Economic Independence Day

Tens of millions of Americans will celebrate this 4th of July in the conventional way: saluting the flag, marching in parades, and consuming large quantities of beer and hotdogs. Our political leaders will urge us to demonstrate our patriotism.

But perhaps some of us could take a few moments to ponder what patriotism meant to those who took the considerable risk of declaring war on the mightiest nation on earth. And how they went about declaring and defining their independence.

Many events led up to our formal declaration of independence. But the pace quickened when, on a cold December night in 1773, a band of colonists forced their way onto three ships docked in Boston Harbor and dumped more than 90,000 pounds of tea into the sea.

As Thom Hartmann points out in his excellent book, "Unequal Protection," the colonists' actions were as much a challenge to global corporate power as they were a rebellion against King George III.

The ships were owned by the East India Company, a vast corporation with significant economic power over Britain's colonies around the world. The company had suffered large economic losses, in part because of a boycott of their merchandise by the American colonies. That represented a significant loss of revenue to the British government as well.

Thus, in 1773 the British Parliament passed the Tea Act. The Act exempted the East India Company from paying taxes on tea sold in the colonies. The aim was to enable the company to undercut the prices of small competitors, all of whom were subject to the tax, and drive them out of business.

The British government and the East India Company were betting that the lure of cheap tea would overpower any sense of solidarity among the colonists. They were wrong. The colonists continued to support independent merchants and boycott East India tea.

Britain retaliated by closing Boston's harbor to trade until the city paid for the lost tea. The British also converted formerly elected offices in the Massachusetts government into crown-appointed positions, restricted town meetings unless their agendas were approved by the royal governor and required Bostonians to house and feed British troops.

Britain's actions inspired the 13 colonies, for the first time, to work together. The first Continental Congress met in New York City in the fall of 1774. The representatives passed resolutions asking the colonies to raise militias. And they called for an organized boycott of all British goods.

This last was a key development. The colonists understood that independence could occur only if they had the capacity for economic self-reliance. They could claim political authority only if they had the economic, productive capacity.

Before we declared our political independence we declared our economic independence. All things English were placed on the blacklist. Frugality came into fashion. Out of the First Continental Congress in New York came the embryonic nation's first Chamber of Commerce. Given the current policies of the Chamber, it might be useful this July 4th to recall its first campaign slogan, "Save your money and you can save your country."

Bostonian Sam Adams, the fiery leader of the movement, knew that frugality was not enough. To become truly independent, America had to produce at home what was previously imported from England.

Members of Boston's Whig Party demonstrated their patriotism by nursing tea leaves and mulberry trees in their gardens. New England farmers were exhorted to convert their oak plains into sheep pastures and produce enough wool to clothe every American. Colonists were urged to abstain from eating lamb or mutton in order to encourage American woolen manufactures.

In less than a year the boycott had so disrupted Transatlantic trade that thousands of British workers lost their jobs.

Faced with this economic insurrection and the rising level of violence in the colonies, Britain declared war. On July 2, 1776, the colonies declared their independence. The Declaration of Independence was adopted two days later.

When our nation was born, we understood the relationship between political independence and economic independence. Benjamin Franklin offered this bit of sage advice to the former colonists. "The man who would trade independence for security usually deserves to wind up with neither."

Our current leaders have ignored Franklin's wisdom. Today we have a President who, surrounded by 100 American flags, ardently proclaims his patriotism. But it is a patriotism that Sam Adams and Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry would have found unfathomable and even, perhaps, treasonable.

The United States is now the world's largest debtor. Two thirds of our oil is imported, up from a third when OPEC first exercised its collective power and precipitated the first oil crisis in 1973.

Our corporations have displayed their form of patriotism by fleeing our soils and supplying us from foreign shores. As a result our trade deficit is at all-time levels. China is now using its enormous storehouse of American dollars to buy key U.S. productive assets: IBM, Maytag and soon, perhaps Unocal. That last bid turned a few heads in Washington. But just a few days ago, the White House gave the green light for a British company to purchase a key U.S. supplier of military hardware to the Pentagon.

The President has just asked Congress to ratify a new free trade agreement that will aggravate our slide into dependence. He passionately supports an omnibus energy bill that does virtually nothing to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

On July 4, 2005, amid awe-inspiring displays of fireworks, our corporate and political leaders will celebrate Independence Day. Then on July 6 they will get back to work, designing and implementing policies that make us ever more dependent.

The brave members of the Boston Tea Party wouldn't call them patriots. Neither should we.

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