Happy Tax Day – Don’t Dump Your Tea in the Harbor Unless You Live in D.C.

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April 15, 2010 by D Stack

Over the past year the United States has seen a “Tea Party” movement. Ignoring the frightening rhetoric of some of its members (which is a topic for another day) I think one could safely say they are in support of smaller government and are strongly against various bailouts, stimulus, and health care reform.

Obviously they are named in reference to the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773. However, I find this a curious – and incorrect – linkage they are making.

The Boston Tea Party is the iconic event in the protest to the taxation of the American colonies by the British Parliament. It was not a protest against “big government” but rather a protest against that of Parliament’s right to tax the colonists at all. The colonists felt their right as British citizens, per the English Bill of Rights of 1689, were being violated. (I believe I have my British vs. English terminology correct, with the Bill of Rights being passed by the English Parliament prior to the union of the Kingdoms of  England and Scotland into Great Britain in 1707).  The Bill of Rights, as spelled out, stated:

thereupon the said Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons, pursuant to their respective letters and elections, being now assembled in a full and free representative of this nation, taking into their most serious consideration the best means for attaining the ends aforesaid, do in the first place (as their ancestors in like case have usually done) for the vindicating and asserting their ancient rights and liberties declare

That the pretended power of suspending the laws or the execution of laws by regal authority without consent of Parliament is illegal;

That the pretended power of dispensing with laws or the execution of laws by regal authority, as it hath been assumed and exercised of late, is illegal;

That the commission for erecting the late Court of Commissioners for Ecclesiastical Causes, and all other commissions and courts of like nature, are illegal and pernicious;

That levying money for or to the use of the Crown by pretence of prerogative, without grant of Parliament, for longer time, or in other manner than the same is or shall be granted, is illegal;

That it is the right of the subjects to petition the king, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal;

That the raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with consent of Parliament, is against law;

That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law;

That election of members of Parliament ought to be free;

That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament;

That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted;

That jurors ought to be duly impanelled and returned, and jurors which pass upon men in trials for high treason ought to be freeholders;

That all grants and promises of fines and forfeitures of particular persons before conviction are illegal and void;

And that for redress of all grievances, and for the amending, strengthening and preserving of the laws, Parliaments ought to be held frequently.

Obviously all of these were key elements in the decision of the colonies to rebel and played a major role in the later American Bill of Rights. However, for our discussion, we are concerned with the right to impose taxes.

As noted above, it was Parliament, not the king, which had the right to impose taxes. However, the British Constitution (unwritten, unlike the American one – as an American I must confess to being baffled how the UK makes this work) guaranteed representation in Parliament. There were no Americans in the Parliament. Therefore, the colonists argued, Parliament had no right to tax them. The counter-argument many in Parliament made was that the Americans enjoyed virtual representation by the entire Parliament. This was not a universally held view, William Pitt, a supporter of reconciliation with the colonies, stated, while Prime Minister in 1766:

The idea of a virtual representation of America in this House is the most contemptible that ever entered into the head of a man. It does not deserve a serious refutation. The Commons of America, represented in their several assemblies, have ever been in possession of the exercise of this their constitutional right, of giving and granting their own money. They would have been slaves if they had not enjoyed it.

As the American Revolution neared and broke out, Pitt and his supporters urged reconciliation and recognition of the Continental Congress. Early in the Revolution it was not independence the American rebels desired; it was their rights as free British men. Charles Pratt, Earl Camden, stated on the subject:

I can never give my assent to any bill for taxing the American colonies, while they remain unrepresented; for as to the distinction of a virtual representation, it is so absurd as not to deserve an answer; I therefore pass it over with contempt. The forefathers of the Americans did not leave their native country, and subject themselves to every danger and distress, to be reduced to a state of slavery: they did not give up their rights; they looked for protection, and not for chains, from their mother country; by her they expected to be defended in the possession of their property, and not to be deprived of it: for, should the present power continue, there is nothing which they can call their own; or, to use the words of Mr. Locke, ‘What property have they in that, which another may, by right, take, when he pleases, to himself?’”

This is where I feel the Tea Party movement is flawed in its attempt to link with the Boston Tea Party. Those protesters were against the fact that they were being taxed without the consent of their representatives. This does not mean every law passed by duly elected representatives is one you support. However, the fact that your representative is elected and must stand for re-election makes him accountable to you, the represented. The protesters at the Boston Tea Party argued – correctly in my opinion – that there was absolutely no one who was answerable to the American colonists. To be fair, if the British had allowed American representation in the Parliament (something the Americans did not really desire – they would have preferred to tax themselves) they would have made up a very small voting bloc, though it would put them on the same footing as other citizens of Great Britain as opposed to being taxed in a manner different from other citizens.

This is not the case for any citizen of the fifty United States of America. Every citizen with the right to vote is able to vote for two senators and a single representative. And because of this, the linkage to the Boston Tea Party is an inaccurate one. Unless you are fighting for the right for the citizens of Washington, D.C. to have representation.

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