Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Taxes, the Tea Party, and the English Civil War

The Boston Tea Party of 1773 is celebrated by American historians, and more recently stamped into our minds by the cavorting of our contemporary Tea Party. While certain citizens of Boston in 1773 believed that they could be taxed only by their local representatives, our Tea Party believes, essentially, that all taxes are bad. In effect the Tea Party is a group of right-wing anarchists, for without taxes it is hard to maintain any sort of government whatsoever.

Of the multiple causes of the American Revolution, taxes were important but probably not paramount. National sentiment and desire for self-government were large factors. But there was a fundamental shift in the attitudes of America's elite between 1770 and 1776. Naturally conservative, in 1770 they mainly wanted to be represented in the British Parliament and perhaps even to be blessed by a knighthood. By 1776 the slave masters of the southern colonies did not want their colonies to be on British soil because slavery had been recognized as a fundamental violation of human rights in the ex parte Somersett ruling in English courts. The New England elite, involved in trade and manufacturing, did not like the limits the British Empire set on their business activities.

Whenever there has been taxation, there has been anti-tax sentiment. Many ancient historical texts mention taxes as a cause of rebellions. In the New Testament the Pharisees speak against Roman taxes, but Jesus refutes them. In English history the Peasant Rebellion of 1381 started when a man refused to pay the head tax. Even in Marxism one of the main talking points is that the Capitalist system has an inherent tax on labor (capitalists expropriate the value added by laborers) that can be eliminated by the proletarian revolution.

As precedents for the Tea Party revolt I would submit the events of the English Civil War of 1642 to 1651, which, along with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, was also the main precedent for the American Revolution. I do not mean to imply that the Tea Party will use violence to achieve its ends, though I cannot rule that out.

The English Civil War is often cast as a battle between the mainstream Anglicans, backed up by Roman Catholics, and the Puritans. Leaving that aside, it is cast as king and nobility versus the House of Commons, shortened to Parliament (which also includes the House of Lords). It also is used as an example of a people's revolt turning into a dictatorship, that of Oliver Cromwell.

Consider how all that reflects the changing economics of the 1600s. The hereditary nobility had prospered and become corrupted with greed and gluttony. Attracted to the Puritans were "the soberer part of the nobility ... with the merchant class and the smaller landowners." [1] Their early embrace of thrift and free market economics was reflected in their Presbyterian disdain for religious authorities, Catholic Pope and Anglican bishops alike. Despite the wealth and power of the nobility, many had mismanaged their inheritances, and tended to live on credit. King James I hated both Presbyterian doctrines and the idea that money could be earned by a man's actions, rather than simply inherited.

James I and his son King Charles I asserted the old Catholic idea of the Divine Right of Kings. This was not just a religious idea, but a rational for absolute power. He handed out monopolies in a variety of goods to the king's friends, causing the goods to cost far beyond what they would have been in a free market. Thus the hard work and thrift of the people was eaten up by the monopolies, taxes, and debauchery of the King and Lords. King Charles had originally called the Long Parliament in 1640 specifically to raise more taxes.

When this civil war began, after a long, complex political struggle, all thought it would be decided in a single battle. The first real battle of the war was Edgehill on October 23, 1642. The forces of Parliament did not win a final military victory until 1651. Even then, the Monarchy was restored in 1661.

Every new government finds itself in the position of needing to collect taxes, if only to pay the police and military needed to exert its own authority. Any money the Tea Party saves by dismantling Social Security, food stamps, and other forms of welfare would simply be replaced by the need to pay an army to suppress the hungry and impoverished population.

Even the creation of the U.S. Constitution was primarily about giving the emerging national ruling class the power to collect taxes. To the extent the Tea Party is not just recycled robber baron rhetoric, they should be attacking the Constitution, not waving it like a flag. The Articles of Confederation are much more anti-tax than the Constitution.

To some extent the Tea Party is a political awakening that has been partially diverted to support the corporate security state program. I am glad that Americans are reading our Constitution. It is a short document, more easily read than the Federalist Papers or Anti-Federalist Papers that provide so much context. At the same time, we are no longer a rural nation governed by an aristocracy of slave owners. If anything, we need to amend the Constitution to align it with our modern reality.

1. Locke, J. Courtenay, "Cromwell and the Puritans", chapter 130 of Universal World History, Wm. H. Wise Co., 1937, page 2153.

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