The tariff was the funding source for most of government for about a century.
Once upon a time there was no federal income tax. No estate tax. No gift tax. No payroll tax. No capital gains tax. And no corporate tax. Taxes we take for granted today didn’t exist a century or so ago. The country was a lot leaner back then. People kept most of their money. And took care of their families.
The federal government used to fund everything thing they did with tariffs. A tax on imports. Paid in ports. As ships unloaded their goods. Far away from most people. And few people complained. Our first excise tax was a different story. A 7 cent per gallon of whiskey incited the Whiskey Rebellion. After fighting the Revolutionary War to escape the oppressive taxation policies of Great Britain the people were in no mood for a new tax. The whiskey tax lasted for about a decade. Then they repealed it.
This left tariffs as the funding source for most of government for about a century. But even that grew controversial. And began the divisions between North and South. The North protected its industry with protective tariffs on iron products, textiles (wool and cotton) and agricultural goods. Shipped from the more industrialized Britain. Which Britain responded to with tariffs of their own. On cotton and other agricultural products grown in the South. So the more the North protected their industries the more difficult it made for the South to export their raw goods.
In 1913 the progressives reintroduced the income tax and taxed the rich at 1%.
This wasn’t the only difference of opinion the North and South had. And their differences resulted in war. The North was able to win the American Civil War with its expansive industry. But the war devastated the country. Especially the South. Which lost about 8.6% of her population. To get an idea of what an 8.6% population decline is consider this. That percentage of the current U.S. population is approximately 27 million. So the losses the South suffered were similar to what the Soviets lost on the Eastern Front during World War II.
The South may have lost more of its population. But the North suffered nearly the same number of war dead. She just had a larger population to begin with. To run all of that industry that won the war. America’s first modern war was a costly one. And one that President Lincoln had to turn to a new source of revenue. The federal income tax. Which taxed the rich. At 3%. Then it taxed the super rich at 5%. But after they paid down the war debt they repealed America’s first income tax.
Then came the progressives. And their taxes. In 1913 they reintroduced an income tax. Taxing the rich at 1%. And the super rich at 6%. To fund an expanding federal government. Then came World War I. To fund the war they increased the tax rate on the rich to 15%. And the super rich at 77%. The top marginal rate fell during the Twenties. But FDR raised it back up during the Great Depression. Until it reached 94%. Where for every dollar they earned in and above the top income bracket they got to keep only 6 cents.
Few would be able to write a check on tax day to pay their full tax bill.
Then came all the other taxes. And they just kept coming. Our tax bill grew to staggering amounts. Which posed a problem for the taxing authorities. As people just didn’t keep that kind of money around. They worked. They raised their families. And what little they had left they put into the bank for their retirement. Making it very difficult for them to pay their tax bill when it came. Especially when it was 30% or more of their entire income. So what to do?
The Founding Fathers created a nation out of a tax rebellion. And then when that nation levied its first excise tax they got a little rebellion of their own. Being opposed to taxes is part of the American DNA. So the taxing authorities had to somehow hide the large amount of taxes we were paying. That is, they had to reduce the transparency of these taxes. For if you don’t know what you’re paying in taxes you really can’t get mad at paying high taxes.
Enter the withholding tax. The greatest sin government ever perpetrated against the people. For it takes our money before we ever get it. Conditioning us to accept ‘net’ pay as the norm. And making ‘gross’ pay some meaningless payroll jargon. Because you can’t spend ‘gross’ pay. You can only spend ‘net’ pay. Which is the only pay people care about. Making it not only easier to hide the soaring amount of taxes people were paying. But because it’s so easy to hide what we’re paying they could raise those taxes to confiscatory heights. Because we never have that money in our hands. We never see it. It goes from our employer to the taxing authorities. Which is the only way they could collect these soaring amounts. For few would be able to write a check on tax day to pay their full tax bill. As people just don’t keep that kind of money around.
Tags: excise tax, federal income tax, gross pay, imports, income tax, net pay, North, rebellion, rich, South, tariff, tax, tax bill, taxes, taxing authorities, whiskey, withholding, withholding tax
America’s First Tax was a 25% Excise Tax on American Whiskey made from Corn
Thomas Jefferson held a dinner party where he, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison met to resolve some issues. Hamilton was stressed out. He was facing strong opposition for his assumption plan. Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton wanted to assume all the states’ debts and lump them into the federal debt. To get the nation’s finances in order. Establish good credit. And raise revenue for the new nation. The Virginians, Jefferson and Madison, offered their assistance if Hamilton would give them the nation’s capital. Hamilton got his assumption. And the Virginians got the nation’s new capital on the Potomac River. Across from Virginia. Where they could keep a close eye on the nation’s business. And everyone lived happily ever after.
Well, not exactly. There was already growing discontent across the land. Hamilton understood business and commerce. And banking. Farmers don’t like bankers. Or commerce. Or business. Many in the south and on the frontier worked the land. As yeoman farmers. Families working small farms that they owned. They believed, as Jefferson believed, that the most honorable work in America was farming. And that America’s future was the growth of farming. Small farms. Owned by families working the land. Yeoman farmers. Proud. Pure. And wholly American. This despite Jefferson being a member of the slave-owning planter elite. Who indulged in little physical labor.
So the south and the frontier were no Hamilton supporters. They didn’t like his high finance ideas for the new nation. And they especially didn’t like his whiskey tax. A tax of 25% on western corn products. Which you made whiskey from. The new American alcoholic beverage of choice after they eschewed beer. The beverage of choice before the rebellion. When they were all content British citizens. But an excise tax on corn products was little different from the excise taxes that caused the colonies to rebel against Great Britain in the first place. Sure, there was one subtle difference this time. The whiskey tax was taxation with representation. And, technically speaking, legal. But on corn? The new tax seemed to fall unfairly on the West. Which had a corn economy. And used the whiskey they made from it for money. So these frontier people were not just going to sit idly by and take this new taxation without a fight.
The Washington Administration took Decisive Action in Suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion
This first tax was to help finance Hamilton’s assumption. But it was more important than the revenue it would raise. The whiskey tax was a matter of principle. It was probably poor policy. And probably not the smartest thing to do. Picking a fight with the toughest and most fiercely independent people in the country. Frontier people. Who lived off the land without any of the city comforts enjoyed back east. But the tax was the law. And the first test of the new nation. If the government retreated in the face of opposition to a law passed by Congress their experiment in self-government would fail. For as unpleasant as taxation was it was the reason they formed a new nation in 1787. To levy taxes so they could pay their past debt. And their current bills. So President Washington and Hamilton hunkered down on the tax.
And the riots came. The Whiskey Rebellion. Around Pittsburg. Kentucky (aka bourbon country). The backcountry of the Carolinas. And elsewhere. They refused to pay the tax. And attacked the tax collecting apparatus. Even the courts. It was war. The spirit of ’76 was alive again. Protesting a distant central power trying to impose a tax on them. Washington offered amnesty if they just dispersed and went home. They refused. So Washington raised an army of some 13,000 strong. Larger than any army he commanded during the Revolutionary War. And led the army west with Hamilton to meet the insurrection. The first and only time a sitting president led an army. As the army approached resistance melted away. So Washington handed command over to Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee (a Revolutionary War veteran and hero) and returned to the capital in Philadelphia. Hamilton remained with the army. As the army arrived the insurrection collapsed. The army caught some rebels and tried them. And two received death sentences. Who Washington later pardoned.
Score one for the rule of law. Washington was pleased with the outcome. Hamilton, too. They took decisive action to subdue an insurrection. The people in general were happy that they restored peace. And that the country didn’t collapse into anarchy. All in all a win-win for the people and the government. Almost. Not everyone saw it in this light. Some saw a king leading an army against his own people. A professional army. Little different from British redcoats. Or Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army a century or so earlier. A professional standing army squashing those who disagreed with the government. And Jefferson did not like it. Nor did a lot of those in the south. Or on the frontier.
President Washington issued a Proclamation of Neutrality in the New War between Great Britain and France
Seeing Hamilton ride at the head of an army only reinforced Jefferson’s opinion of him. A power-hungry, British-loving puppet master. And the puppet was President Washington. The dislike between Hamilton and Jefferson turned into outright hostility. They had two different visions of America. And these two visions were mutually exclusive. Cabinet meetings became insufferable as Hamilton and Jefferson constantly fought. And the French Revolution didn’t help matters any. The radical Jefferson supported the radical French. Who he knew and sat with in the Jacobin clubs while he was in France. Jefferson was all for overthrowing monarchies. So when the French and British declared war on each other it was a no brainer who to support for Jefferson. Vive la France!
Of course there was only one problem with that position. About 75% of U.S. exports went to Great Britain. Even more of her imports (approximately 90%) came from Great Britain. And then there was the Royal Navy (RN). Who still ruled the high seas. And all the international trade routes. In addition to the RN there was the British Army. Who still occupied forts on the American western frontier. And who were still in contact with their Indian allies from the Revolutionary War. Couple this with the fact that the U.S. had no comparable army or navy. And was already having trouble on the frontier with the Indians (from the influx of settlers into the western territories). So siding with France against Britain was not the smart move. Yes, the French were instrumental in helping the Americans achieve their independence from Great Britain. But America was a country emerging from 8 years of war that just had to suppress a tax rebellion over a sin tax. She did not have the wealth to enter a European war. Besides, the Americans were supported by the monarch (King Louis XVI) the French were overthrowing. Which complicated matters.
Washington and Hamilton saw things differently than Jefferson. More like realists than the idealist Jefferson. The Revolution was over. The British and Americans were no longer enemies. But important trade partners. That shared a common British past. Of laws and traditions firmly established in what was once British America. So Washington issued his Proclamation of Neutrality (1793). They would support neither in this European war. Which infuriated the French. And Jefferson. For though they were neutral it was clear that their neutrality would favor the British. As well as Hamilton. And it did. But it also favored America’s best interests. For another long war would have probably bankrupted the nation. And perhaps resulted with her partitioned among the European nations. For the French Revolution lasted for a decade. And the Napoleonic Wars it begot lasted another 11 years. Which let us not forget the French lost. In large part due to the Royal Navy. And Great Britain’s wealth generated by her international trade. Something the Americans could not have altered had she entered the war on France’s side. A wise foreign policy call by President Washington (and yet another time he saved his country). But it was one that tore his administration apart. Firmly establishing the opposition party. With Jefferson at its head. With but one purpose. To destroy Hamilton. And to lead the nation away from where Hamilton was taking it.
Tags: Alexander Hamilton, assumption, Britain, British, British Army, corn, excise tax, farmers, France, French, French Revolution, frontier, Great Britain, Hamilton, James Madison, Jefferson, Madison, President Washington, Proclamation of Neutrality, professional army, Revolutionary War, RN, Royal Navy, standing army, tax, tax rebellion, Thomas Jefferson, Washington, whiskey, Whiskey Rebellion, whiskey tax, yeoman farmers