The More Things Change….

Signing of the Declaration of Independence, by John Trumbull. (Wikimedia Commons)

Signing of the Declaration of Independence, by John Trumbull. (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s well known that the American Revolution started as a revolt against taxes levied on colonists by a government in which they lacked representation. Lesser known is that the United States of America was constantly on the brink of bankruptcy during the Revolutionary War and its aftermath. The Continental Congress repeatedly failed to get the unanimous support it needed from all thirteen states to raise anywhere close to the taxes it required to support its army, leaving the new country dependent on foreign loans.

Thomas Fleming’s The Perils of Peace describes the period of uncertainty between the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781 and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The constant threat of American bankruptcy is a major theme, threatening to undo the revolution. At one point, twelve of the thirteen states have approved a new tax, but Rhode Island holds out, with its opposition led by Congressman David Howell:

Howell predicted the tax would put Congress on the road to absolute power and become the death knell for American liberty.

The overkill came naturally to Howell, who was a born demagogue. He adored the limelight and was expert at portraying himself as a spokesman for the average man. He signed his public letters ‘A Farmer.’ If fact, he was the hired gun of a clique of Providence merchants, led by wealthy John Brown, who decided they were not going to let any government diminish the handsome profits Rhode Island was making on the high seas, in spite of the still-troublesome British blockade.

Nothing new about anti-tax fervor, supermajority requirements that mire Congress in endless gridlock, or “grassroots movements” bankrolled by wealthy elites. On the bright side, America has overcome all those hurdles before.


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