Anti-Tax Populism versus the Actual Boston Tea Party (and History in General)

by Neil H. Buchanan

This past weekend, I was in Boston for the first time in a few years.  Because I had never gone to any of the local tourist attractions during the ten years that I lived there, my brother and I decided to go to a few of the Revolutionary War-era sites that are scattered around the area.  I was not expecting to end up with fodder for a column here on Dorf on Law, but I guess this proves that I am never truly off the clock.

In any case, I found it interesting to compare and combine the information provided at two historic sites.  The Boston Tea Party site includes a replica of one of the merchant ships involved in that historic moment, which was included as part of a guided tour of an onsite museum/tourist attraction.  A few miles away, the Bunker Hill site in Charlestown included a demonstration of musket firing along with narrated information about the battle there in 1775.

As I will explain below, there is an interesting difference between the way the two historic sites treat the supposedly anti-tax message of the American Revolution.  But even taking those differences into account, the overall conclusion is that modern conservatives have (deliberately or not -- but probably deliberately) mangled American history in the service of their present-day reactionary agenda.

I confess that I was a bit hesitant to go to the Tea Party site.  Although the City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are hardly hotbeds of right-wing views these days, I worried that the site might have become actively politicized or at least somewhat tense.  To my pleasant surprise, however, there was no sign of political conflict.

At that site, actors presented an interactive experience in which tourists were given cards with quick bios of people who were involved in the original Tea Party, with some of the tourists given speaking roles and the rest of us invited to think like the people we were representing.  I did not volunteer to perform, but the experience was fun for me and apparently for all involved.

I wondered whether the script would be straight-up propaganda against taxation and government, but that was thankfully not their agenda.  Indeed, when the actor leading the town meeting did a call-and-response with the tourists in attendance, he said, "Taxation without _____," and the crowd yelled "representation" before the actor finished, "is tyranny!"  Given how often the modern anti-tax crowd has left out the "without representation" part of that rallying cry, this was a relief.

Even so, there was no indication at all from the presentation that the original Tea Party protest was not against taxation but was instead against a special-interest tax break, which truly changes the story.  Historian Joseph Thorndike of Tax Analysts put the point well in 2010 in an article provocatively titled "Americans Don't Mind Taxes -- They Hate Tax Loopholes":
"We've long agreed to pay the price for civilization. We just can't tolerate anyone looking for civilization on the cheap. 
"Consider the Boston Tea Party, the creation myth for today's anti-tax activists. It was a protest not against taxes but against tax loopholes. The colonists who dumped tea into Boston Harbor were objecting to a special tax exemption that Parliament had granted to the East India Company, a well-connected enterprise that in the early 1770s happened to be in dire need of a government bailout."
This historically accurate story -- that the colonists were complaining that the East India Company was not only being given a tax break but that the tax break gave the Company an advantage over colonial tea sellers, and certainly not that anyone was complaining about high taxes -- truly changes our understanding of early American history.  It was a bailout of a politically connected company that enraged people, not a tax on tea.

The 2010 auto company and financial bailouts inspired a lot of anti-Obama activism and birthed the modern reactionary Tea Party movement, but the most that one can say is that those bailouts were possibly too generous under the circumstances and that both Democrats and Republicans failed to impose meaningful conditions on the recipients of those bailouts.  I certainly understand why that kind of sweetheart deal would spark populist protests, but that is still wildly different from the idea that bailing out the financial system was a bad idea.

Indeed, virtually every economist I know would argue that our situation would have become much worse in 2010 and afterward if we had allowed the auto companies and financial system to fail.  The problem, again, was not the bailouts themselves but the reality that the bailouts were unnecessarily generous (even as people were losing their homes through foreclosures that were themselves in some cases legally sketchy).  So even the 2010 situation was not about bailouts but about special pleading.

The actors at the Boston Tea Party site were very good at their jobs, but their script certainly involved a lot of booing and hissing at the very word tax, which I found depressing.  Again, however, they at least avoided the modern version of anti-tax activism, which seems to boil down to the claim that taxation -- with or without representation -- is per se tyranny.

Meanwhile, over at the Bunker Hill historic site, one can find tour guides discussing the Revolutionary War from a broader perspective.  The musket-firing demonstration involved a fascinating description of how the battle and its antecedents could be viewed from three different perspectives: a revolutionary colonist, a British officer, and a slave.

I was worried when the script there centered on the musket itself, with the narrator describing it as a "tool," which hinted at the possibility that the performance would reinforce an inaccurate view of the Second Amendment.  To my relief, however, the actor described how each person would view a musket from their own reasonable perspective.  Although the slave's perspective is compelling in its own right, I leave it aside here because that story (as important as it is) is not central to my overall point in this column.

The actor described how a colonist would have thought of a musket as an everyday tool that also happened to be useful to stand up against the British soldiers -- although of course those soldiers were much better-equipped and -trained than the colonists were -- in an effort to win his liberty.

More interestingly, however, she described how the British officer could honestly view his role as liberty-enhancing, noting that at that time Great Britain had more political representation and guaranteed more liberties (to only a slice of the population, to be sure) than almost any other country in history.  The British perspective would thus be that the colonists were heading toward anarchy or a new form of tyranny, and it was the officer's job to prevent that from happening.  Paternalistic yes, but not necessarily inaccurate.

Notwithstanding the historical nuances that such a story surely misses, I was fascinated by the inclusion in the actor's script of the fact that the American colonies were among the least-taxed areas of what would then have been called "the civilized world."  So a British person (and certainly an officer in His Majesty's Armed Forces) could have reasonably viewed an anti-tax argument in the colonies as utterly absurd.

Additionally, the script included the clarification that those taxes that the colonists actually were paying were imposed to pay off debts incurred to fight the French and Indian War two decades earlier.  By contrast, the script for the actors at the Boston Tea Party site claimed that those debts had long been paid off, and the taxes in the 1770's were being sent back to London.  Even if the latter claim is the more accurate of the two, however, it is not at all clear why all taxes paid by a local jurisdiction must be spent within that jurisdiction.  Among other things, it is truly difficult to track the true beneficiaries of any national government's spending.

This is not to say, of course, that all of the information at Bunker Hill was in some sense an apologia for royalism.  Instead, they engaged in a careful and serious effort to present a multi-sided story about the motivations and the possible rightness and wrongness of different people at that time.  The actor even said at one point (crediting her co-performer for the line, which was a generous touch): "If you're looking for a good-versus-evil story, we're sorry, but this isn't 'Star Wars.'"

In the end, this all adds up to nothing close to the anti-tax story that has now become a commonplace on America's reactionary right -- a story that has generally not been challenged by the rest of us.  The taxes in the American colonies were relatively low, they were imposed mostly or entirely to fund expenditures that benefited the colonists, and the Boston Tea Party was in any event a reaction to some combination of non-democratic lawmaking and what we would now call corporate welfare.

Other than getting everything wrong, therefore, current anti-government zealots make a great case.