What everyone gets wrong about their Revolutionary recollections and remembrances
Ask any school child in America why the colonies rebelled against King George III, and you’ll get a pretty consistent answer: taxation without representation. That is only partly true, as colonists had indirect representation, and were successful in wielding it. Yet, the conservative Tea Party “Patriot" movement and its current iterations exploit this misunderstanding in insisting upon a false accounting of our history, and this misunderstanding is the heart of American conservative anti-tax policy aims.
It turns out that historians estimate that until the Boston Massacre, somewhere around 70% of the American colonists opposed rebellion and were loyalist Tories from the extant letters, diaries, and colonial newspapers they’ve surveyed over time. It was truly the Boston Massacre that changed everything, and, in a matter of weeks, around 7 in 10 colonists would do an about-face in now opposing King George III.
Ask any school child again what happened, and they’ll retort that British soldiers opened fire on colonists who were throwing snowballs at those bloodthirsty, rapacious redcoats on Boston Commons, who were simply protesting the Intolerable Acts. Except that’s actually not true, at least according to John Adams who defended those redcoats who opened fire on the “snowball”-throwing colonists in court.
To understand why, we need to start at the beginning.
First, American colonists were not opposed to taxation in and of itself. In fact, the King’s colonists were grateful for his protection in the French and Indian War which had just saved their bacon from the massive combined French and Indian army. They knew they had a responsibility to help shoulder the cost of their defense, and were willing to do so.
We must remember George Washington gained his military and leadership experience in that war fighting as a redcoat to save the colonies from French rule. Many of our military commanders fought in this war, just a single decade earlier. Really, the American Revolution (aka Revolutionary War) [1775–1783] and the French and Indian War [1754–1763]) first have to be understood in their proper context as the American theater of the Seven Years War with France, an epic struggle of then two of the world’s colonial superpowers fought by land and sea.
And that’s also why post 9/11 “freedom fry”- loving America wasn’t as clever as they thought when they invoked memory of the world wars and insisted France wouldn’t exist without us, forgetting that we wouldn’t exist without French King Louis XVI whose armada and mercenary army he purchased for us made our country possible (although it led directly to his execution in the bloody French Revolution). More on that in a moment…
Many American colonists served in that conflict, and the English colonies were grateful for the presence of the redcoats just a few years earlier and dutifully sacrificed their sacred lives, fortunes, and honor to protect the colonies from the combined French and Indian forces. But the issue is that the only taxing mechanism that existed was one of customs duties on tangible goods, tariffs. And so each time Parliament raised a tax on stamps, or paper, or molasses, it disproportionately impacted a single sector of the American economy. In response, the colonists addressed their grievances by petition and through their friends in Parliament, exercising indirect representation, to Parliament, and Parliament subsequently repealed one customs tax, and replaced it with another. It’s why John Hancock was a smuggler.
So it is true that our founding fathers resented taxation without representation, but it is not true that they felt taxation itself was unfair, nor was it true they had no representation, despite the rallying cry’s insinuation to the contrary. To be fair, the accurate accounting is that they wanted direct representation and fair taxes.
The Boston Tea Party: A Tax Fairness Protest Antecedent to the Revolutionary War & Turning Colonists Against King
Ask any American school child what happened with the Boston Tea Party, and they’ll explain that a tax on tea led angry colonists to jettison millions of pounds of tea into Boston Harbor, dressed as Indians, probably the most notorious and historic act of rioting, vandalism, or looting in colonial history. Let’s be clear about this: the original Tea Partiers trespassed, committed fraud, stole property, and then destroyed and vandalized that property by dumping it into the ocean.
Except, they’re only half-right (about the colonists dressing up as Indians so that if there were reprisals, they’d likely be meted out by the redcoats on the local natives whose land they’d grown thirsty for). It turns out that the 1773 Tea Act was not a tax on tea at all.
Instead, it was a tax relief bill for the British East India Company, a private joint stock company frequently bailed out by Parliament and the Crown. Colonists had boycotted British tea so the largest corporation in the world had millions of pounds of tea rotting in Boston Harbor. As a result, they petitioned Parliament for tax relief on that rotting tea which was granted. But the ire of the colonists was raised not because they didn’t want to pay taxes as the Tea Party “Patriots” insist; rather, they were outraged that Parliament would give them a bailout while it kept levying different taxes upon the colonists that harmed various industries at different times.
Most colonists clearly felt responsible for paying a fair share for their own defense in the French and Indian War, but because of the lack of any other taxing mechanism and its unfair and disparate effects, and because while taxes were being levied on various goods and repealed, what was then the largest corporation in the world got a tax break, they were enraged to violence.
If only modern Americans could muster that kind of rage to loopholes in the tax code that Google and Facebook and Amazon can drive their yachts and Learjets through without even considering their offshoring of profits (not an incitement to violence but a wish for more serious upset)!
So to be more accurate, the Boston Tea Party was not a tax protest. It was a protest of tax fairness. It’d be like Congress raising taxes on you (like the Republican Tax Reform of 2017 did starting this year) while lowering taxes on Amazon or Walmart. Our forebears were up in arms over it.
The Intolerable Acts: The Crown Does Not Help Itself
But in response to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passed the so-called “Intolerable Acts,” which: allowed for general warrants called Writs of Assistance that permitted search and seizure without probable cause and were blank checks; required colonists to house and feed soldiers; restricted the ability of colonists to assemble or to protest or petition; enabled naval military tribunals with jurors comprised of enemies with indefinite detention on disease infested ships without access to lawyers, witnesses, charges or the evidence against them which was often lost (or whose witnesses had died) by their trials or with self incriminating evidence achieved through torture. It’s precisely why it took a Bill of Rights to create our country as a coalition of northern and southern delegates insisted upon its authorship in the compromise to guarantee ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty Conspire Against Colonists and Crown by Concocting the Boston Massacre to Sway Public Opinion (according to founding father and devout Christian John Adams who defended the soldiers in court).
And those Intolerable Acts then led Sam Adams in turn to hatch his scheme to turn loyalist Tory sentiment against the crown. At the Green Dragon Tavern, Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty conspired against the colonists as well as the Crown, at least according to John Adams who defended the redcoats who opened up on those innocent colonists throwing “snowballs” at them.
Sam and the Sons of Liberty conspired the night prior to take rocks and pack them with snow and ice to create snow covered ice-rock missiles, and they did so deliberately. That way, when the colonists who’d daily gathered in Boston Commons to protest the Intolerable Acts gathered, and the conspirators began lobbing the ice-rocks at the British soldiers charged with quelling violence, it’d appear to onlookers as if they were just throwing snowballs and simultaneously ensure the ice-rocks would be sure to draw a violent response that could then be used to turn the tide of colonial sentiment against the Crown. The ice rock throwers knew they risked their lives, and the rest is history.
Paul Revere’s famous silver engraving, The Bloody Massacre, visually and in text told the story of the Boston Massacre. It was reprinted by every colonial press so that, within weeks, a vast majority of colonists now supported revolution. Most Americans never learn that it was a propaganda event.
Revere’s “Bloody Massacre” told the version of the story we still tell our children in elementary school: the one with the snowballs. But John Adams’ version of events, the one with the ice-rock missiles, arguably the more credible account (he was a devout Christian and a principled man who risked approbation of his peers by defending those presumed murderous British soldiers, and still earned their support later for the presidency out of his fanatical integrity) still isn’t told until college, and then only tends to be discovered by those studying history professionally. So why then do we have to lie to our children, and why do so many adults never learn these facts?
The Heroic Minuteman Soldier as Mythic Culture Hero: America’s Founding Origin Myth
For a moment, back to Louis XVI’s mercenary army he purchased for us, and the armada he sent that saved our bacon at the last moment (which would lead to the end of the French monarchy in the bloody French Revolution), it’d seem that the average American really has a false sense of nationalistic pride in the heroism of those courageous minuteman soldiers we learned about in middle school or junior high at Lexington and Concord, best typified by the fictive depictions in Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. But we should have known from Braveheart that Mel takes certain liberties with history. For example, Longshanks and William Wallace did not have the relationship depicted in the film at all and that prima nocte, first night, thing where English noble lords in Scotland allegedly had rights to sleep with your bride to be on your wedding night was completely made up. It made for some really awful villains though.
It turns out our national memory of the minuteman soldier is a creation of patriotic fiction and a part of our national origin myth. In fact, a majority of the Continental Army by the end of the Revolutionary War weren’t even American colonists, but paid professional soldiers purchased by Louis XVI, and the rest were the colonial poor for whom a guarantee of food and shelter, albeit at risk of life, were better than begging or the work or poor house.
As to why the mercenary army and sending his armada to defend the American colonists led to the end of the French monarchy, Louis XVI raised taxes on the taxed third estate (the peasants and bourgeoisie [who would become the nouveau riche and Marx’s capitalist class, but at the time were the middle class of merchants and skilled craftsmen during mercantilism, the in between stage between feudalism and market economies]) while continuing to exempt the untaxed, tax exempt first (nobility, gentry) and second (clergy, church officials) estates from taxes to pay for it.
And contrary to the narrative peddled by the so called Tea Party Poseur Patriots, there never was this mythical time when America operated an austere budget without debt. Our founding fathers encouraged our nation’s indebtedness because they felt it would help the princes of Europe recognize this new upstart nation, or lead to its acceptance by the princes of Europe sooner or later.
In 2010 dollars, the debt we owed Louis XVI that he financed on the backs of peasants and craftsmen was about $13 B, debt we owed to France until France forgave our debt to them for our repaying the favor in World War I.
This led directly to the French Revolution and an end to the end of the French monarchy, as the third estate’s class war against the first and second estates succeeded.
Louis XVI’s armada saved the Continental Army as it was about to be mowed down by Lord Cornwallis at the Battle of the Chesapeake. He was poised atop a hill about ready to mow down the outgunned, outclassed, and outnumbered Continental Army when, at the very last minute, the French armada miraculously arrived and began pummeling Cornwallis' army with cannonfire from ships, leading it to sue for surrender in one of those true miracles in history like the Miracle of Dunkirk. But unlike true miracles achieved through Divine Providence (the idea that the Judeo-Christian God guides history), this one had been achieved through the skillful diplomacy and statesmanship of Franklin and Jefferson on the back of French peasants and merchants and artisans, and the timing was the only miracle as they arrived just in the nick of time to save the Continental Army’s bacon.
Without it, the Continental Army would have been crushed, and the United States of America would never have existed.
And as to the mercenary army Louis XVI bought for us, historians estimate that mercenaries made up 2/3 to 3/4 of the soldiers in the Continental Army by the end of the War.
Why do we lie to our children?
It turns out a new nation needed heroes and at the dawn of the early 19th Century (early 1800s), these myths found a home as we told ourselves in homes and churches and social clubs an origin myth that gave us pride in our accomplishments which actually largely were the accomplishments of others (which would work its way into schools and official narratives) which concealed the historical fact and truth that our new fledgling nation was simply a pawn in a broader war between two global superpowers for which we largely gave ourselves credit.
And we’re still giving ourselves credit annually on the Fourth of July, remembering a fictional story we invented to give us nationalistic pride after our founding to forge a new nation.
So why then do we tell ourselves we paid for our freedom in our own blood and to what effect? Well, the truth is stranger than fiction, and less noble to be sure.
Why then do conservatives prey upon the misunderstanding inculcated to our children in grade school, that bit about those nasty abusive taxes? And why don’t we tell our children that they believed in taxation for the common welfare? The false notion that we declared our independence over taxation itself (based upon the truth or original grievance of illegitimate or unfair taxation) is flatly a fabrication and a fiction. It was an insistence upon fairness in taxation.
Of course one might suspect because that narrative bolsters the far right’s agenda since the 70s to reduce taxes on the rich and corporations and minimize regulation on corporations, or Grover Norquist’s formulation to, “Shrink government to the size of a bath tub so you can drown it.”
But this Fourth of July, Americans all over will swell with nationalist, jingoistic pride in accomplishments that are not their own, wax poetic with emotion and insincere tears while they’ll proudly stand up and defend her still today, and falsely remember the sacrifices of our forebears, largely misunderstood, in order to continue to think of ourselves as superior to other human beings on planet earth in order to justify American empire across planet earth, to give us a sense of exceptionalism by which we can bolster against our insecurities for our historical sins. It’s true. Freedom isn’t free. It came at the expense of French peasants, native first peoples, and enslaved Africans and of the sacrifices of civilian and soldier alike after liberating the place from its rightful indigenous inhabitants, and building it with enslaved people.
Perhaps instead this year we can take a moment to reflect upon the truth which is stranger than fiction and see ourselves as a little less exceptional this year, and instead commit ourselves to the liberty of all oppressed people on earth, beginning with our nations’ first peoples and exploited formerly enslaved people. That would be something worthy of a principle like radical equality of all humans before the law, endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
Of course America’s contributions to both world wars in defeating fascism and opposing authoritarian Marxism in the Cold War must be dutifully noted who shed their blood to rid the world of both. We ought also remember all of those that served to defend the idea of republican self government in the Civil War and all of the soldiers and civilians who’ve died in the quest for a more perfect union, including those martyred in the struggle for civil rights for all Americans, as many Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation’s continued existence and freedom and pursuit of equality.
While most who fought in the Revolution were paid professional soldiers bought by France, many Americans during the Revolutionary War gave their lives as did the mercenaries.
Despite its fissures and flaws, America is still the only place on earth you can find people from every culture and creed living in relative harmony side by side and America as an idea still persists to provide hope and freedom to oppressed people, somewhat ironically as it is still grappling with its own history.
And maybe that is the hope and the promise real patriots and real Americans can fulfill, and maybe that begins by honest accounting of our history authentically by every citizen lest they be swayed by demagoguery into heinous acts as they so recently have been.