One Lump or Two?

A few days ago NPR reported how the Tea Party Movement draws its inspiration (at times erroneously) from Boston history. Specifically, it was pointed out, the original Tea Party in 1773 was a protest against, not just high taxes or fiscal profligacy, but taxation in the Colonies without representation in Parliament. Britain had incurred great debt protecting her American possessions in the French and Indian War (1754-63) and felt it only right that the colonists share in the expense. But “taxation without representation is tyranny” became the rallying cry, and soon the Mother Country had a full-scale rebellion on her hands.

In reality, taxation without representation was nothing new for Englishmen. At that time in Britain only about 3% of the male population could vote for their representatives in Parliament. The rest were considered to be “virtually represented.” As British evangelist John Wesley wrote in his “Calm Address to Our American Colonies” (1775), in which he tries to defuse bellicose sentiments on the other side of the Atlantic: “Indeed you had no vote for members of Parliament, neither have I, because I have no freehold [property] in England. Yet the being taxed by the Parliament is no infringement either of my civil or religious liberty.” Or as lexicographer Samuel Johnson had maintained earlier, “They [America] are represented, by the same virtual representation as the greater part of England.” That did nothing to satisfy the colonists, however, who saw such “virtual representation” as a mask for political corruption.

The Boston Tea Party was also the direct result of a government bailout of a major corporation. Tea imported to Britain had been subject to a 25% duty, not to mention other taxes. The high price tag had forced many Brits to buy blackmarket tea smuggled from Holland (where it was not taxed). The British East India Company had been hit hard by this turn of events and begged His Majesty’s Government for relief. This came in the form of a reduction of the tea tax in Great Britain and a refund to the Company of the duty levied on tea exported to America. (Wow, corporate socialism, even back then!) To make up for the loss in revenue, Parliament laid additional taxes on the Colonies, thus adding more tinder to an already smoldering situation.

But there are more similarities, not mentioned in the broadcast (or even in most American history classes). The French and Indian War had resulted in an economic downturn in the Colonies. Many were out of work, adding to the growing gap between rich and poor. If you asked the average working class colonist in 1763 whom he was angry with, Parliament or King George would probably not have topped the list. By 1770 wealth in the cities had become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Anger against the rich, whose increasingly lavish lifestyles drew deep resentment, erupted not infrequently in the burning of the homes of the wealthy. A bitter class war seemed likely.

Meanwhile, not only was Britain taxing her Colonies at a growing rate, but colonists could not sell the products they harvested or manufactured on the open market. Instead, they were offered a low fixed price, and the goods were then sold by British middlemen at a mark up. In addition, the British government had made a treaty with the Native American tribes that the Colonies would not expand beyond the Appalachians. That was bad news for those who had purchased land to the west or who had been given land grants there in exchange for military service. The economic elite among the colonists were outraged at these conditions, which limited both their profits and their ability to expand westward. Feeling their oats, they believed they no longer needed the Mother Country, though the Mother Country desperately needed their revenue.

The Sons of Liberty, therefore, who were agitators for separation from Britain and by no means poor or “average” colonists, saw an economic opportunity. As men of property and education, they detested mob violence. They also must have realized that to have the British Empire off their necks and out of their pockets was a capitalist’s dream, but if they did not act soon, their own interests too might be harmed by class warfare. What they needed to do was to find a way to channel the anger of the lower classes into the cause of freedom from colonial rule. Indeed, these patriots needed a groundswell of popular support to achieve their ends. As historian Howard Zinn points out, there was no covert conspiracy here, but a series of choices based on class interest, which had the same result. And that, folks, is how a class war became a war for economic and political independence. The rest, as they say, is history.

In a similar way, today the seething anger of average, hard-working Americans over the recent bank bailouts, rising deficits and unemployment, and corporate control of government has been seen as a threat to what our Founders called the “moneyed interests.” So the latter (Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Banks, etc.) have fought back by funneling tens of millions into self-serving propaganda, Tea Party organizing and the so-called Astroturf Summer, in an attempt to deflect rage away from the privileged and powerful (who caused the crisis to begin with) and to focus it on weaker or easier targets, such as immigrants, the welfare poor, minorities, Muslims, homosexuals, or progressive liberals, in addition to opposing issues such as climate change legislation, health care and immigration reform. To be fair to the Tea Partiers, I’m not saying that their sole inspiration came from the boardrooms at Pfizer, Goldman Sachs, and Exxon-Mobil, but that what may have started as a grassroots movement of outraged citizenry has been to a great extent hijacked by corporate spin doctors.

Divide and conquer. That is how the privileged class has remained in control and kept the lower classes in check from time immemorial. And you can imagine why. If the oppressed sectors of society ever joined forces again with a disaffected middle class, the resultant wave would flatten everything, making a more level playing field for all– in other words, real change. (I suppose to some I probably sound like a Marxist. I assure you I am not. I just love history.)

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2 Comments

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  1. My Sociology professor at Old Westbury would love you. You're her kind of guy; not to mention mine as well. So good to have you on our side Comrade!

  2. Are you still in touch with her? If so, invite her to dive in. We need her.

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