July 04, 2005

"They Just Didn't Want To Pay Taxes"

Every so often you'll come across some idiot who thinks he has an ingenious grasp of history and is challenging the status quo, but in reality his uninformed opinions have been rehashed for decades or centuries. One of the most common is that the Founders were simply over-hyped tax cheats and that America was founded on not paying taxes. While the American hostility toward taxation was undeniable, the situation was far more complex.

The British argued that the taxes levied on American colonists were to pay for the defense of the colonies. Wrong! The British had just fought the Seven Years' War (the French and Indian War). Lest someone assume that the French and Indian War was prosecuted for the interests or defense of Americans, let's be clear: this was an imperial war and a European territorial war. It was almost entirely a continuation of thew War of Austrian Succession - another war not fought for the interests of America. The Seven Years' War was an alliance of Austria, France and Russia against Prussia and Great Britain. The fighting started in Ohio and was mainly maneuvering between two large empires. The British and French also fought in India, the Philippines, the Caribbean, coastal Africa and of course Europe. Suggesting that the British were fighting in India for the good of Boston or Charleston is absurd.

The soldiers (supported by taxes levied on American colonists) weren't there for the defense of Americans. The French had just been defeated in North America and were even less of a threat than they had been before. Why the need for troops, then? To cement central authority and to prevent Americans from settling westward. British troops burned countless homes of settlers attempting to settle to the west. The taxes were going to pay for the soldiers tasked with destroying American homes. Of course, few Americans were harmed in the burnings, and would build a replacement home very quickly - so quickly that settlers were building more homes than the British could burn down. But to say that these troops were there for the colonists' defense is not entirely accurate.

When the British soldiers came to fight in the American West in the French and Indian War, they saw how the colonists lived. Americans had the lowest tax burdens in the British Empire and in the world. They had large homes, large plots of land, ample trade and lived better than most British in England did. This fueled the argument for greater taxation when officers and soldiers reported the American affluence to their superiors in England. England was in serious debt due to its colonial ambitions around the world. In addition, British citizens living in England paid roughly twenty-six times more in taxes than did their American counterparts after the Seven Years' War. The solution seemed obvious to parliament: tax the prosperous Americans who benefit from England's mercantilist policies and military protection. To be fair, the taxes parliament levied on the American colonies after 1765 weren't economically crippling, but after over one hundred years of salutary neglect and colonial rule, the colonists had no interest in surrending power or liberty to England.

It was not about 'paying their fair share' or anything similar. The Americans hadn't been invaded all the decades previously and had handled defense situations without major British taxes.

Other people say that the tax-cheating Americans were smugglers who didn't appreciate attempts to cut down their black-market business. Of course, this argument leaves out the mercantilism of British colonial policy. All goods from America were supposed to go to Britain and then sold or re-shipped from there. This was supposed to keep the central government at the top of the trade business. Smugglers would naturally oppose taxes aimed at blocking their business because smuggling had been tacitly allowed for decades. Under salutary neglect, the British Parliament and Crown more or less let the colonists do as they wished. Smuggling was not very strictly policed, nor were large amounts of taxes collected. Salutary neglect was the equivalent of a respectful distance. Ending that respectful distance was bound to meet with opposition from the people who were doing things that, though illegal, were not often prevented.

To say that the American Revolution was all about tax dodging is grossly inaccurate. The fact is that Americans were not treated as full British citizens and did not have a government dedicated to looking out for them. "Taxation without representation" was a fitting phrase for the time: the problem wasn't with taxation itself because colonists had been paying taxes to their legislatures for over one hundred years. Taxes were accepted as an integral part of life in the colonies and British Empire. The American colonists opposed a foreign parliament--a parliament in which Americans had no representation--levying a tax without the consent of the colonies, especially since that tax was 1) unprecedented and 2)imposed to pay for a war the American colonists did not initiate. When repeated petitions and letter-writing committees failed and violence broke out, revolution was a natural step to address the gross inadequacies of the British colonial system in America.


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