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Q&A

150 years of American tax resistance

Historian Romain Huret traces the nation’s long, colorful history of protesting the taxman

Library of Congress

Have you paid your taxes? If you haven’t yet, you probably will by the time they’re due on Tuesday, even if grudgingly. But not all Americans fall so easily in line. There are those deeply and vocally skeptical of taxation, who have argued that the confiscation of your hard-earned cash amounts to “tyranny.” It is a form of “legalized larceny,” motivated by “class hatred” and enforced by an “illegal espionage system.”

All that is history—literally. Certainly, tax resistance is alive and well today, but those quotes all come from the speeches and tracts of antitax activists spanning from the 1860s and 1950s. And that’s the least of it; even fierce libertarians of 2014 might hesitate to call tax collectors “red-legged grasshoppers,” as North Carolina Governor Zebulon Baird Vance did in 1876.

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Romain Huret is an associate professor of American history at the University of Lyon 2 in France. His new book, “American Tax Resisters” (Harvard University Press), reminds us that today’s Tea Party is less a direct descendent of the Boston Tea Partiers than the flowering of a movement that started during the Civil War and has been around ever since.

A native Frenchman, Huret recounts how American tax resistance evolved from a cause of the upper crust to one that existed at the fringes of the middle class, and from there moved into the mainstream. By examining the roots of this long-simmering discontent and painting a complex portrait of those discontented, he hopes to spark a debate, on both sides of the Atlantic, about the social function of taxes and their role in mitigating inequality.

Huret spoke to Ideas by phone from his home in Lyon, France. This interview has been condensed and edited.

IDEAS: When Americans today think of historical tax resistance, they may think of the Boston Tea Party, then perhaps the Whiskey Rebellion during George Washington’s presidency in the 1790s. Your book starts with the Civil War. Did the Whiskey Rebellion really kill internal taxes for all that time in between?

HURET: Absolutely. The Whiskey Rebellion, and John Fries’s Rebellion [1799], killed for many years any attempt by politicians to implement internal taxes....When the first income tax was implemented in 1861 and onwards, you had more and more taxes on personal and corporate incomes.

Marcus Ferolito/ Harvard University Press

Romain Huret

IDEAS: You say Northeast industrialists believed that taxes on incomes—as opposed to tariffs on imports or sales taxes on luxury goods—violated the Constitution. What was their logic?

HURET: The constitutional argument was that any internal taxes were intended to be levied on each state depending on its share of the country’s total population....So the tax resisters argued until the end of the 19th century that it was unconstitutional to levy taxes on incomes; it was not fair that one rich guy, William Astor, paid more taxes than the population of Vermont, for instance.

IDEAS: Meanwhile, moonshiners were resisting taxes their own way in the South.

HURET: Yeah. They were not rebels or outlaws; they were very well integrated into the elites in the small communities in the South, and they were protected by the Ku Klux Klan and the local authorities. They refused to pay internal taxes, and they contributed to the end of the Civil War tax system by 1872.

IDEAS: In 1913, the 16th Amendment allowed for a federal income tax. Was that what nailed the coffin shut on the tax resisters’ constitutional argument?

HURET: That was their main defeat. They had a major debate with advocates of a progressive tax system. And tax resisters lost.

IDEAS: You often mention a key tension in the taxation debate between individualism and solidarity. “Solidarity” is not a word much heard in American public discourse today.

HURET: Solidarity is the foundation of progressivity, the idea that if the richest people pay the highest taxes, the taxes will be used to finance social programs. And in the 1930s, with the Social Security Act, the New Deal, and the expansion of the American welfare state, “solidarity” meant something for many people.

IDEAS: Tell me about Walt Disney, tax resister.

HURET: (laughs) Walt Disney was strongly opposed to progressive taxation. And his was not a radical form of opposition. Tax resisters are generally ordinary citizens, not radicals; most of the time they accept paying taxes but feel they should only be levied for exceptional circumstances, such as a war.

IDEAS: It seems Disney’s views were quite common among the wealthy in the 1930s, when he was writing letters denouncing Roosevelt’s policies, but he found himself out of step after World War II.

HURET: Yes, in the postwar period, most big businessmen, formerly tax resistance leaders, changed their minds and accepted a new alliance with the federal government because of the globalization of markets. But at the same time that there was a fiscal consensus among the elites, you had a new movement of tax resistance composed of white, middle-class activists living in the suburbs.

IDEAS: Was that truly a grass-roots movement?

HURET: In the ’50s, ’60s, it was really a grass-roots movement. They were very marginalized, even in the Republican Party. It was only in the ’70s that corporations changed their minds again and you had this alliance that was necessary to bring Ronald Reagan to the White House.

IDEAS: Coming from France, what, if anything, did you find unusual about tax resistance in the US?

HURET: The tax resistance movement in France in the 1950s was very violent, so I was surprised not to discover many cases of violence in the US. Most of the time, it was a legal, political movement. Plus, the high number of women involved. In France, tax resisters were men. So I was very surprised to see women throughout the 20th century so involved—women in the Northeast, in Boston, who argued that a taxpayer’s money shouldn’t be used for a social program that he or she [disagreed with].

IDEAS: Is what you call the “myth of a republic without taxpayers” still motivating tax resisters today?

HURET: Yes, absolutely. If you read the Tea Party’s texts or speeches, this myth persists, which is why they use the second Thomas Jefferson, the Jefferson that believed in tariff and low tax and small government.…The Tea Party believes that was the best moment for the country—they have a lot of nostalgia for the 18th and early 19th centuries. But they missed one point: Jefferson in the first place was in favor of progressive taxation, before he became president.

IDEAS: What made him change his mind?

HURET: The tax revolts, and the difficulties for this new American state. There were few civil servants and it was very difficult to levy taxes, and the Whiskey Rebellion occurred, and so Jefferson knew the Federalist policy was a failure. So he changed his mind and [favored] small government and no direct taxes. That’s the second Jefferson.

IDEAS: What are the implications of this longing for a low-tax American past?

HURET: There’s a conflict, because the country has a progressive architecture of taxation, while the idea of reciprocity [that taxes should only be used for war or other emergencies] has become endemic in many parts of the country....We need to have a debate about the use of taxation to redress inequalities and to promote social mobility and to create the best democracy—in France, the US, or anywhere.

Patrick L. Kennedy is a writer in Boston. He can be reached at plk@bu.edu.
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