economic discussion


Taxes & Rebellions


It seems to be the case that throughout history, at least in Europe and the American colonies, the common spark that ignited farmer, worker, and peasant uprisings was taxation. From the Peasant Rebellions of the Middle Ages to the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania, what seems to have moved people to take up arms (or pitchforks) and risk their lives to do battle with the armies of kings and generals was the heavy load of excessive taxation.

In all cases, the taxes fell disproportionately on the farmers, peasants, and working classes. In colonial Virginia, for example, taxes paid to the colonial and royal governments fell almost exclusively on the lower classes; the wealthy, privileged “great men” who were all appointed to the State Council, were exempt from taxes because they were Councilors. Also exempt were the Governor, members of the clergy, and all the sons, servants, and slaves of these privileged classes.1

Virginia is also an example of how the elites—emboldened by being able to get away with making the poor finance their wealthy privilege—succumbed to that uncontrollable sociopathy that is enshrined in the mechanisms of capitalism: Never knowing when to say “enough.”

As a result, taxation was a steadily increasing burden until—as seems to be the case in all similar uprisings—an additional increase or a new tax goes too far.

In Virginia, a special poll tax, on top of the myriad of other taxes, was levied from 1662 to 1675 on all the non-exempt classes in order to buy back land that had been improperly granted to English speculators.a, 2 Before this special tax was imposed, the “regular” taxes and fees paid to the colonial government included the county tax, the parish tax, the fort tax, militia and gunpowder fees, fees to pay for the burgesses, sheriffs, clerks, agents, and coroners, along with customs duties and taxes on every pound of tobacco the small farmers and planters sold for export.3 As if that weren’t bad enough, historian Stephen Webb describes the utterly fiendish assessment scheme devised by the Berkeley colonial government which amounted to a double tax on every poll:b

The justices of the peace (appointed by the governor to govern the counties, to hold virtually every civil and military office of influence, and so to be the natural monopolists of assembly seats) valued the tobacco offered as tax payments by poor planters at only 8 shillings per hundredweight, then sold the tax tobacco at the market price of 16 shillings. The county chieftains doubled the nominal tax rate, for the planter had to pay twice as much tobacco to make up the levy.4

Moreover, since the colonial government was getting 16 shillings on the open market for every 8 shillings’ of tax payment—because they’d extorted double the quantity of tobacco—they were actually getting 32 shillings for every 8 shillings of tax charged to the planters.5 All in all, according to Webb, the taxes amounted to “something between one-quarter and one-half of the average planter’s income.”6

But wait: it does get worse. The taxes (not too surprisingly) were also being misappropriated by the corrupt colonial government, with the fort tax being the most egregious. These were taxes, implemented for a second time in 1675, that were supposed to fund the construction of forts in the more remote and vulnerable frontier regions of the colony to protect the farmers and planters from attack by the Native Americans whose lands were being stolen. These forts, however, were nothing more than unfinished mud walls, while the bulk of the tax revenues went to build actual garrisons on the plantations of the Governor’s “corrupt favourites,” or as they were derisively called, “the Grandees.”7

The result in Virginia by 1673, when the first tax revolts began (and as was the case with similar tax-oppressed rebellions), was that the average poor farmer and small planter could not afford the taxes; by 1674, “ordinary planters had been close to starvation.”8 They began losing their lands to tax sales,c  with the properties being snatched up on the cheap by “the Grandees.”9,10

What’s most relevant is that these taxes were not paid in currency, but rather in the tobacco grown by the taxpayers. So, for example, in Virginia, the basic annual county tax averaged about 250 pounds of tobacco per poll. In fact, it seems to be the case that prior to the Whiskey Tax that precipitated the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, tax payments were commonly made in the form of commodities rather than currency.

For most of the history of economic systems that operate by taxation, taxes have been paid in crops and goods grown and produced by the individual taxpayer, a major reason being that currency was not what most people relied on, or even owned, to survive. For example, in a to his brother in 1685, William Fitzhugh, the Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress, wrote: “We live here very plentifully without money.”11 In his book The Roots of American Economic Growth, historian Stuart Bruchey discussed barter exchange and the lack of reliance on currency in America’s rural and agrarian past.12 In pointing out “how little cash was required by rural people even in the early nineteenth century,” he quoted a South Carolina farmer:

[M]y farm gave me and my whole family a good living on the produce of it; and left me, one year with another, one hundred and fifty silver dollars, for I never spent more than ten dollars a year, which was for salt, nails and the like. Nothing to wear, eat or drink, was purchased, as my farm provided it all.13

How did this change come about, switching our economy and the economic structure of our lives, from barter and payment in goods to a life dependent on currency? Equally important, how has this affected our relationship and level of tolerance with government, especially in relation to taxation? We no longer pay our taxes in goods and commodities produced with our own hands. Instead, we now pay taxes with money—something that someone else gives us in exchange for something we did or produced. The money isn’t something we made with our own hands; it never really belongs to us or is a part of us the way a chair we built or a bushel of corn we grew is a part of us, a tangible thing we created from our own labor.

Maybe this shift away from barter is the reason the Whiskey Rebellion was the last armed insurrection against unjust and untenable taxation in the United States.d

The parallels today in our tax structure are striking: The burden of taxation is carried by the middle, working, and poor classes, while the wealthy elites and corporate “persons” are virtually exempt. We fund their wealthy privilege, we pay to bail out their banks and brokers, pay for their wars to protect their foreign colonies and commodities; we give up our futures and hopes for prosperity in order that they may never stop increasing their wealth. Neither we nor they are able to say “enough.”



The Notes to Taxes & Rebellions

a: It wasn’t discovered until sometime after the tax was rescinded that people had been bilked by Governor William Berkeley: The improper land deal had actually been voided by the English Duke of York at no cost to the colony. Of the ₤7,000 raised by the tax, ₤5,000 went to Berkeley and his cronies, while the remainder presumably went to the agency in charge of collecting the tax.14

b: Poll means individual taxpayer. In those times, poll meant each adult male who owned property. However, the taxpayer was also required to pay the identical poll tax for any sons over sixteen, and for each of his male servants and slaves.15

c: Without land, they also lost the right to vote.16

d: Though there were a few armed insurrections into the 19th century (not counting the Civil War which was a war of hegemony between the capitalist North and the mercantilist South), they were not over taxation.