lies the critical difference: The problem that Sam Adams and his band of firebrands faced when they boarded the merchant ship was that a government that gave its colonies no say in whether to go to war — nor a single vote in parliament — was now taxing those very colonies for its own military adventurism, not that the taxes themselves even existed. Ironically, in today’s politics, we curiously find a Republican party that voted for the modern-day equivalent of the king’s 18th century military adventures — the Iraq War — opposing the taxes needed to pay for it. In the 1770s, the king instructed British officials to start collecting taxes that were already on the books but had been ignored in a policy called “salutary neglect.” Sound familiar? It’s the Bush tax cut expiration all over again.
The Boston Tea Party and the Revolutionary War period have been almost entirely misinterpreted by the contemporary Tea Party. The founding fathers were really fighting for the right to tax themselves, not the abolition of taxes altogether. The conversations that 18th century figures like Sam Adams had were over the equitability of those taxes, not their existence. If revenue was to be raised, where was it going, and would it be worth the expenses incurred by those paying? Taxes themselves were hardly on the table as a point of protest. Today’s anti-tax crusaders have incorrectly read the message of these times and used it to promote a far more radicalized agenda that even Sam Adams himself would have eschewed. The notion that early American governments were paragons of non-invasive agrarian republicanism is entirely false. The Revolutionary War cost the colonies a tidy sum of $75 million and took 30 years of responsible economic policy and the embrace of debt as a political reality to pay it off. One of the major breakthroughs of the Constitutional Convention was that the federal government would honor all debts created by the states during the war. Assuming debt burdens is, in fact, a core function of Washington and one of the reasons a vast and varied republic of 50 unique states has ticked along with less regime volatility than any other since the early 20th century.
When the American government racks up debts from major spending projects, it needs to get paid at some point through increased revenue. It’s a problem as old as the country itself. The anti-tax crusaders who have taken to channelling the revolution as their rallying cry might do well to remember the words of Alexander Hamilton in the following months: “The United States debt, foreign and domestic, was the price of liberty. The faith of America has been repeatedly pledged for it.”
Ethan Chess is a junior in the College.
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