137618Colonial Tax Reform
- Aug 26, 2012Dear List,
I know it is unwise and inappropriate to inject modern politics into discussions on this list, so let me assure you that to do so is not my intention at all. However, when I came across the letter below, I couldn't help think how neat it was that the topic of tax reform (specifically a progressive tax) was being proposed / discussed in 1766. I post the letter not to generate a discussion on whether progressive taxation is good or bad, but rather, to point out that progressive tax reform was a topic of discussion even back then. The writer points out that not only would his proposal be more humane to the poor, but it would also simplify the collection of taxes, making the process for efficient. Whether he was right or wrong is something each one of us can decide ( and keep ) to ourselves. :)
A few points of clarification are needed. First, the reference to tithables means a person on which some sort of tax / levy was administered. Every year in Virginia, usually in June, county officials would record the number of tithable people in each household. In Virginia, every male 16 or older (free, indentured or slave) and every black or mulatto female 16 or older, (free or slave) were counted as tithables. Once the number of tithables were figured, the local parish would divide that number into the amount they planned to spend on the poor and church, and the household would then be assessed that amount in tobacco.
For instance, in 1774 there were 2003 tithables recorded in Prince William County so the parish vestry assessed 20 pounds of tobacco per tithable to pay for the 40,000 plus pounds of tobacco they planned to spend on the poor and the church. Sometimes people would leave the county or send some of their slaves out of the county to lower their household count and decrease their tax. This is referred to below as fraud. The writer seems to argue that his proposal will decrease such fraud and be fairer. Again, that is his opinion. I have my own opinion and you probably do to, but we'll keep those to ourselves.
Mike Cecere 7th VA
Virginia Gazette Purdie & Dixon July 11,1766 p. 1 column 2
It was always my desire to do all in my power to help torelieve the poor and necessitous from the burthens and oppressions thatpoverty, and the want of power, exposes them to; and I think the inhabitants of this colonymay think themselves exceeding happy that they are governed by Gentlemen thatare inclined to relieve the distressed, as soon as it is discovered.
A few days ago I was accidently brought to consider our lawappointing who shall be tithables, which I have always thought was a just andequal law; until after hearing that in Carolina no free person was made atithable, but that slaves were listed the first listing time after they wereborn; this account, at first hearing, made me think the owners of young slaveswere under great hardships by that law: But I soon recovered from that stupid thought by consideration, andjudged theirs just and equitable, and ours not so; as I soon found out thegreat hardships and oppressions many of our poor underwent by means of our law,which did stand it, and others that could not stand it brought upon the parish.
When no free persons pay any tithes or taxes, they are allupon an equal footing as to themselves; and when all slaves are made tithable,there will be the less for each to pay (nor will there be such opportunitiesgiven for tithable slaves to be concealed, which I have reason to believe istoo common) and none but those possessed of slaves, and other estate, will paythe levies and taxes.
They are best able, and they ought; and I believe there arenot many but what would desire to do it, when they are told that generallyseven tenths of the whole number at present listed in all the outward countiesare returned insolvent...which is lostto the country, and falls upon the owners of estates at last. The officers, in order to do the best intheir power to settle their accounts with the Receiver General, Treasurer,County, and Parish, are obliged to make distress upon the poor, where anythingis to be found; and perhaps take their beds, a work horse, or a cow, the onlysupport of the poor, and sell for trifles, which perhaps brings them upon theparish.
Perhaps, if they could be relieved from these extremities,they would recover from their poverty; and what man, possessed of an estate,would not be willing to pay a little more in his levies & to prevent thisoppression? It is a question with me(when I think how many frauds would be prevented) if the estates would pay anymore, by having every slave a tithable. Was it so, officers would easily make collections, and would be able tosettle their accounts yearly with the Receiver General, Treasurer, Country, andParish, &c. without any confusion in the public accounts; and when levieswere laid, there would be assurance of their being collected. I would make this further remark, that, asthe law is at present, many a poor creature that never had, or will have aslave...pays his part towards every slavethat is executed by the laws of the country; and can that be equal? I hope it will not be thought it is, whenconsidered.
June 25, 1766 Consideratus
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