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Taxation without Representation

December 16, 2018 (1,248 words)

Our youngest is a senior in high school this year. He is studying the War of 1812 in History, and writing about it in English. The other night we both found ourselves standing in the kitchen, waiting for the water to boil for pasta, and I asked him how things were going. The following transcript is a reasonable facsimile of the exchange that followed.

Son: The War of 1812 is generally considered the “Second American Revolution.”

Father: Yes, that’s true. But it’s really not, that war is really the third. The second American Revolution was the Whiskey Rebellion.

S: No kidding? You don’t hear too much about that one these days…

F: Because it has been sort of swept under the rug. AR#1 (1775-1783) was when rich white guys rebelled against George III. AR#2 (1791-1794) was when poor farmers and distillers in western Pennsylvania tried to rebel against the rich white guys who had successfully thrown off the yoke of English rule a few decades earlier.

S: Wait a minute, there weren’t enough rich white guys to fight the American Revolution. It was a cause that attracted widespread support.

F: Well, yes, there are never enough rich white guys to fight any war. This is not to suggest such advantaged men do not serve and bleed. Only that proportionally speaking, the majority of combatants are always the common rabble. Wars are fought to protect or advance economic advantage. Most who fight and die, or who are irreparably harmed as a result of their participation, have no compelling economic interest at stake that prompts them to go to war, and they gain no long-term economic advantage from serving in such conflicts.

S: Then how did the American Revolution gain such popular support?

F: That’s a good question. How does any war gain popular support: through propaganda and rabble-rousing.

S: That doesn’t sound right. We’ve all been taught it was the dramatic Boston Tea Party that occurred on December 16, 1773 at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston, Massachusetts that sparked our revolt against England. It was everyday American colonists – members of the Sons of Liberty, disguised as Mohawk Indians, and not the landed gentry or business class – who were frustrated and angry at Britain for imposing “taxation without representation,” and who dumped 342 chests of valuable British tea into the harbor.

F: Yes, I remember. I was there that night.

S: Come on, it was a popular uprising. We showed Great Britain that Americans wouldn’t take taxation and tyranny sitting down. It helped rally American patriots across the thirteen colonies to fight for independence.

F: Sorry, son. I am really not trying to be argumentative or disagreeable here. But the taxes we were so worked up about were levied to help pay for the French and Indian Wars the British had already fought on our behalf. And the lack of representation we wanted to remedy would require a three-month boat ride just to check into Parliament and say “hello”. That all this came to a boil in the way it did was most certainly the result of propaganda and rabble-rousing.

(Editor’s Note: For more on this subject please consult Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. The author is Matthew Stewart, and his fine piece of writing was up for a National Book Award in 2014. Mr. Stewart and I disagree over whether the revolution was a worthy cause. He thinks it was, while I do not. Nevertheless I owe him a debt of gratitude for educating me on the under-reported ideological strains of that revolution.)

S: Okay, but it all worked out for the best, right? We got the Constitution, and that’s a good thing, right?

F: Well, let’s look at that particular chain of causality a bit more closely…

England had rebelled against the Catholic Church in 1534, when its Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, declaring Henry VIII the “supreme head on earth of the church of England.” The Founding Fathers were, with one or two minor exceptions, British Protestants who had long-ago bought into their mother country’s walk-back from any sort of clerical oversight.

Our most prominent founders, such as the ones who penned the Constitution, were not just Protestants, but enthusiastic followers of the Enlightenment. That was the hot new intellectual movement at the time, which took the old Protestant idea of “individual conscience” quite a few steps further down the road of “there is no such thing as an objective moral order to the universe, no such thing as an objective right-or-wrong.”

The rejection of an objective moral order has been enshrined for us as “the separation of church and state.” The men who founded our country thought religious belief and practice to be a strictly personal matter that should not infringe on the public square, and should specifically not impede economic behavior. This, of course, is a direct violation of Catholic social teaching.

… the freedom to pursue one’s own aggrandizement

And in the end this is what the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment have amounted to: the freedom to pursue one’s own aggrandizement. (Even though the first wave of Protestant proponents thought worldly success was an earthly indicator of their eternal salvation).

Our country is based on an amalgamation of Protestant and Enlightenment philosophy. The distillation has produced a strictly materialist premise: the protection of individual freedom, and the pursuit of individual happiness.

This ideology, this founding philosophy, has admittedly been wildly successful in allowing a large swath of the general populace to improve their material circumstances, with a noticeably small minority amassing a truly incredible level of wealth. Neither of which is necessarily a problem, by the way.

But here in the early years of the 21st century, after two hundred years of unprecedented prosperity, family ties and the social fabric are in tatters. The emotional-mental-spiritual equilibrium of many otherwise successful people is experiencing a not-so-subtle sense of malaise. What we have unwittingly accepted is an awkward, unfortunate trade-off: a tangible improvement in material well-being, for a faltering sense of spiritual well-being.

As an example of this trade-off, we of a certain age now enter our final years questioning why we have spent our lives the way we have, chasing the next shiny bauble. We own everything we could possibly want, and then some. Yet our search for meaning is coming up short. This is the modern dilemma, writ large.

Even limiting my political analysis to the secular benchmarks of liberty and democracy, our country is still not the unmitigated success of popular legend. For all the talk of American Exceptionalism, and of our being a shining city on a hill – for all the freedom we are so proud of – we have not yet figured out how to make the grand material improvements accessible to every strata of society.

… the common good eludes our economic formula-makers

The common good continues to elude our economic formula-makers. There are still large pockets of disadvantaged and dispossessed sprinkled throughout our great nation. Here in the densely populated Northeast Corridor, in many cases the forgotten ones carry out their meager existence mere blocks from where we ourselves have chosen to live.

(Editor’s Note: This is the kind of casual conversation my off-spring are forced to endure on a typical spaghetti night, which may explain why they tend to move out at the earliest opportunity.)

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
December 16, 2018

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