Sunday, July 04, 2010

4 July, Independence Day: a rum business

Nations' founding myths are just that. The US is no exception, with commerce and corruption alongside highminded heroics

* ian
o Ian Williams
o, Sunday 4 July 2010 14.00 BST
o Article history

Tea Party tax protest Revered memory: a modern Tea Party tax protest. Photograph: Getty Images

All countries have their special founding myths and legends. And all of them are eminently challengeable. 4 July no less than others. Independence Day is, of course, the special day for the Tea Partyers and Tea Baggers, when they can re-declare independence from their elected president and government, and maybe even free their Medicare from alien government control.

This Sunday, I will be at Tea Party-free barbecue, drinking and watching the fireworks. (The Third Benedict Arnold Appreciation Society annual barbecue is not until the Saturday after.) I used to love Guy Fawkes' night, (known in Boston before the Irish immigration as "Pope's Day") even though I deplore capital punishment and occasionally toast Mr Fawkes as the only man to enter parliament with honourable intentions.

In fact, Congress actually declared independence on 2 July, and then took two days to draw up an explanation of why they did it. And, says William Hogeland, author of the deliciously subversive book Declaration, it was not actually signed until later; while, indeed, many of those who did eventually sign had not even been at the meeting that declared independence, nor drew up the declaration. And showing a spirit that American politicians have shown ever since, some of those who did sign had, in fact, vigorously opposed the whole process.

Hogeland adds a whole new dimension, however. It was not the invisible hand of Adam Smith that brought the new country into being, but rather the carefully hidden hands of Sam Adams. He does not appear in the wonderful musical and film of 1776 – and one reason is that while he was there all along, he kept out of sight and did his work from behind the scenes, a composite Karl Rove and Dick Cheney of the era. His letters enjoined recipients to burn them on arrival. Most of them did, but enough were lax enough to show his fingerprints all over the actual Declaration, if not the document.

The Boston Tea Party itself is iconic and tied to 4 July in more ways than the obvious – certainly, in ways unsuspected by modern Tea Party types. It embarrassed many of the Bostonian leaders of the opposition to Britain such as John Adams, since they were well aware that the revolt was organised by his cousin Sam Adams to get rid of the cargo of duty-free tea, which was going to undercut the warehouses-full that he had smuggled in previously. Sam Adams knew that the worthy burgesses of Boston would buy the cheaper East Indian Company product if it hit the markets. But he also probably calculated that it would provoke the British into destructive countermeasures.

An affluent merchant, Sam Adams used and manipulated the poorer, genuine, revolutionary-minded citizenry and militiamen for his purposes; and he certainly did not share their anti-plutocratic sentiments.

Later, the heroic legend of the Tea Party covered up the sordid reality that the real issue of contention was the taxes on molasses the colonists used to make rum, for drinking, trading for slaves in Africa and helping wipe out the "savages". Needless to say, these were uncomfortable details for the abolitionists, prohibitionists and evangelists who later wrote the histories and drafted the legends of the new country.

Similarly, as Hogeland details, Congress began with a majority of "reconciliationists", who wanted to come to a deal with the British. Sam Adams wanted independence and worked behind the scenes to get it, including mounting what amounted to a military coup against the newly-elected government of the state of Pennsylvania, which was elected on a reconciliationist ticket. In effect, Congress overturned the state's charter – one of the many crimes alleged against King George in the Declaration.

The result was a document of some contradictions. Its original draft tried to blame the king for forcing the slave trade on the unwilling colonists, but Congress did not have the chutzpah of today's Astroturf cultivators behind the Tea Party, and pulled that one. Instead, it chose to ignore all those dark-skinned people who may have been "endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights", but from which so many of the signatories had alienated them.

The Declaration complained that King George had "endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalisation of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither", which ought to mean that he should be popular in Arkansas, and, indeed, with the Tea Party at large.

The perfidious George also "kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies, without the consent of our legislatures… He has affected to render the military independent of, and superior to, the civil power." Wow, who knew those founding fathers were against the military? Did anyone tell General McChrystal?

George even emulated his successor George W, since the founders reviled him for "depriving us, in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury; for transporting us beyond seas, to be tried for pretended offenses." Of course, Guantánamo springs to mind – but what is this? No Hanoverian waterboarding?

But no hard feelings. Almost the only readily available American beer that is drinkable is named after Sam Adams, and its advertising slogan, which I came across on my first visit, was "Drink Revolting Beer". The bartender explained it was an awful, bitter and undrinkable brew, but then reconsidered: "Hey, you're a Limey, you'll love it."

I will hoist one to the memory he tried so hard to expunge.

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