Tea, Taxes, and the Revolution

The Founding Fathers would revolt if they saw America’s tax burden today.

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?

Americans are still wealthier and taxed less than the citizens of other nations. By some measures, federal taxes are lower today than they were in the past: Today's top marginal tax rate for individuals is 35 percent, which is higher than Ronald Reagan's 28 percent but lower than Dwight Eisenhower's 90 percent. State and local taxes, meanwhile, have undoubtedly been trending upward.

Three shocks to the system early on in Obama's presidency in many ways mimicked the Townshend Acts in convincing Americans they have much to fear in the future.

The first shock came in 2009, when one-party rule by Democratic supermajorities in the Senate and House of Representatives, allied with a president of the same party, ensured that Washington could enact just about any tax or spending legislation it wished. The first of four stimulus bills, signed on Feb. 17, 2009, called for $878 billion in spending, and Congress added another $1 trillion in domestic discretionary spending over the next decade. Modern-day anti-tax activists felt as removed from control of their government as the colonists did in 1775. Promises that taxes would only be imposed on "the rich" were betrayed 16 days into Obama's presidency, when legislation was enacted to increase the tax on cigarettes -- a product whose consumers average $40,000 in annual income.

Second, while the economy stalled, the White House introduced a new and costly entitlement in "Obamacare," which contained 20 new taxes that cost Americans between $500 and $800 billion over a decade. Seven of these taxes directly hit the middle class, and the Congressional Budget Office's 10-year cost estimate for Obamacare officially doubled after the legislation was enacted.

Third, a series of repeatedly renewed yet "temporary" tax reductions were set to expire in January 2011. Left unchanged, the Alternative Minimum Tax, imposed in 1969 to punish 155 rich Americans who invested in municipal bonds, would hit 31 million Americans. The tax rate on capital gains would jump from 15 percent to 23.8 percent, while the dividend tax would increase from 15 percent to 44.3 percent. All told, taxes would increase by about $500 billion in one year alone. (This Taxmageddon was ultimately postponed by two years -- until Jan. 1, 2013.)

The British imposed the de minimis tax on tea to make the point they had the power to implement such measures and more when they wished. Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi passed a 2,600-page entitlement program -- written not in front of C-SPAN cameras as promised, but in camera -- and explained to the rabble that the government had to pass the legislation so that its subjects could learn what was in it.

The American people responded to this display of raw, unchecked power. During the week of April 15, 2009, an estimated 600,000 protesters attended more than 600 Tea Party rallies across the country. These were not student demonstrators, unburdened by jobs or family obligations, but employed, middle-class Americans, most of whom had never been to a political protest and never expected to join one.

These modern Tea Partiers performed surprisingly few "tar and featherings," and yet the establishment media complained about their excessive rhetoric. Still, the protesters never quite rivaled the vehemence with which John Adam denounced the Sugar Act for imposing "enormous taxes, burdensome taxes, oppressive, ruinous, intolerable taxes."

In both 2009 and 1775, opposition to taxes was eventually replaced by a demand for liberty and protection against government power. The Fourth Amendment's protection against search and seizure and "writs of assistance" were specifically designed to protect against the tax collectors of the day searching for smuggled goods and confiscating shipping. Today, after being at the receiving end of what Republican congressmen view as unwarranted and indiscriminate IRS investigations, Tea Partiers are demanding legal changes to prevent the government from using the IRS to police opposition groups.

The 2010 election was a middle-class revolt that ended one-party rule in Washington and gave the opposition a strong majority in the House and strength in the Senate. Obama and Reid have responded to this impertinence with their own Intolerable Acts -- governing through executive orders and regulations, and adding to the spending and debt explosion of the previous two years. There has been no reform, no moderation, and no compromise. Most recently, in the Supreme Court's ruling on Obamacare, Chief Justice John Roberts made it official that no power is beyond the federal government if taxation is used as the whip to enforce compliance.

Luckily, the nation is now moving to the Nov. 6 election rather than Lexington and Concord.

Alex Wong/Getty Images


How Did the British Press Cover the American Revolution?

And what lessons does this history hold for today’s upheavals?

Thomas Jefferson was worried. The year was 1784, and he was in Europe to negotiate trade agreements on behalf of the newly independent United States. But the republic had a problem with its image. So Jefferson decided to set the record straight with an article in Europe's leading newspaper, the French-language Gazette of Leiden. "America," he wrote, characterizing the prevailing view, "is a scene of ... riot and anarchy." According to European newspapers, Congress was weak, the states were in turmoil, and people were fleeing to Canada. None of this was true, Jefferson assured the Gazette's readers. The trouble was that printers on the continent had "not yet got into the habit of taking the American newspapers. Whatever they retail ... on the subject of America, they take from the English." And the English view was not flattering.

Today, as the Arab Spring roils the Middle East, mixing hopes for reform with fears of betrayal, it is worth remembering that we have been here before. More than 200 years ago, the American Revolution captured the world's attention much as events in Egypt, Libya, and Syria have over the past year. Then as now, most of what people knew about foreign events came from the media. In Jefferson's day, the leading outlets were pamphlets, journals, and newspapers, not the electronic venues that currently predominate. Yet the effect was the same: Some of the information was accurate, while a good deal was not. Either way, Britain was the chief international source for news about America, and British writers had a lot to say.

Because the British press was the freest in the world at the time, opinion on the revolution was hardly uniform. For people on the margins of British politics -- manufacturers in cities that were not represented in Parliament, humble men and women who shouldered much of the war's fiscal burden without having a say in its conduct, and religious dissenters of all descriptions -- the American Revolution was an event to be celebrated: a "new order for the ages," in the words of the motto that Congress adopted for the United States, and an example to be followed. Although outright support was limited, several of England's most popular newspapers expressed sympathy for what the Westminster Chronicle called their "brethren" in America. George Washington, in particular, was widely admired, with even hostile papers depicting the general as "a man of sense and great integrity," in the words of Edinburgh's Scots Magazine. Americans, wrote Thomas Pownall, a former British governor of Massachusetts and friend of Benjamin Franklin, in a widely read pamphlet from 1783, were the New World's "chosen people."

But many Britons took a different view of the United States, and they found a receptive audience among readers of newspapers that supported the British government. As with the Arab Spring today, the British felt threatened by the American Revolution in part because their own country had done so well under the order that the revolution sought to topple. Writing in 1776, the author of an English pamphlet warned that the loss of America would dismember Britain's empire by "inclosing [sic] us within the confined seas of England, Ireland, and Scotland." Mindful that Congress was seeking allies in Europe, others worried that Britain's rivals, especially France and Spain, would use the Revolutionary War to expand their empires at Britain's expense, and there were fears that George III's colonies in Canada and the West Indies might someday follow the Americans' example. Whether America's bid for independence succeeded or failed, Britain stood to lose a great deal from the attempt.

In an echo of worries about the fate of minority groups in the Middle East today, the United States also encountered scathing criticism because of Americans' treatment of blacks and Native Americans. In Taxation No Tyranny, published in 1774, Samuel Johnson, the compiler of the first modern English dictionary and an influential British writer, set the tone, asking readers how it was "that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes." During the Revolutionary War, some of the most militarily powerful Native American nations in North America heeded the danger to their own interests and sided with Britain. Equally threatening to slaveholders like Jefferson, enslaved African Americans in Virginia and the Carolinas, emboldened by British promises of freedom, fled by the tens of thousands to take up arms in the king's forces. When the British evacuated New York in 1783, they took more than 3,000 with them. One, a Virginia freedman named Harry Washington, eventually settled in the African colony of Sierra Leone, where he built a plantation that he named Mount Vernon in honor of his former master.

According to most British writers, though, the biggest uncertainty of all was whether the United States -- a nation founded in the "criminal enterprise" of rebellion, as the English historian Edward Gibbon wrote in 1780 -- would ever be a worthy treaty partner for Britain and the other nations of Europe. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson promised that the former colonies would be good international citizens, yet the United States often seemed more like an international rogue. In the British press, two issues in particular stood out in this regard: the money that Americans had borrowed from British merchants before the revolution, and the property that state governments seized from Loyalist exiles after independence. To this day, estimates vary as to the sums involved. In Virginia alone, the prerevolutionary debt to British creditors was said to exceed £2 million, while the number of Loyalists who lost property and left the United States was at least 60,000 men, women, and children, and possibly more. Whatever the true figure, Congress lacked the authority under the Articles of Confederation, which served as the first federal constitution, to compensate the war's British victims, and the states refused to do so.

The result was an image of the United States that was fundamentally different from the beneficial new order that Congress proclaimed in the young nation's motto. For the revolution's British critics, the explanation for America's shortcomings was not hard to find -- and it has a familiar ring now. By overthrowing the government of George III, Britons claimed, Jefferson and the revolution's other leaders had given the American people far more power than they could responsibly exercise. During the early 1780s, critics flooded English newspapers with accounts of the suffering endured by Loyalists, of popular dissatisfaction with the new state governments, and of Americans moving to Canada.The British press followed with particular interest the independence movement in Vermont, whose people were in arms against the governments of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York. The reason -- as the Whitehall Evening Post informed its readers in 1781 -- was that the three "ancient states" all claimed the Union's fourteenth state as their own.

No less troubling, writers noted the many ways the Articles of Confederation hamstrung the United States in its relations with other powers, especially the provisions that denied Congress the authority to levy taxes and the various restrictions that made it impossible for the national government to compel the states to honor foreign agreements. On this basis, newspapers mocked the efforts of Jefferson and his fellow diplomats to obtain commercial treaties. In a letter to John Jay from London in 1786, John Adams, then the American ambassador to Britain, warned that the king was unlikely to begin serious negotiations until Congress obtained "full power." How, Britons asked, could the United States honor its obligations to other nations when it could not govern its own people?

For Jefferson in 1784, and no doubt for many Americans today, such questions were unfair. In their coverage of the revolution's shortcomings, newspapers in England often exaggerated, and they neglected to mention the young nation's accomplishments. Although Americans acknowledged many of the problems that the British press highlighted, the years following the revolution were also a time of remarkable experimentation and creativity -- in Congress as well as among the states. Drawing on the lessons learned in the decade since independence, the nation's leaders would gather in Philadelphia in 1787 and draft a charter for "a more perfect union," in the words of the Constitution's preamble. In a sign that the American people were better rulers of themselves than the British claimed, the new document gave the federal government most of the powers that Congress had lacked under the Articles of Confederation. This included the power to tax, the power to negotiate and enforce treaties, and -- eventually -- the power to abolish slavery. As even Britain would come to recognize, the resulting change allowed Americans to take an important step toward becoming the responsible nation that Jefferson had promised the world they would be.

So, what lessons can we draw from these reflections? One is how difficult it is for one nation to understand what is happening in another. In the years following the revolution, the British press got as much wrong about America as it got right. The same, surely, is true of efforts to predict the outcome of the Arab Spring. Even more important, the American Revolution reminds us that whatever comes of the upheavals sweeping the Middle East, it will be the Arab people, not observers in the West, who ultimately decide their fate. As the American response to the British press makes clear, no nation ever fully controls its own destiny, including a nation founded on the self-evident right of the people to govern themselves. As ought to be equally clear, however, no one else is better placed to shape the course of a nation's history than the people most directly involved -- and who have the most to win or lose from the outcome. If Americans sometimes have a hard time remembering that lesson today, it is one that they knew very well 200 years ago.