Much is correct in the Tea Party’s position, but it lacks historical perspective. To clarify, consider the name of Wilkes-Barre, the Pennsylvania town, founded 1769. The name comes not from its founders but rather honors two men who fiercely supported the rights of Americans (who were then Englishmen) in Parliament. Col. Barre was a hero of the French and Indian Wars in which one Lt. Col George Washington also played a significant role leading government intervention to protect the settlers along the frontier from raids by the Indians and French. As a Member of Parliament, Barre delivered a rousing but unsuccessful speech against the Townsend Acts, recorded in a February 11, 1765 letter from a colonial representative in London to Thomas Fitch, former governor of the Connecticut Colony. In his speech, Barre described the colonials as “Sons of Liberty,” a name the colonials readily adopted.
John Wilkes campaigned against the fact that over half of Parliamentary Seats came from ‘rotten boroughs,’ where landed gentry so controlled them that they were often bought, sold or given to family and supporters. Wilkes was elected to Parliament, expelled by the powers that be, and ran again, only to have the government disqualify his votes. People rioted in the streets of London, crying “Wilkes and Liberty,” which became a toast from New England to South Carolina. His dismissal was reversed and he became an even stronger advocate of liberty and personal rights, both in England and America. Usurprisingly, the colonials he had supported against the British ruling classes honored him and Barre by naming their town after them. It also shows us where the current Tea Party has gone badly astray.
History lets us define what would become the roots of American Independence, not as the colonials versus England but as a shared battle for the common man’s rights against a corrupt and, as it turned out, incompetent British ruling class. The aforementioned Townsend Acts were an example, designed primarily to raise revenues and make colonial administrators and judges beholden to the Crown, not the colonists. The Acts attempted to establish the right to tax the colonies, though the law clearly held that British subjects could not be taxed without permission of their Parliamentary representatives. This stupidity led directly to the Boston Massacre of 1770. Townsend, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, needed revenues because Parliament had voted a huge tax cut for the wealthy, reducing their Land Tax—a principal source of income—by 30%. Things were becoming startlingly similar to present-day America.
The American colonists were not the only victims of the resulting deficit caused by tax cuts for the wealthy. England’s common man was also preyed upon. Parliament imposed a cider tax, enacting laws that let revenue agents enter any establishment where they thought cider might be sold or made. William Pitt, whose House of Lords arguments led to the law’s repeal, thundering against this invasion of liberty with his famous reaffirmation of the law, first established in 1628, that an Englishman’s home is his castle (right: Pittsburgh is named after him). The colonials, subject to invasive measures similar to the cider tax, had—according to Wilkes, Barre, Pitt, and many others in England—the identical rights of representation.
Another direct parallel with the present caused the 1773 Tea Party. England had its own ‘Too-big- to-fail’ financial behemoth, the British East India Company, with its own navy and an army in India, so closely tied to the Government as to be almost indistinguishable. It accounted for a significant percentage of London traders’ and financial firms’ income, not to mention incomes of Members of Parliament and the House of Lords, who held much of its stock. History repeats. As with all such endeavors, the East India Company had got itself in trouble. To insure that the company could pay its dividend to its wealthy shareholders, it received a massive tax ‘refund’ on the tea it already owned. This should have enabled it to undercut the tea market in Boston and elsewhere for a huge profit, harming many New England merchants. The British elite bailed out their financial sector while harming main street, just as today. Dumping the tea into Boston harbor prevented immediate damage, but independence was clearly the only permanent solution.
In the run-up to the American Revolution, the colonists may have been unruly but—vs. the modern Tea Party—acted in their own considered self-interest. Such is not the case today, as the Tea Party supports candidates who deny science, economic reality and a common sense of fairness. They caused the election of people like Walker in Wisconsin and Kasich in Ohio, who turn around and try to take away the very freedoms that the colonials so cherished, and invoke the great names from American history (not Reagan) as supposed supporters of their cause. Such behaviour would have sorely puzzled the founding fathers. Leaders like Franklin and Jefferson were active in the Enlightenment, seeing the value of science and logical reasoning, a capability also lacking in much of the modern Tea Party movement. They would also have puzzled at the lack of cogent understanding of trade, taxation and technology, but in all fairness, that weakness is endemic to far too much of our elected ‘leadership’.
I wonder what questions Jefferson and Franklin would have asked the man in the illustration about his cell-phone technology vs. his yearnings for an ahistoric past, not to mention that large bus in the background that apparently spends so much time traveling on the federal interstate highway system, built by the government that they founded. One can only hope that the Tea Partiers, riding in their slogan laden busses which were no doubt funded by the Koch brothers and their ilk, hit enough potholes in our decaying infrastructure to jar them into turning down the path that leads to the common good and shared freedoms, as the founding fathers intended.
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