FUN FACT: Quirky American History from THE NOT-SO-NUDE RIDE OF LADY GODIVA
Happy 236th birthday, America! How well do you know your United States history? Just in time for the Fourth of July, here are three quirky episodes from American history from David Haviland’s THE NOT-SO-NUDE RIDE OF LADY GODIVA!
1.) How big was the proposed tax increase that led to the Boston Tea Party?
The Boston Tea Party was not in fact incited by a tax increase at all, but by a tax cut! The protest was a response to Britain’s 1773 Tea Act, which effectively cut the tax on tea coming into the colonies by a massive 75%, from 12 pence/lb to just 3 pence/lb. American patriots were outraged by the Tea Act because it had been imposed on them without consultation, and so the issue was one of self-governance. The patriots argued that there should be “no more taxation without representation”—this was the law in Britain, and so as British subjects, they argued, the same should apply in the colonies.
2.) What effect did Prohibition have on American drinking habits?
In 1920, the US government passed the Volstead Act banning the manufacture and sale of alcohol. Because this act required an amendment to the US Constitution (the 18th), it was felt that it would never be repealed, and so Americans believed that they might never taste alcohol again. Statistics are somewhat shaky for this period, but all the evidence seems to suggest that rather than declining, American drinking rocketed over the period of Prohibition, which lasted until the act was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933. Rather than dissuading people from drinking, Prohibition made people angry and rebellious, feeling that a civil right had been taken away from them, and alcohol came to take on a disproportionately significant place in the national psyche.
3.) Who was the first and only Emperor of the USA?
The answer is Joshua Abraham Norton, an English-born businessman who arrived in America in 1849, at the age of about 30. Norton’s family had made some money in South Africa, and after inheriting his father’s estate, Norton began to build a fortune of his own, by trading in real estate in San Francisco. After he lost a considerable sum of money on a shipment of imported rice, Norton tried to get out of the contract, but the ensuing litigation bankrupted him. In 1858, he left the city, furious at what he perceived to be the failings of the legal system.
When he reappeared in 1859, it seemed that Norton’s bankruptcy had tipped his mental state into madness, or at least extreme eccentricity. He returned to San Francisco from his self-imposed exile, and issued an announcement declaring, “At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of the United States, I, Joshua Norton, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States.” Over the next 21 years, he issued a series of royal decrees, including orders for the US Congress to be dissolved, and then when this was ignored, for the US to disband Congress by force. Unsurprisingly, Norton’s instructions were not taken seriously, and he was ignored.