TAXES OR WAR! A Southern choice

By Warner Todd Huston

In 1860 the leaders of the South felt that they had their backs up against the wall. They felt they were being given the choice between confiscatory taxes in the form of Northern created and controlled tariffs, taxes that would essentially abrogate the uniformity of Federal taxation proscribed by the Constitution of the United States, and seceding from the Union, a right that most assumed was axiomatic. So they determined to start fresh with a new Southern Nation. Among other momentous issues, the tariff was a seminal cause of the American civil war. Naturally, it might be difficult to imagine that taxes and Federal monetary policy were the reason over which an Alabama dock worker or a Georgia yeoman farmer went to war but then dock workers and farmers do not start wars. Politicians do.

Tax revolts are a common aspect of our Nation’s early history. The Founding Fathers had a healthy distaste for the taxes imposed upon them by the crown in the days before the revolution just as later Americans harbored similar hatred of their own tax laws. That distaste flavored the thinking of the operation of the Federal government right up until the Civil War and reasserted itself after the war until the constitution itself was altered to allow for the federal income tax. So, just what were those issues?

As Adam Smith, celebrated as the father of capitalism, remarked, “There is no art which one government sooner learns from another than how to drain money from the pockets of the people.”(1) And England practiced the maxim well. The Stamp Act, which was a tax on newspapers, written documents and paper, was the first major instigation revealing the distaste for taxation by the American Colonists that would so often be seen in the future. When the Colonists first learned that the stamp act passed in March of 1765 they immediately called for a Congress to meet to draw up a Declaration of Rights for the purpose of pleading with the crown not to initiate the law. The Congress did no good, however, and Parliament ruled that the stamp act would stand.

The Colonists felt their liberty was being threatened without elimination of the stamp act in the summer of 1765. Organized bands of tax resisters calling themselves the Sons of Liberty forced stamp act distributors to resign their offices by threat and violence. These organizations often marched in the streets carrying signs that said such phrases as “Liberty, Property and no Stamps” and “Huzzah for Congress and Liberty”.(2) All the uproar over this simple tax levy stumped the British authorities. English politician and writer, Samuel Johnson, wondered why the colonists felt they should be free of British taxes if they enjoyed all the benefits of being British citizens. He maintained that the colonies should be “subject to English government, and chargeable to English taxation.” (3) The English government simply misunderstood the American’s position and, consequently, the taxes stood once again.

As the stamp act proceeded the colonists avoided it by boycotting English goods and smuggling illegal products from other countries causing English commerce to suffer terribly. Since many British merchants were not in favor of the stamp act anyway, the repeal was finally at hand. However, once the acts were repealed the Parliament added an addendum to the draft that pronounced the Crown’s power to tax from that point onward was absolute. Therefore they could tax without the consent of the taxed or what became famously decried in the colonies as “taxation without representation.”

As a result of the repeal of the hated stamp act imposed on the colonies because of the collection revolts led by the Colonists, the crown tried a different angle and implemented the Townshend duties which were import taxes on English goods shipped to the Americas. This plan was to replace the revenue that the stamp taxes were supposed to have supplied the crown and were taxes charged on paper, tea, dye, glass items and some few other things. There was some resistance to the idea in the English Commons though the act still passed in a 180 to 98 vote.

Famed English conservative, Edmund Burke, thought that the Colonists would rebel against this act as well and did they ever. In addition to the taxes the act also had a troop quartering provision attached to it. This provision was viewed by the colonists as if they were no longer being treated as proper Englishmen and caused New Yorkers, especially, to refuse to quarter and feed British troops.

As a result of this refusal, the crown suspended the New York legislature annulling any future acts by it causing outrage in that state. Once again American merchants began to organize systematic boycotts of English goods by smuggling goods from elsewhere to avoid paying the import taxes imposed by the Townshend duties causing the crown to loose the money that they expected to bring into their coffers from the colonies.

The Colonists felt that they had no recourse but to consent to the taxes and no legal ability to refuse to quarter British troops in their own homes, therefore their rights as Englishmen and their very liberty was being infringed upon. Again, violence erupted in the colonies over taxes. Tax men were run out of town, their duties houses burned and Riots appeared in almost every major commerce center. All the Townshend duties were repealed to quell the unrest except the duties on tea. This left the frustrated crown in the red yet again. With these successes the colonists began to develop the idea that their commerce was so important to England that they could control the situation from America. This began to embolden the Colonists to future disobedience.