Menu

Tough times always make for tough politics

“What now?” That is the question du jour in the wake of the recent presidential campaigns. A financial cliff approaches, a partisan standoff in Congress threatens, and modern-day Tea-Partiers vow that their control of Republican fiscal policies will be pried only from their cold, dead fingers. Some might shrug and call it “politics,” but a glance backward shows that impasse is not inevitable.

Current commentators (and candidates) are fond of using the Great Recession of the 1930s as a benchmark, but the truth is that the first major bubble to burst in the American economy popped even before the nation was formed. During the French and Indian War, which spanned the decade from 1754 to 1763, the British quartered their troops in the colonies, sparing little expense in order to protect the Crown’s considerable interest in the New World.

Housing prices and rents skyrocketed throughout the Northeast, greatly troubling Benjamin Franklin, just returned after five years as envoy to London: “The expence of living is greatly advanced in my absence,” he lamented, adding that rents and land values “are trebled in the past six years.”

When colonists complained that their political leaders were out of touch, it was not a rhetorical flourish. “No taxation without representation,” would ultimately become the rallying cry that provoked a war against the most formidable military power on earth.

British officers spent lavishly, and locals who profited—as brokers, landlords, merchants, and service providers—were quick to emulate the habits of their sophisticated guests. When any high-flier needed an advance, the answer was simple. Local legislatures, influenced by assurances from the mother country, were quick to issue bills of credit, printing local currencies based upon little more than the certainty that the party would never end.

But when the war concluded and the free-spending troops had been withdrawn, the party did end. Houses suddenly sat vacant, land values plummeted, mortgages went unpaid, homes and farms were seized.

When the British imposed the Currency Act of 1764, forbidding the further issuance of paper monies by the colonies, the colonial economy teetered on collapse. Were that not bad enough, Parliament—desperate to recoup some of the vast sums expended in the defense of the colonies—passed the Stamp Act in 1765, imposing a tax of varying size on every business license and legal document drawn up in the colonies, as well as every copy of every magazine and newspaper printed, not to mention every deck of playing cards and pair of dice employed by those counting on lady luck to see them through hard times.

The cries of outrage were heard all the way across the Atlantic. How could a government be so out of touch, colonists wondered?

Americans were already out of work, out of cash, and out of hope, burdened by sugar, stamp and molasses taxes and sick and tired of an unwieldy bureaucracy ripe with overpaid, incompetent functionaries who had no interest in their struggles. Colonists were taxed out, fed up, and demanding a sea change in the way their government operated.

If it sounds like a recap of the rhetoric flying across contemporary airwaves, it’s little surprise. Tough times have always made for tough politics.

But there is one significant difference to keep in mind. In 1765, colonists had no hope—however illusory—that the next election, or the other party, might turn things around. In fact there were no elections of substance. Ultimate authority resided with the King and Parliament. When colonists complained that their political leaders were out of touch, it was not a rhetorical flourish. “No taxation without representation,” would ultimately become the rallying cry that provoked a war against the most formidable military power on earth.

Given our current sorry economic circumstances, bellicose political rhetoric has its appeal. But we might remember that the exhortations of our forefathers were made on behalf of a desire to forge a nation out of a group of colonies that even then comprised quite disparate interests—planters, farmers, merchants, slaves, indentured servants, and persecuted minorities of all stripes.

Even after the nation was forged, tough times endured well into the succeeding century, but the citizenry was united in the common purpose to succeed.

To those who fought to forge a system of government, nothing was more important than the maintenance of that system. Asked by a reporter during the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s if he weren’t a staunch supporter of these Pennsylvania farmers who were shooting at federal revenue agents rather than pay taxes that the new U.S. government had levied on their soon-to-be-distilled corn, old radical Samuel Adams found the question insulting. Revolt against a King and Parliament bent on excluding colonists from government was right and necessary, he said. But any citizen of a democratic republic who took up arms against that government ought, in his opinion, to be hanged.

What can we suppose Adams might say to a contemporary lawmaker threatening to scuttle the system?

Les Standiford is director of the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami.  His 20th book, Desperate Sons: Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, and the Secret Bands of Radicals Who Led the Colonies to War was published by Harper Collins in November 2012.