July 4, 1776. Members of the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence, a document full of more bluster and whining than any preceding quasi-legal statement in the history of civilization.
Why did they sign it? Well, our grade school history books and TV news pundits all agree: it was the unfairness of “taxation without representation”. That’s what caused the unction. This sense of unfair taxation drove all the other schisms between the colonies and the Crown: the trade imbalances, the anger over Royal Army excesses, the sea piracy, etc etc.
For most of my life, I accepted “taxation without representation” as the bumper sticker of our just cause. But a few years ago, I started asking myself: why did Britain levy such burdensome taxes on us? Were they greedy? Or were they just being assholes?
Well, as I dug deeper, I discovered something rather tawdry: the Crown had a damn good reason to tax us.
As a colony of Great Britain, our defenses were provided and paid for by the Crown. Britain was more than happy to go to any length to keep us secure from foreign invasion and Injuns. The colonists didn’t pay a dime for it. Kind of like how Japan is nowadays secured by the US and its taxpayers. For centuries, everything was hunky-dory. Britain took care of us, we sent her cotton and tobacco.
But in the early 18th century, the colonists started doing dumb shit. Mostly, we expanded into Injun lands and constantly fucked around with the French. All these expansionist squabbles inevitably landed at the feet of the redcoats. Britain sent more and more soldiers to clean up our messes. Each new division came with stern warnings from the Crown: stop fucking around with the Indians and the French; stay within your borders; don’t antagonize the natives!
What did we do? We expanded our colonial borders, we fucked with the French and we harassed the Injuns. This ridiculous escalation went on for decades. To make matters worse, Britain was already engaged in her regular round of land wars in France. The colonies were becoming a liability.
By the 1760′s, the costs of cleaning up America’s messes were becoming extreme. Tax rates for Londoners had never been higher. This was creating a political crisis in Parliament. The King had lost patience. If the colonists are going ignore reason and act like idiots, they will have to pay for the privilege. Taxes were soon levied on tea, stamps, paper and every other damn thing that the colonies needed from Britain. Just a penny here and a penny there to help pay for our endless unfunded expansionist proclivities.
Many colonists accepted these costs. But America is a nation founded on, and sustained by, whining about taxes. As tensions mounted, the colonists started dividing among Loyalists and Rebels. This often split families in two (Benjamin Franklin’s son William, governor of New Jersey, was a staunch loyalist who was imprisoned and eventually fled to England).
The Loyalists felt that America was vulnerable and powerless without Britain, at that time the greatest imperial power on Earth. Without Britain’s support, the colonies were just a hodge-podge of backward rubes. The Rebels felt that their tax whining and the resultant strong measures from the Crown were cause to secede. They would rather be backward rubes who weren’t paying a tea tax than backward rubes paying a tea tax.
It was touch and go. The rebels had no majority and no army (after all, they didn’t like paying for armies in the first place). But there is an air of romance to independence. Who wants to be told what to do? Who wants to owe their welfare to a foreign power? Well, the Loyalists did. In the 1770′s, the world was a scary place. European alliances came and went with bloody regularity. The Loyalists felt that Britain, their mother country, was the best bet in an uncertain world. An independence with lots of land and resources and no military security was a foolish independence.
And they were right. The Revolutionary War was won on a shoestring. Without last minute assistance from Poland and France, we would today be ordering two and chips and drinking Carlsberg at the pub. Or even worse: we may have lost the war yet dissuaded Britain from maintaining her sovereignty over the colonies and ended up French or – God forbid – Spanish.
But alas, Gates beat Burgoyne at Saratoga, the tide of the war changed and here we are, eating hot dogs on July 4 and whining about taxes. What could be more American?
Certainly there’s pride in being independent. Despite our slave trade, our genocidal displacement of the Indians, our corporate excesses, our imperial overseas adventures and our embarrassing buffoonery, America also works damn hard to maintain a democratic republic and we’re far and away the biggest philanthropic force on Earth. Our independence beckons folks from all over the world. We end up with American Einsteins, American Pulitzers and American Ang Lees all over the place.
Just like our schizophrenic Loyalist/Rebel roots, America is a force of unspeakable evil and global good. Nonetheless, since learning more about the birth of the nation (hyuk!), I have concluded that we would have done better under British rule. As the centuries passed and society evolved, a deep US-UK alliance would have avoided the Civil War, cut short the two World Wars and made both nations more robust. It would have ended slavery earlier and limited our voracious “Manifest Destiny” (America’s unapologetic Lebensraum).
The British really need our rugged individualism. And we really need some British reserve. The British need our strength and our global reach. We need conservative British resource management. The British need our varied palate and we need to elevate our aesthetics to a British standard. Britain and America: two great western powers that go great together!
So this July 4, I’m raising a glass to the Crown. While everyone else is bellowing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”, I’ll be singing…
God save our gracious Queen
Long live our noble Queen
God save our Queen!
Send her victorious
Happy and glorious
Long to reign over us
God save the Queen!