There are times when it is difficult to look at the flag without just feeling overwhelmed. We are, after all, a nation that was born out of sacrifice, out of the willingness of men and women to offer their last breath of devotion to a cause greater than themselves. In the darkest days of trial and tribulation, when the tapestry of this Union tore, and threatened to rip it apart, they stood with courage as a beacon of light and hope. When the world set itself ablaze in the fires of War, with tyranny and oppression, hatred, death and destruction ripping our innocence from us, they offered themselves as a ransom for the victims of despair. It is a tradition that remains today with the fallen of each War and Conflict, with each struggle that lays before us as they stand in defense, willing to live and to die under that flag for our freedom.
These were people’s fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, and when we needed them most they answered the call, giving freely and without reservation, without a question of whether it was worth it or not.
Today is Memorial Day, a time when we honor those who have fallen, those who stood on the threshold and crossed so we could partake in the freedom we enjoy today, and make no mistake, because of them we are free. We may not always agree with the direction our Country is going in, but we can speak out because of them. We may not always like our politicians but we can replace them because of them. We may complain about aspects of our life, but we have the chance to make it better, we have the chance to rise above, because of them. In that sense Memorial Day doesn’t just begin and end on May 29th, 2017 or May 30th, 2016 or May 28, 2018. Whether we recognize it or not, we live it each and every day of our lives as we realize we are free to think, to do, to be.
I don’t want to take away from the day that we have to honor our fallen or the sacrifices that thy have made. They are, and always have been, the best and the bravest that we have to offer and they bought our freedom with their blood. We cannot begin to honor their sacrifice for liberty enough for all they have given us. What I want to say is that as today fades into the next, and the next after that, do not let the sacrifices they have made fade to the back of your mind. Honor them each day, feel the deep and abiding gratitude for it each and every day, letting their light shine your way. Look to the flag that they held high with their last breath and see their faces, hear their names, remember the burden that they took on. Give freely of yourselves, and offer of yourselves, knowing that we live in their legacy of love and hope.
We are a people who owe so much to those who have fallen. The least we can do is to dedicate our lives to honoring them by honoring and cherishing what they were willing to offer themselves up for.
How far would you trust the current Congress? Would you trust the House and the Senate to take up the cause of your individual rights and freedoms? Would you vest in them the power of Government, with new, more broad expansions of the control that they currently have on the promise of these politicians that they would ensure your rights and freedoms?
We probably wouldn’t. Living in a day and an age when the Bill of Rights is seen more as a hurdle to get over than a framework for responsible government, we probably wouldn’t believe the assurance even of well-meaning politicians to do protect our liberties. Yet as the Constitution was ratified that was exactly what the states and the people did. They ultimately agreed to approve this vast expansion of the powers of government in the promise that these politicians would take to the Congress to draft a Bill of Rights ensuring that as the political rights of the nation were entrenched in the Constitution the Individual Rights of the People would be ensured in an equally powerful document.
In Part Two of this series on the Bill of Rights we leave behind the British Magna Carta, Petition of Rights and Bill of Rights, those documents that were brought to America by the Colonists, and we focus on the path to our own Magna Carta Americana, our own declaration of Rights, and how the ratification process for the Constitution ensured its inevitable passage. Looking at the role of the Massachusetts Compromise, the thoughts of men like James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and other early American leaders we chart the contentious course of the Constitution and how its passage came with the stipulation that a Bill of Rights would need to come from the first Congress. We look at the personal struggles that the Constitution brought as Founders were vilified and Madison almost witnessed the death of his own political career.
I hope that you join with me in this next installment of this series on the road to the Bill of Rights.
It’s been a little while since I have had the chance to continue with this line of posts. A busy few weeks for me, the free time I have had has been spent putting together more podcast episodes. Still, I consider our move toward a more ahistorical society one that needs serious attention and focus.
What perhaps reminded me of this fact was a conversation that I was having with someone online. A history teacher, he was talking about how he felt like, at certain times, students drew the wrong lesson because they only took a snippet of time or a single moment to define their historic assessment. A sincere lover of history, who spends his free time talking about it and its application it isn’t hard to see why something like that would alarm him.
Yet, the truth is that it isn’t something that is terribly surprising. When I first started talking about this topic I made the point that we do not live in a vacuum, free of the lessons of history. The same thing can be said of history itself. Though we may look at a single event or a single moment, observing it as a lesson of history, nothing can be seen in with a narrow scope except the smallest of pictures of a larger tapestry. Yes, we may, in a moment of particular clarity, see the loose strands of something greater and grander, but we fail to see how it all weaves together as the people and the events entwines together to create the larger whole. It becomes a failing on our part where we lose the messages that these experiences teach us, or worse, we draw the wrong message out of it as we find that we have settled for the convenient or easy rather than the truth.
What we need to perhaps remember is that historical context is, of course, vital, whether it is good, bad or ugly. This means that though, yes, we need to consider the immediate context or figure in the course of our study of a moment out of history, we also need to consider it against the backdrop of the larger course of events to truly understand its deeper significance and meaning. This allows us to find its place amidst the larger puzzle that it is constructing. For example, we might look at the immediate events of a young George Washington’s expedition into the Ohio Valley in the immediate context of the slaughter of the French by his Native Allies to see how it would lead to the Battle of Fort Necessity, but that doesn’t necessarily take into account the complexity of Franco-Anglo Relations or the agenda of Tanacharison, the Half King, leader of the Seneca who accompanied him. It does not necessarily paint an accurate picture of how those events would set into motion a chain of events that would pave a path not only to a war between France and England that two hundred years later Sir Winston Churchill would call the first World War, or the American Revolution after. Because of it we miss not only a startling history, but lessons in treaties, alliances, wars and agendas that we can still learn from today.
Yes, this means that we have to decipher, taking into account that we have evolved and grown, advanced as a society and a people as we understand that cultural aspects have perhaps changed. Yet, this creates for us not only a deeper sense of a connection to our past as we deconstruct what we are studying but also hones our critical reasoning skills. In stripping away our pre-conceived notions and perceptions we gain insights in the inductive observations that we make as we delve deeper, honing our ability to peel away the foremost layers to not only see what lays beneath but also determine the meaning that it ultimately holds.
In the end it allows for us to avoid the traps and pitfalls that can cause us to stumble and falter in our steps as we look through the eyes of experience rather than just events, drawing from judgement that is tempered by both knowledge and application. We then begin to understand that just because the world may have become a smaller place through technology and its application, it is still as wide and as complex as it has ever been as we begin to make sense of it.
That is valuable for any one of us in our pursuit of knowledge as we look to the wide array and vast scope of human experience to guide us through our deeper understanding of who we are and were we came from.
I will be back again next week with another post on this as we talk about the importance of thinking historically. Hope to see you then.
Civility was quickly becoming a thing of the past. One needed only look at the curious case of the Great Missourian, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and Mississippi’s Senator Henry Stuart Foote during the debates over the Compromise of 1850to understand that point. Even as Benton charged the smaller Senator Foote on the floor of the Upper Chamber, the Mississippian jumped to his feet, drew his revolver and took aim. Member of the Senate were up, quick to act, trying to hold back Benton, that bull of man, back. They found their efforts were futile as they were unable to restrain him. Even as Foote retreated, Benton would yell, “Let the assassin shoot! He knows that I am not armed!”
Though, in the end, he would not fire his revolver, the thought had, without a doubt, crossed Foote’s mind. And these were two members of the same Party.
Part of this could perhaps be explained by the fact that they were both older men, and originally from the South. For them dueling was a way of life. Foote, for example, walked with a limp from a bullet to the hip he took in a duel with Sargent Prentiss, and Benton had once dueled Andrew Jackson during their service together in the War of 1812. Commenting on it afterwards to someone who asked if he knew Jackson he would tell them, “Yes, sir, I knew him, sir; General Jackson was a very great man, sir. I shot him, sir. Afterward he was of great use to me, sir, in my battle with the United States Bank.”
Senator Charles Sumner
Yet, for as much as it might have been who men like Benton and Foote were, it wasn’t who Charles Sumner, the first term Senator from Massachusetts, was. Still, it wasn’t difficult to see that the Free-Soil Abolitionist was not necessarily going to be popular, at least not in some quarters of the Senate. His first speech to that Body would invoke the Constitution, and the Bill of Right, the Founding Fathers and the name of liberty, attacking the compromises and the laws that prolonged the life of Slavery within the Republic. In response Senator Jeremiah Clemens of Alabama would rise to declare, “the hope that none of my friends would make any reply to the speech which the senator from Massachusetts has seen fit to inflict on the senate… I shall only say, sir, that the ravings of a maniac may sometimes be dangerous, but the barking of a puppy never did any harm.”
Now though, as the Whig Party began to fade as a far distant memory, and the abolitionists, the Free Soil Party and the anti-slavery Whigs, began to unite behind the newly formed Republican Party, tensions were running higher than they ever did before. Now, as Senator Sumner rose to the floor to speak on the Bleeding Kansas Crisis that had degenerated into violence between the two sides of the Slavery debate precipitated by Kansas-Nebraska Act passed in 1854 everyone knew his speech would be controversial. Few though would predict how inflammatory it would be.
The wickedness which I now begin to expose is immeasurably aggravated by the motive which prompted it. Not in any common lust for power did this uncommon tragedy have its origin. It is the rape of a virgin Territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery; and it may be clearly traced to a depraved desire for a new Slave State, hideous offspring of such a crime, in the hope of adding to the power of slavery in the National Government…
With the tone set he would then set his sights on two men in particular, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, and Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, who, along with President Millard Fillmore, were the primary architects of the Act. Calling them the “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza” of slavery, he would dub slavery their “Dulcinea del Toboso”. Then, mockingly, he would look to Butler, declaring,
if the slave States cannot enjoy what, in mockery of the great fathers of the republic, he misnames equality under the Constitution, in other words the full power in the National Territories to compel fellow-men to unpaid toil, to separate husband and wife, and to sell little children at the auction-block – then, sir, the chivalric senator will conduct the State of South Carolina out of the Union! Heroic knight! Exalted Senator! A second Moses come for a second exodus…. The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean the harlot, slavery. For her his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this senator.
Even as the speech carried on, Douglas, Sancho Panza in Sumner’s narrative, paced along the back of the Senate Chamber, muttering to himself, “This damn fool is going to get himself killed by some other damn fool.” As he concluded, Michigan senator Lewis Cass, would declare his speech, “The most un-American and unpatriotic that ever grated on the ears of the members of this high body.”
Congressman Preston Brooks
Yet what could be considered his harshest criticism would come two days later when, on May 22nd, 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks, representative for South Carolina’s 4th District, and a cousin of Andrew Butler, would enter the Senate chamber accompanied by fellow Congressmen Laurence Keitt and Henry A. Edmundson. Two years prior Edmundson had been arrested by the Sergeant at Arms of the House for trying to attack Ohio Congressman Lewis Campbell on the Floor during the debates over the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Now, he was there to encourage Brooks in his course.
Originally Brooks was to challenge Sumner to a duel but Keitt had talked him out of it, arguing that Sumner was beneath him, and that the language that he had used in his speech established that. He should duel a man this far beneath his station. To Keitt Sumner should suffer the same fate as an insolent slave if he loved them so dearly.
The Caning of Charles Sumner
In a slow, steady voice, Brooks would confront Sumner, poking at him with his cane, stating, “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.” The Massachusetts Senator would defiantly push the cane away and go to stand. Immediately Brooks would hit him so hard over the head with his cane that he would stumble back, losing sight immediately as he fell to the ground. Brooks would thrash at him as the Senator found himself trapped under his desk, bolted to the floor, his chair on a sliding track. After the attack, Sumner would say, “I no longer saw my assailant, nor any other person or object in the room. What I did afterwards was done almost unconsciously, acting under the instincts of self-defense.” As the South Carolina Congressman continued to rain down his blows, Sumner would grip his desk as he tried to escape, the blood running down his face. He would rip his desk from the bolts before stumbling through the aisle, unable to keep a pace that would let him escape.
Finally he would collapse in the arms of Brooks who would grab him by his lapel, continuing his caning of the man. Even as a few members of the Senate like Tennessee Senator John J. Crittenden, tried to rush to Sumner’s aid, others, like Stephen Douglas, according to Sumner’s account, would stand at a distance and watch the events unfold. The one’s who did try to help would find Keitt standing in their way, yelling at them to let him be. It wasn’t until Ambrose Murray and Edwin Morgan, Republican Congressman from New York, were able to grab hold of Brooks and tear him away from Sumner that the beating would stop. By this time Sumner would crumble to the United States Senate unconscious, in a pool of his own blood.
Though he would recover with only minor injuries from the beating he took, the effects of what had happened would be long felt.
Though he received the praise and adulation of the Southern Papers, and his own constituents, with new canes being sent to him, the fact is that Brooks had done more to damage his cause than he did to help it. Even as the great Essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson declared at a Town Hall Meeting in Concord, “The events of the last few years and months and days have taught us the lessons of centuries. I do not see how a barbarous community and a civilized community can constitute one state. I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom. Life has not parity of value in the free state and in the slave state,” the caning of Charles Sumner became a turning point for the Republican Party and a rallying cry for them. As historians like Michael Perman and William Geinapp would observe, “Sumner did more for his party by his suffering than he ever had done by his speeches. The Brooks assault was of critical importance in transforming the struggling Republican party into a major political force. “By great odds the most effective deliverance made by any man to advance the Republican Party was made by the bludgeon of Preston S. Brooks.”’
Brooks wouldn’t live to see what his contribution would bring. He wouldn’t live long enough to see the rise or the ascension of the Republican Party to the White House a Having been convicted of the assault and fined, though he would be overwhelmingly re-elected, he would die of Croup within a year.
We talk a great deal of our rights as we define and then redefine them for our present age and way of thinking. This is not necessarily something that is new. It did not just suddenly start with the Emancipation Proclamation or Universal Suffrage, it did not begin with the Civil Rights Movement, the Warren Court or the Civil Rights Act. No, this has been something that we have discussed, debated, and even go to war over. Since before there was an American nation and an American people, before the Republic was born and the institutions of it came into being we have talked about our rights, at times even struggling with the theory versus the practical experience with them.
But what is the American tradition of rights and where did the Bill of Rights come from?
The truth? To truly appreciate our rights, and understand what they are and what they mean. We need to study them so that we can truly appreciate them. We need to do this from a perspective that transcends just our modern age and our modern understanding as we look at them through the context and the scope of history. It is only in this way that we will be able adequately protect our rights and stand firm for our liberties as we seek to answer the dominate questions that we face as a nation and a people.
In this first Episode of an ongoing series about the Bill of Rights and its history that is what will be explored. Tracing back to the Magna Carta of 1215 and moving through the British Petition of Right and the English Bill of Rights, the three major Constitutional Documents join me as I explore the deeper questions of the history of liberty in America, drawing from the perspective of past, and tie it to our present age and our present thinking so that we can draw from the deeper lessons that are offered.
The Whig Party was dead. With the passing of Senators Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, and victory of Democrat Franklin Pierce over General Winfield Scott in 1852, the nails in the coffin constructed by the Compromise of 1850 were hammered in. By 1854 the party that succeeded in electing two presidents in its 19-year history collapsed, unable to answer the dominate questions of its age, as the issues of slavery and nativism dominated the national debate. In the South the remaining Whigs would join the Know Nothing Movement, while in the North they would merge with members of short lived anti-Slavery Free Soil Party to form the Republican Party.
In 1856 the new Party would nominate Colonel John C. Fremont, hero of American Westward Expansion, and son-in-law of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, the powerful Missouri Democrat who had nearly been shot on the floor of the Senate by fellow Democrat Henry Stuart Foote during the debates over the Compromise of 1850. Colonel Fremont did well, carrying 33% of the vote and 11 states to secure 114 Electoral College Votes. It wasn’t enough to win though, and James Buchannan, with his long resume of over 50 years of political service would take 45% of the Popular Vote, 19 states and 174 Electors to secure the Presidency.
Now, four years later, the young Party would once more have its eyes set on the White House.
Between May 16th and 18th, 1860 the Republicans met at the Wigwam Convention Center in Chicago, Illinois, the “largest audience room in the United States”, a building constructed for the occasion. The atmosphere was vastly different than it had been 4 years prior. Whereas room for 2,000 might have sufficed at that point, now over 10,000 crowded the hall, having lined the streets seeking admittance. It would become the largest group assembled under a single roof in American history to that point.
It had seemed like William Seward would emerge as the victor. He was the early favorite and he had credibility, having served as Governor of New York and now its Senator. More than that though, a third of the delegates needed to secure the nomination would come from his state. It was the largest holder of votes at that convention. He had seen off the train of 70 delegates and over 400 supporters lead by his campaign manager Thurlow Weed just a short time prior, and as the voting started, he had received word from Congressman Eldridge Spaulding, “Your friends are firm and confident that you will be nominated after a few ballots.”
Why wouldn’t he be confident though? The road map to victory was clear. In every other strong state for the Republicans the vote was dividing between the different candidates, and his only real competition, Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron, didn’t have much support outside of his home state. Perhaps had he had more of a name former Congressman Abraham Lincoln would have been more than a blip on the radar to Seward. Regardless he had only recently gained any sort of national presence with the Lincoln-Douglass Debates when he challenged Senator Stephen Douglas in his re-election bid. Between that election and his Cooper Union Speech, he established himself as a leading voice of the anti-slavery movement but that wasn’t enough to establish himself as the party’s choice. He wasn’t a serious contender, not one to really take note of, not with the Democratic Convention poised to nominate Douglas when it re-convened in Baltimore. Nominating one candidate from Illinois to challenge the state’s favorite son who had just defeated him in a Statewide election a short time before seemed foolhardy. Yes, he might have the adoration of the local Chicago Tribune, and was a Westerner as the West took on increasing importance in the election, but Illinois only had 22 delegates. Even if he was a threat it would be with his support of another candidate. He would gone by the second ballot, he would drop, leaving Congressman Edward Bates and Governor Salmon Chase, both of Ohio, nipping at his heels, splitting their state. They would be little trouble Seward would offered Lincoln the Vice Presidency for his support and would sail to victory.
As some had expected the first ballot nomination would seem to go off without a hitch. As the nominations began to be called it was New York for Seward, Pennsylvania for Cameron, Illinois for Lincoln, New Jersey would declare for its Senator, William Dayton, who had served as Fremont’s Vice Presidential pick 4 years prior. It wasn’t until Indiana that the convention started to reflect a slightly different mood than people expected, as the state that had become crucial after it swung Democrat in the last election, seconded Lincoln. The hall would erupt in applause, as former Congressman Henry S. Lane of Indiana, now a candidate for Governor, would jump on the table and start swinging his cane. As the crowd eventually subsided, Ohio would begin to split between its three candidates, taking itself out of contention.
The Seward camp would still look to a first ballot win, a power play to take the nomination before his opponents could mount a serious strike against him. Lincoln’s people, on the other hand, would have a different goal: hold on.
As the ballots would begin to come in, it would become apparent that Seward was not in the position of power, that position of strength that he had hoped he was in. Where he had hoped that the Eastern States would give him the momentum moving into the West, it appeared it was going to be a fight and a fight to the finish after all.
Maine would be the first to split with 10 to the New York Senator and 6 to Lincoln, while New Hampshire would offer 7 to Lincoln and three split between Seward, Chase and Fremont. It wasn’t until Vermont that normalcy would return as the state offered its delegates to its Senator, Jacob Collamer. Massachusetts would swing 20 delegates to Seward and 4 to Lincoln. Regardless the votes were splitting, and in some cases shifting. Whatever relief he had from Massachusetts it was gone as the votes from Virginia started to come in. Long considered a Seward stronghold it shifted as it gave 14 of its delegates to Lincoln and only 8 to the New York Senator that thought it would be an easy pick for him.
When the dust settled Seward had the lead with 173.5 delegates, but it wouldn’t be the knockout blow that he needed as Lincoln came up behind him with 102. Henry Lane’s bet that it was to be a race between Lincoln and Seward was right, and by delivering Indiana’s delegates to his neighboring state’s candidate he had secured Lincoln’s place in the race.
Now as they headed into the next round it was apparent that Cameron’s chances were collapsing and Pennsylvania would be key, and Lincoln’s representatives knew it. While Seward’s people had been busy wining and dining delegates, the Lincoln camp had been steadily building a Stop Seward movement. It wouldn’t be too hard. They had begun building the coalition before the convention had started, and to many delegates outside of New York Seward was considered too radical for their tastes. More than that though the Lincoln camp utilized its home state advantage and had already separated the New York Delegation on the floor from other states they might conspire and collaborate with, but now they needed to win the support of delegates. The details of the deal with Pennsylvania aren’t necessarily known. Cameron and his people wanted a Cabinet position for the Senator and control of all federal patronage in Pennsylvania should Lincoln win, but from Springfield Lincoln would telegraph his supporter David Davis, “I authorize no bargains and will be bound by none.” It was perhaps be because of the corruption many had accused Cameron of, corruption he and many had heard of even before the convention, corruption that would eventually lead to his resignation as Lincoln’s Secretary of War two years later. Whatever the case, 48 of Pennsylvania’s delegates would swing.
By the end of the second ballot Seward would pick up a mere 11 delegates, Lincoln 79. The gap of 71.5 delegates had suddenly narrowed to three.
On the third vote Lincoln would gain, the momentum clearly on the side of the Dark Horse from Illinois, while Seward’s support began to collapse. The Seward camp had no idea until it was too late, as William Evarts telegraphed Seward heading into the third ballot “All right. Everything indicates your nomination today sure.”
When the dust had settled though it was a different picture, and the dream of the New York Senator faded quickly. 231.5, three and a half votes shy of the nomination, would go to Lincoln. Slowly a delegate from Ohio, former Congressman David Kellogg Cartter, rose with a shaky voice, “I arise, Mr. Chairman, to announce the change of four votes, from Mr. Chase to Abraham Lincoln.” It would be all that would be needed. Abraham Lincoln would be the Republican nominee for President in 1860 as the voting of May 18th drew to an end.
Now, even as the cannons erupted and the smoke filled the air outside the hall, the jubilation now palpable in the air, it would be time to rebuild and bring the party back together for an election that would become a turning point in American history. It would not be an easy path or an easy road for any of them. Even as they exited the convention Seward’s supporters were now declaring the nomination stolen as they proclaimed, “Let those who nominated Lincoln elect him. We are against him.” It would be a tough road in front of the young party.
Even with the victory of the Iberian Union over the English Armada in 1589 the defeat of the Spanish Armada the year prior had opened new opportunities for British trade. It would be a one that would be seized upon by the third Earl of Cumberland, George Clifford, and the 215 Knights, Aldermen, and Burgesses who, in 1600, would be issued a Royal Charter for the formation of the “Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies“, or the British East India Company, as it would more commonly be known as. With connections that extended throughout the Government and wove itself through Whitehall and later St. James Palace, it had initially concerned itself with commerce, building an elaborate trade network into India and the Far East. Even as the republican government of the Commonwealth of England was declared Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell would renew the Royal Charter with little to no alteration.
Yet by 1773 the focus of the Company had shifted and now it set its sights on Empire. This was to include its own army of almost 70,000 soldiers, comprised largely of the population of India. None of it came cheap, but then neither did the support of the government which was now demanding 400,000 pounds, 14% of England’s Treasury Revenue, in exchange for the free hand that it was giving to the Company. This, during a time when dividends to its shareholders rose from 10% to 12.5%, did nothing to improve their fortunes. But then neither did the reforms it was enacting of land payments they were offering. Now faced with a serious shortage of money, the company skirted on the edge of bankruptcy.
Luckily its influence had not waned in the 170 years since its formation, with a number of its shareholders sitting in Parliament. Now it was up to the Earl of Guilford, Frederick North, Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, to find a solution to solve the problem for the Company. That solution would come in a series of acts passed by Parliament with the sole purpose of offering the beleaguered behemoth a government bailout.
The first of these would be a 1.4-million-pound loan, roughly the equivalent of almost 2 billion pounds in today’s currency. Yet, in its dire position how could the company hope to pay that back? The answer would come in the form of the Tea Act of 1773, passed by Parliament on April 27th, and given Royal Assent by George III on May 10th, 1773.
Though it would ultimately create a virtual monopoly on tea for the British East India company in America, it wasn’t meant to be controversial. At the request of the Company it was actually intended, more than anything else, to lessen the toll that smuggling and non-consumption, a policy that the merchants and the residents of some colonies took on in protest of Parliament’s attempts to assert control over colonial trade, had taken. The British East India Company would even recommend a reduction or even a removal the duty on tea, the last of the hated Townsend Act duties imposed on the Americans still in effect. Lord North would heed that call, and reduce the duty from 9 pence per pound to three as the Prime Minister conceded that he would rather lower the tax “at the desire of the India Company than that of America”.
The effect, Lord North and the East India Company had hoped, would be that the Colonists would realize the price offered now by legitimate trade would be significantly cheaper than the tea offered up by smugglers of Dutch Tea. How could they protest, how could they find offense when it would save them money? In the end, at least in North’s mind, it would be a win-win. He would not only save the Company, but also assert the supremacy of Parliament in matters of taxation over the colony while ensuring the colonies were appeased by the lowering of the duties.
He would be wrong, as it did nothing more than create further resentment in the colonies and stoked the fires of rebellion as the Massachusetts Legislature, for one, declared, “It is easy to see how aptly this scheme will serve both to destroy the Trade of the Colonies, and increase the revenue. How necessary then is it, that each Colony should take effectual methods to prevent this Measure from having its designed Effect.”
Like so many of his contemporaries in Parliament and Government, North failed to understand the sentiment of the Colonies, he failed to understand the mood of the Colonists and the cause that drove them. In many senses, it wasn’t hard to see why, in his outrage, Benjamin Franklin would declare that the British “have no idea that any people can act from any other principle but that of self-interest” as they somehow convinced themselves in Parliament that this cheap tea was somehow, someway, “sufficient to overcome all the patriotism of an American.”
To them it wasn’t a question of the tea. In fact the Colonials had choked down many cups of smuggled tea that would have hardly met the quality standards imposed by the East India Company, not because of price or availability. It was because of the principle ingrained in the Magna Carta, that principle they believed to be their right as natural born Englishmen. This was namely that Parliament, a Parliament that they had no representation in, no voice on the floor of, had no right to tax them without their consent. To approve of this was to assert the dominance of Parliament, removing power from their hands. They would pay a higher price and swallow the inferior product if for no other reason than to maintain that fundamental, core principle. No frivolous luxury was going to rob them of that. No frivolous luxury was going to rob them of their rights as Natural Born Englishmen.
Though protests would begin slowly it would not take long before the colonies were in open rebellion, and nowhere was this more apparent that Massachusetts, where Governor Thomas Hutchinson was determined to make a stand where few of his other counterparts would, asserting the dominance, asserting the supremacy of Parliament and their right to tax the colony, insisting on the lawful unloading of the Tea in Boston Harbor. The resulting protest would become a story of American lore as the colonists made their position abundantly clear in word and deed.
In the end it would be the arrogance of Parliament, combined with their ultimate disinterest in the will and the desire of the people, a Parliament far removed from the daily lives of the people it governed over, that would light the fuse of the powder keg of Revolution as the government looked to its own interest over that of the peoples. But then, in the minds of many, this had been proven time and time again. Why would this bailout that took itself from their pocket, ignoring their petitions and protests, be any different? It was but the latest offense.