When demonstrations erupted nationwide in March and April 2009 in opposition to the tax and spending policies of the just-inaugurated Barack Obama administration, the protesters named their movement and cause after the Boston Tea Party of Dec. 16, 1773, when Massachusetts colonists dumped British tea into Boston Harbor in the world's most famous tax revolt. Thus was the "Tea Party" movement reborn.
The Tea Party name suggests an anti-tax protest rooted in American history and consistent with the original intent of our nation's founding. If one is grabbing the political high ground in an American debate, this is the equivalent of placing your cannons atop Bunker Hill. (The Tea Party, it is worth noting, is assigning itself the winning team in that previous conflict.)
Is the comparison accurate or invented? How does the level and modes of taxation in modern America compare with the taxation of the British colonies, which led to an eight-year war that cost 25,000 American lives and ultimately broke apart the British Empire to create the United States of America? What parallels or paradoxes exist?
Americans often observe that our national independence was born of a tax revolt. But taxes, or the lack thereof, played a key role in the colonies long before Samuel Adams and his Sons of Liberty. The 1629 Charter of Massachusetts Bay granted settlers a seven-year exemption from customs taxes on all trade to and from Britain and a 21-year exemption from all other taxes. In 1621, the Dutch government granted the Dutch West India Company an eight-year exemption from all trade duties between New Amsterdam/New York and the mother country. Swedish settlers in Delaware were offered a 10-year tax exemption. America, in other words, was in part created as a tax haven populated with immigrants moving from high-tax nations to low-tax colonies.
By 1714, British citizens in Great Britain were paying on a per capita basis 10 times as much in taxes as the average "American" in the 13 colonies, though some colonies had higher taxes than others. Britons, for example, paid 5.4 times as much in taxes as taxpayers in Massachusetts, 18 times as much as Connecticut Yankees, 6.3 times as much as New Yorkers, 15.5 times as much as Virginians; and 35.8 times as much as Pennsylvanians.
Low-taxed Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn, the father of American religious liberty, who also notably refused the Pennsylvania General Assembly's kind offer to establish an import and export tax for his personal benefit.
Taxation in the colonies consisted of property taxes, poll taxes on men over 18, excise taxes, and forced labor contributions of a few days a month to build roads and assume other "public functions" such as constable, assessor, or "hog reeve" ("an officer charged with the prevention or appraising of damages by stray swine," according to the Oxford English Dictionary).
Massachusetts imposed an embryonic income tax in 1634 in the form of a "faculty" tax. In 1643, Alvin Rabushka writes in Taxation in Colonial America, "assessors were appointed to rate inhabitants on their estates and their faculties, which included personal abilities." One notes with some envy that the tax came to about 1 percent of what we might call income.
Connecticut, anticipating New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's nanny-state tendencies, imposed sumptuary laws in 1676 that taxed any person who wore silk ribbons, gold or silver lace, or gold or silver buttons.
By 1775, the British government was consuming one-fifth of its citizens' GDP, while New Englanders were only paying between 1 and 2 percent of their income in taxes. British citizens were also weighed down with a national debt piled up by years of worldwide warfare that amounted to £15 for each of the crown's eight million subjects, while American local and colonial governments were almost debt-free. Against this backdrop, Americans watched as the British monarchy attempted to raise taxes on the colonists to pay down its war debt and pay for the 10,000 British soldiers barracked in the colonies.
The Sugar Act of 1764, a rewrite of the Plantation Duty of 1673, was designed to raise revenue rather than force the colonies to trade with England alone, and fell mostly on molasses, sugar, and Madeira wine. The colonies reacted particularly poorly to the imposition of the Stamp Act of 1765, which was an effort to impose a direct tax on the colonies rather than tax imports and exports. Benjamin Franklin and others argued to the British government that while the colonies did not object to tariffs, they did oppose direct domestic "taxation without representation."
The British parliament got the message, repealing the Stamp Act and responding with the Townshend Acts of 1767, which imposed duties on 72 items, including tea (the changes actually reduced taxes on tea originally imported from British colonies to combat the smuggling of Dutch tea to America). Although the British repealed most of these duties in 1770, they maintained the specific tax on tea to make the point that the crown could tax when it chose to do so. By then, however, the American colonists had stopped distinguishing between domestic and trade taxes and started opposing all taxation and control by Britain, setting the stage for the revolution.
The bottom line: American colonists were both paid more and taxed less than the British. American taxes, in fact, were low and going lower, but the very idea that they had been raised and could be raised again by a distant power was enough to send Americans into the streets to engage in civil disobedience. Regime change followed the tax revolt.
And 239 years later, what has changed?