It's almost humorous...sad, really...when I hear the parroted neo-Tea Party claim about what they believe the original Tea Party participants were protesting over two centuries ago. Their ignorance only lends less credence to what could otherwise be a legitimate movement. Yesterday, the Guardian talked about the beginnings of this misguided but obviously well-intentioned group. "All these bailouts and stimulus packages, that was taking our money and spending it without our permission. Taxation without representation. We thought, didn't that happen to us in the Revolutionary wars? Hello! Anyone remember King George?", one original teabagger claims, well-intentioned as mentioned, but dead wrong.
The real Boston Tea Party was actually a protest against huge corporate tax cuts for the British East India Company, also known as the East India Company (EIC), the largest trans-national ("multinational") corporation in 1773. This large corporation came into existence 173 years earlier, in December of 1600, when Queen Elizabeth I granted a Royal Charter to about 218 merchants and noblemen from London, including herself, as a response to the growing economic power of the Dutch trading companies. The charter awarded the newly formed company, for a period of fifteen years, a monopoly of trade (known today as a patent) with all countries to the east of the Cape of Good Hope and to the west of the Straits of Magellan. Keep in mind, during the early days of corporate formations, running well into the 1800s, corporate charters were issued only for specific time-periods along with specific purposes, so this was the norm of the day.
Initially, the EIC struggled in the spice trade due to the competition from the monopolistic and powerful Dutch East India Company and in 1623 it abandoned the East Indies to concentrate on the Indian subcontinent. With newly build factories on the east coast of India and subsequent profits, King James I renewed the charter given to the company for an indefinite period, including a clause which specified that the charter would cease to be in force if the trade turned unprofitable for three consecutive years.
With a foothold in India, the EIC expanded to other locations in India. By 1650, the company had 23 factories throughout India and these factories were designed and built to be walled fortresses. In 1670, King Charles II granted the EIC the rights to autonomous territorial acquisitions, to mint money, to command fortresses and troops and form alliances, to make war and peace, and to exercise both civil and criminal jurisdiction over the acquired areas, in effect becoming a government entity itself with all the authority and autonomy of what we only consider sovereign governments having, not corporations, today. Ten years later, King Charles and Parliament (of whom a majority were stockholders) passed "An Act for the Restraining and Punishing Privateers & Pirates", a law requiring a license to import anything into the America and other British-controlled parts of the world. These licenses were so expensive that they were rarely granted to anybody except the EIC and other large British corporations. Anybody operating without a license was labeled a privateer and was subject to the death penalty. Well-funded and now even more powerful, along with mergers and acquisitions in the early 1700s, the company developed a strong lobby in the English parliament which exerted more control and greater rights for the EIC well into that century. As Thom Hartmann explains in his best-selling What Would Jefferson Do?:
[b]y the mid-1700s, the East India Company had become, to North America, the Wal-Mart of its day. It imported into North America vast quantities of products, including textiles, tools, steel, and tea, and exported to Europe tons of fur and tobacco, as well as thousands of Native American slaves. Protesters and competitors were put down ruthlessly, and the Company worked so closely with the British military that they hired General Cornwallis after he lost the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 and put him in charge of much of its lucrative business in India (which they were beginning to rule as a corporate colonial power).
The late 1760s and the 1770s brought a crisis for the East India Company. Most of the easily found gold and other wealth around the world was now safely in Europe. The period between 1760 and 1773 brought a severe recession for both the American colonies and Britain, and demand for the Company's products went flat. Credit was tight, cash was tight, and as colonies increasingly developed their own industries to manufacture things of steel, silver, and fabric,demand for imports from Europe slowed to a trickle, mostly of tea and spices.
The tea business with North America was still profitable, propping up many other sectors of the Company. As tea became more important, though, the Company also found itself facing increasing numbers of competitors.
Small entrepreneurs up and down the East Coast were building, buying, or charting small private ships to sail to other parts of Europe or India to buy tea below the prices the [East India] Company was selling it for in North America.
The EIC reached out to its stockholders, including King George III, practically begging for desperately needed cash. The monarch and Parliament reached back with very lucrative tax benefits and tax subsidies through legislation know as The Tea Act, passing a nice bundle of goodies for its favorite transnational corporate partner of the day. The Tea Act, or known by its long title: An act to allow a drawback of the duties of customs on the exportation of tea to any of his Majesty's colonies or plantations in America; to increase the deposit on bohea tea to be sold at the East India Company's sales; and to empower the commissioners of the treasury to grant licenses to the East India Company to export tea duty-free, expanded the British East India Company's monopoly on the tea trade to all British Colonies, selling excess tea at a reduced price. As Thom Hartmann explains in Unequal Protection:
Many people today think the Tea Act -- which led to the Boston Tea Party -- was simply an increase in the taxes on tea paid by American colonists. Indeed, the purpose of the Tea Act was to give the East India Company full and unlimited access to the American tea trade, and exempt the company from having to pay taxes to Britain on tea exported to the American colonists. It even gave the company a tax refund on millions of pounds of tea they were unable to sell and holding in inventory.
This corporate tax cut threatened to decimate small colonial businesses by helping the EIC pull a Wal-Mart against small entrepreneurial tea shops, and individuals began a revolt that kicked-off a series of events that ultimately ended in the creation of The United States of America. The protest became infamously known as, in modern historical jargon, the Boston Tea Party. It was probably the first American demonstration against globalization -- and the corporation that first founded, owned, ruled, and settled the original colonies.
So the modern-day Tea Party facsimiles...the teabaggers...should really be upset with the giant corporate tax cut. It wasn't about taxing colonists; it was about the prevailing superpower of the time, Great Britain, granting the largest multinational corporation of the time, the East India Company, permission to transport tea, free of duty, and allowing it to wipe out its small competitors and take over the tea business in America. When the teabaggers rail against big government, remember this: they're only partially right. They should be pissed with corporatism in government -- not big government. It's our government, in bed with the largest corporations around the globe, that's the danger to our democracy and well-being. We, the people of the United States, have become the third wheel, and the third wheel's not needed any longer.
Does this little history lesson sound familiar? It should. Borrowing an idea attributed to Mark Twain, the past may not exactly repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.