History, Holidays & Observances on December 16

Today: The Boston Tea Party leads to a Revolution, King Henry VI of England . . .and France, English Bill of Rights of 1689, Hans Bol, Beethoven, Christmas Music

And More . . .

Major Events on Dec. 16

1773 – Boston Tea Party makes the American Revolution virtually inevitable

The Boston Tea Party and Britain’s response to it were the final major acts leading to the American Revolution. And but for the intransigence of an American-born Royal Governor of Massachusetts, we might still be part of Britain today. Here is the story of what happened and why.

The high water mark of colonial good will towards Britain peaked circa 1760, as victory in the French and Indian War became assured. Over the next 15 years, Britain squandered that good will by repeatedly, and in a multiple of different ways, denying the colonists the “rights of Englishmen.” Most of these grievances would be enumerated in the 1776 Declaration of Independence. But the most commonly cited grievance was the British claim that its Parliament had the power to levy taxes on the colonies, given that the colonists were not represented in Parliament and had no say in the taxes.

That grievance is the most ancient in British / English history, for the power to tax is the power to destroy. The English fought several civil wars and experienced several rebellions over half a millennium to establish the principle that the King could lay no taxes not approved by the people. For a King to do so does not solely define “tyranny,” but it is almost an inevitable component of a tyranny.

King John I was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 to forestall the First Barons War, driven largely by his unilateral imposition of taxes. The Magna Carta set the principle that the King could lay no taxes nor increase existing ones without approval of his baronial council, the forerunner to Parliament. After that, numerous revolts and rebellions were fought over the same issue, including the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381. The brutal English Civil War (1642-51) was fought in large measure because of Charles I’s unilateral imposition of taxes. The issue was ultimately decided when, on Jan. 30, 1649, Parliament had Charles I executed. Within four decades, there was yet another revolution in England, this one deposing James II. As a part of the Glorious Revolution, the English passed the Bill of Rights of 1689, requiring King William and Queen Mary to agree, as a precondition to their accepting the throne of England that, among other limitations, they could levy no taxes without the approval of Parliament.

Thus it is no surprise at all that the American colonies contested the right of the British government to lay taxes on the colonies without their representation in Britain’s Parliament. Colonial riots at the first attempt by Parliament to do so with the Stamp Act of 1765 led Parliament to abolish the Act in 1766. But at the same time, Parliament passed a law giving itself the right to lay any law or tax on the colonies it saw fit to do in The Declaratory Act of 1766.

Two years later, the British tried again to lay taxes on the colonists in the Townshend Acts, this time using a bit of stealth by taxing a long list of goods destined for export to America and collecting the tax before transshipment. Again colonists rebelled, though not as violently, and again, Parliament abolished all of the taxes in 1770 . . . except that on tea.

Now here it gets interesting, because the story of how we got from the continued taxation of tea in 1770 to the tea parties of 1773 involved several additional considerations – extensive colonial smuggling was one; Britain’s horrendous economic policies and the East India Company were others.

Parliament’s decision to keep the tax on tea in 1770, even as it abolished all of the other taxes from the Townshend Act, was driven by two factors. First and foremost, Parliament wanted to set in stone the precedent that it had the right to legislate for, and tax, the colonies without their representation. Two, even though the tax only brought in a tiny revenue stream, it still was enough to pay for the cost of imposing it.

So why didn’t the American colonies rebel against the continued taxation of tea in 1770? Why wait for 1773? It can be explained by the reality of smuggling and Britain’s taxes on tea throughout the empire.

America’s favorite pastime in the colonial era was smuggling – and indeed, it was the same in Britain and on the British mainland. Parliament had yet to figure out the Laffer curve, namely, that a reasonable tax would collect a maximum revenue, while high taxation would, seemingly counter-intuitively, bring in less revenue. Faced with high taxes (or a legal proscription) people would either do without or, as America would later rediscover in Prohibition, consumption would stay near the same and smuggling would make up the difference.

Colonial Americans smuggled several goods that Parliament highly, and in some cases, punitively taxed. Tea was one of the most lucrative for colonial smugglers. The price of British tea throughout the British empire was extremely high because of government imposed taxes.

Tea was by far the most popular drink in the 18th century British empire. Combine the popularity of coffee and all soft drinks and energy drinks on the market today in the U.S. and you are about equal to the popularity of tea in the 18th century. But . . . 90% of all tea consumed in the colonies was smuggled Dutch tea. Qualitatively, it was no different from British tea. The only difference was that Dutch tea was not subject to the enormous taxes imposed by the British government.

Colonial smugglers were a very large part of the vocal opposition to the crown, and there were many more colonists who benefited from smuggling by getting their Dutch tea at reasonable prices. The smugglers did not mind the continued tax on tea, as it meant their products would be even more likely to sell. The majority of the colonists ignored British tea anyway, so the special tax on British tea sent to America made no difference to them. There was not the critical mass of opposition in 1770 by smugglers or by colonists who were being forced to buy British tea with a special tax on it for American colonists or do without.

That brings us to Britain’s East India Company. The EIC was the world’s wealthiest private corporation of the 17th and 18th centuries, and it operated with a government grant of a monopoly on British trade with East Asian countries. Most of the wealthiest Brits were invested in the EIC. And the British government saw the corporation as a cash cow to be milked for taxes – to the point that, by 1770, when the corporation suffered a series of set backs in East Asia, the EIC was in danger of bankruptcy. Too big to fail, and with too many of Brit’s wealthiest having fortunes invested, the government of Lord North stepped in, turning the EIC into a quasi-government entity (not unlike the U.S. would later do with similar disastrous results with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.)

Determined that EIC survive its economic woes, Britain’s Prime Minister, Lord North, could see that the EIC had a tremendous amount of tea sitting in warehouses in Britain. North shepherded the Tea Act of 1773 through Parliament, with the primary aim of putting the EIC back on firm financial footing. The Act substantially reduced taxes on the tea and allowed it to be shipped on consignment directly to the colonies. And it just so happened that the price of this tea sold in the colonies would be below the cost of smuggled Dutch tea. So, not only would the EIC be made solvent, the colonists, by purchasing the tea with de minimis tax on it just for the American market, would be putting their imprimatur on the precedent that Parliament had a right to tax the colonists without their representation.

In July 1773, tea consignees were selected in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Charleston. The Tea Act in 1773 authorized the shipment of 5,000 chests of tea (250 tons) to the American colonies. There would be a tax of £1,750 to be paid by the importers when the cargo landed. The act granted the EIC a monopoly on the sale of tea that was cheaper than smuggled tea; its hidden purpose was to force the colonists to pay a tax of 3 pennies on every pound of tea.

Colonists livid at the precedent about to be established – and smugglers angered at the loss of their business – prepared in each of the four cities to prevent the tea from being landed or sold. Agitation, particularly by colonists involved with the Sons of Liberty organizations in the four cities of New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Charleston, went into overdrive. Consignees in Charleston, Philadelphia and New York were successfully pressured to refuse to accept the tea.

In Philadelphia, the ship carrying the tea was met by a mob of 8,000 people at the docks and the ship’s captain was induced to return to Britain. Much the same would later happen in New York. In Charleston, the tea was landed but impounded and never sold (until 1775, and then all proceeds went to support the Revolution).

That left Boston. In that city, the Royal Governor, Thomas Hutchinson, was himself a native of the Massachusetts. But he was very much a loyalist, often at odds with patriot faction in his colony, and he had previously stated that if Britain were to maintain control over its colonies, then it would have to circumscribe the rights of it’s colonial citizens. He and his sons were also the consignees for the tea being shipped by the EIC.

The first of the tea ships arrived in the port of Boston in November, 1773. From the moment the ships docked, the Boston chapter of the Sons of Liberty maintained a constant vigil, keeping a force of about 25 armed men always at the wharf to make sure the tea would not be unloaded.

On November 29, Samuel Adams called a town meeting attended by several thousand Boston citizens. They unanimously voted to petition the Hutchinson government to return the tea to London. But Royal Governor Hutchinson, determined to take possession of the tea and sell it, both for his own profit and to establish the precedent of Parliament’s right to tax the colonists, refused.

Samuel Adams called a second meeting on December 16, this one attended by near 7,000 people. It was the night before the date on which the law required that the tea be unloaded if the ships remained in port. During the meeting, a letter arrived from Governor Hutchinson, wherein he again refused to let the ships leave port and return with their cargo to Britain. John Adams read the letter to the crowd, then announced, “This meeting can do nothing further to save the country.” At that point, dozens of men left the meeting.

Within an hour, a group of about 130 men disguised as Mohawk Indians and suspected to be members of The Sons Of Liberty appeared at Griffin’s Wharf astride Boston’s harbor, where there were docked three ships, The Dartmouth, the Eleanor, and the Beaver. Each ship was carrying numerous cases of taxed East India tea.

The men boarded the Dartmouth, removed the cases of tea from the ship’s hold, and heaved the tea into the harbor. They then repeated their acts of destruction aboard The Eleanor and The Beaver, both of which vessels were likewise dispossessed of all of their cargo of East India tea.

The sum total of the tea thrown into the harbor was 90,000 pounds. No one was injured in the event and care was taken that there was no additional damage to the ships or their other cargo. The “Indians” even provided replacement locks on the ships for the ones they had to break getting into the three cargo holds.

Royal Governor Hutchinson’s refusal to turn back the tea made the war inevitable. Britain responded with an incredibly heavy hand with the Intolerable Acts in 1774, turning Massachusetts into an occupied territory and blockading Boston Harbor, itself an act of war meant to collectively punish the city by starving and punishing its citizens until they capitulated and collectively agreed to pay for all of the tea, complete with taxes. On April 19, 1775 , the first shots of the Revolution rang out nearby at Lexington Green and the American Revolution was afoot.

Notable Events on Dec. 16

1431 – The favorite pastime of the English and French for the better part of a millennium was to war on each other for fun and profit (about which there is a great book, 1000 Years of Annoying the French). The Kings of both countries laid colorable claim to being the rightful rulers of the other. And on this date in 1431, during the Hundred Years War, Henry VI of England actually had himself crowned King of France at Notre Dame in Paris. His rule was short lived.

1653 – The English Interregnum was that period from 1649 -1660, during and after the English Civil War (1642-51) when England had no King. The Puritan Oliver Cromwell established the Protectorate and, on this day, was named the Lord Protector – essentially the military dictator – of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland.

1689 – On this day, William and Mary assented to the English Bill of Rights of 1689, a document that significantly influenced our own Constitution and Bill of Rights.

1880 – Outbreak of the First Boer War between the Boer South African Republic and the British Empire.

1907 – Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet begins its circumnavigation of the world to spread goodwill and gunboat diplomacy.

1942 – SS commander Heinrich Himmler extends the Holcaust to include the gypsies. On this date, he issues a decree for the deportation of all gypsies living in the Greater German Reich to a special family compound in Auschwitz. Under this decree, the German police authorities will deport nearly 18,000 gypsies to Auschwitz in February 1943.

1968 – The Second Vatican Council officially revokes the Edict of Expulsion of Jews from Spain. Better late than never.

1978 – Cleveland, Ohio becomes the first major American city to default on its financial obligations since the Great Depression. Anyone surprised that all the mayors of the city, from 1945 to 1977, were Democrats?

2014 – Taliban Islamic terrorists attacked an Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan, killing 145 people, mostly schoolchildren.

Born on Dec. 16

1485 – Catherine of Aragon, the first of the six wives of Henry VIII. When Catherine produced no male heirs, Henry sought to annul their marriage. Refused by the Pope, Henry VIII began the English Reformation, declared himself the “Supreme Head” of the Anglican Church, and had the Bishop of Canterbury grant the annulment.

1534 – Hans Bol, a Flemish artist known for his landscapes, allegorical and biblical scenes, and genre paintings done in the Northern Mannerist style. Below is his 1562 work, Village Feasts.

1770 – Ludwig van Beethoven, a brilliant and volatile man, and one of the great composers of classical era. His 9th symphony, composed after he had gone deaf, is considered among his greatest works.

Died on Dec. 16

882 – Pope John VIII, an able ponitff who spent much of his papacy battling Muslim invaders out of Southern Italy.

1980 – Colonel Sanders, the man who, with a pressure cooker and a mass of secret spices, managed to make chicken finger licking good. He turned his recipe for fried chicken into the KFC franchise.

Christmas Music

Maynard Ferguson – Christmas Medly

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day is a Christmas carol based on the 1863 poem “Christmas Bells” by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  The song tells of the narrator’s despair, upon hearing Christmas bells during the American Civil War, that “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.” The carol concludes with the bells carrying renewed hope for peace among men.

Neil Diamond