10/16/2011

Face it, you'd oppose the American Revolution...

As a British Officer at Ninety Six National Historic Site in South Carolina.
When I did living history many years ago I was always either a British soldier/officer or, in my civilian role, a dedicated Loyalist. This may seem strange and I was one of the very few civilian interpreters to don the mantel of King and Country. But, it was natural for me. Firstly, my family were Loyalists for the most part during the Revolution. Sure, by the end of the thing they'd made peace with neighbors and nominally embraced the rebellion but at the outset they all fought in Loyalist militias or assiduously avoided publicly joining the revolution. Secondly, I loved tweaking the noses of ultra conservatives who saw themselves as natural "patriots."

As one of the few voices of the Loyalists at events I often took great pleasure in pointing out just how misused the word "patriot" is today. One of my exercises was to lead people who considered themselves modern patriots to admit they would have, without question, been a Loyalist in 1775. Today, with the Occupy Wall Street protests going on nationwide it seems a wonderful time to revisit those ideas.

Do you agree that protestors should not be allowed to flout local laws that govern when and where protests can take place? For example, if they want to protest in a park but don't have a permit or permission from the city should they be arrested or the protest broken up? Or if they stay past the park's "closing time" should they be subject to arrest or citation? If you do, you would be a Loyalist in 1775.

A woman is arrested in NYC for demonstrating in public.
In the 18th Century it was not uncommon for local officials of the crown to break up protests or demonstrations by people who were angry over some act of the government. Whether peaceable or not, protests were met with swift and often lethal force. Reading the "Riot Act" was not just a turn of phrase back then but an actual prelude to violence by militias or regulars against citizens seeking redress from the government. If you have ever waxed "patriotic" over the Boston Massacre but feel that the Occupy Wall Street protestors in various cities around America have no "right" to stage a protest without government permission, permits, or outside proscribed times - then you are a hypocrite and you would have been a Loyalist.

Do you think that a "flat tax" or sales taxes or other types of "equal" duties should be implemented or raised so that landowners and the wealthy can enjoy lower taxes? Would you rather have everyone pay higher sales tax and no income or property taxes? If you do, you would probably be a Loyalist in 1775.


The people who love to tout sales tax laws as a way to do away with property taxes or income taxes are definitely following in the footsteps of Great Britain in the colonies. After all, a sales tax is pretty much what the duties that kicked off the American Revolution were. You place a tax on a product to generate revenue for the state so that it can do things like - keep up military spending (more on that in a moment). Today, the people who call for flat taxes which disproportionately hit the poor and middle class as well as those who advocate for unconscionable sales tax rates are wanting to impose the same types of taxes with the same economic disparity as Parliament in the 1760's and 1770's. We even have kept the Stamp Act intact in America to some degree although we don't use it on paper anymore. Today we have other items that must be "stamped" to be legal in most states: Tobacco, playing cards, and alcohol are common stamp act items! If you buy a bottle of Jack Daniels bearing a tax stamp without public protest you probably would have had no problem purchasing other items in 1765 with a stamp!

Do you take great pride in the military might of the country? Does military spending bother you - not that we spend too much but that we spend too little? Does the power to reach into nearly every corner of the world with our military muscle fill you with joy? Do you see no problem with a disproportionate degree of our debt going to pay for costly wars or weapons systems? If you do you would have been a Loyalist in 1775.

One of the most overlooked aspects of the American Revolution is what started it - really. During the Seven Years War (or as it is known in the US, The French and Indian War) Britain sent troops to North America to preserve the colonies from invasion by France. In addition they were fighting France in Europe. It was actually a pretty major world war. In fact, you could almost call it the REAL First World War. Regardless, all those troops, ships, and guns didn't come cheaply. Someone was going to have to pay for the huge national debt rung up during the war, not to mention all those forward operating bases that were now peppering North America to keep the French out near the Mississippi and away from the American colonies. But who was going to pay? Parliament figured it was only fair that since the colonists were the ones benefiting from not being invaded by the French they should at least share in the cost! It's only fair, right? How many Americans argued that after the Iraq invasion we should use their oil resources to offset the cost of bringing them democracy? And how did they approach taxation? Well, first, it was going to be taxing property. That sounds vaguely familiar to Americans who pay property tax on everything from houses and land to jet skis and motorcycles. But modern Americans chafe against those taxes just as their 18th Century counterparts so there are always those who are proposing ways to "eliminate" those taxes. Most involve various income tax schemes or - more usually - sales tax schemes. Exactly the same process instituted just before the Revolution. When the Penns get in an uproar about having their vast land holdings taxed they hire the best lobbyist, Benjamin Franklin, and the government switches to some other form of taxation - import/export duties and sales taxes. All of this economic disparity came about because of the need to maintain a vast global standing army. Exactly the same problems we face as Americans today with out vast global standing army and mini empire of forward operating bases around the world.

You see, on most of the major issues around the American Revolution today's citizens would have been staunchly Loyalist. In fact, the conservatives, Tea Partiers, and other "patriots" would have been the most zealous in all likelihood. They don't see this because they equate the wrong principles with patriotism. They conflate the ability to own a gun with being a patriot. That was not even an issue in 1775. Everyone in the colonies owned guns for the most part and Britain never passed a single law restricting that right either at home or abroad. The whole gun ownership thing comes from a mistaken understanding of what a militia was in the 18th Century. If you think of the militia like today's National Guard you're getting there. While not as formal as today's National Guard, a militia in the 18th century was still supplied by the state to a large degree. Thus, their weapons and ammunition cache were either funded or provided by the government (just as they are today). So when troops went to Lexington and Concord to secure weapons stockpiles and keep them out of the hands of rioters they weren't going into people's homes to steal their guns. Just as we would likely do today the army simply was making sure their property wasn't used in a riot against the government. I doubt a single Tea Partier today would grumble if some Occupy Wall Street protestors broke into a National Guard Armory and tried to take all the weapons but were stopped by the army. Guns and gun ownership were non-issues in the American Revolution.

Likewise, people often confuse "Freedom of Speech" with patriotism. However, in most circumstances we don't care too much for it in America. We enact laws at nearly every level of our society to restrict speech (and here I include freedom of assembly as well). We institute curfews for protests or gatherings. We institute permits and permissions that must be obtained from the very government being protested. We require onerous financial burdens to be able to exercise the freedoms. This usually comes in the form of requiring massive insurance policies (into the tens of thousands and even millions of dollars in premiums) to be able to secure permission to even assemble publicly! Yet, we do not protest the limitations on speech and assembly in America. We consider them the price of living in a "stable" society - just as our forebears in England did. So, nominal attention to these principles is not the same as the actual exercise of them.

Freedom of religion is another big bit of patriotic jibber jabber. Was freedom of religion restricted in Great Britain in the 1700's? Not so much. In America there were large numbers of religious denominations before the Revolution (just as there were in England). Quakers, Baptists, Anabaptists, Methodists, Anglicans, Catholics, Lutherans, Huguenots, Congregationalists, Jews, and many other sects who didn't survive. None of these groups were prohibited. There were some laws that restricted government positions to Anglicans only. However, this was a reaction to the religious wars that had plagued Europe for the past 200 years or so. Mostly they were aimed at Catholics and Puritan Separatists who were seen as destabilizing influences because of attempts to overthrow the government on the one hand (Catholics) and attempts to dissolve the Church of England on the other. Yet, today in Great Britain none of those restrictions remain. Nominally the C of E is still the official church of the nation but its influence is greatly diminished today. So, religion wasn't much of an issue before the Revolution. In fact, it's mainly mentioned in the Constitution not in reaction to England but because the chief authors of the document had concerns about one religious faction in America becoming so dominant they could force everyone to adhere to their point of view. In fact, Jefferson would probably argue with those Republicans who have stated publicly that anyone who does not believe in a "god" is unamerican. In effect, our ideas of "religious liberty" today are not so far from those of Great Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries. If you listen to any GOP debate, just substitute Catholic for Muslim or Puritan for Atheist and you'll still here the same religious fear today.

Let's face it. Most of the people today who consider themselves most "patriotic" would have been truly patriotic in 1775 too. By truly patriotic I mean they would have been loyal to king and country and opposed the rabble who were agitating and stirring up trouble for businesses and companies. Yet, today those people don the garb of the rabble who protested in the streets against a government they saw as unjust while simultaneously disparaging their fellow citizens who embody that spirit by taking to the streets demanding a voice in their own government again, economic equality, freedom of speech for the private citizen and not the corporate giant, and the right to be secure in their homes against predatory banks and lenders. Now, who's the true patriot and who's the true loyalist by the standards of 1775?

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