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Monday, April 8, 2013

April 8, 2013: Taxes in America: The Stamp Act

[As you finalize your taxes—not you, I know you’re done already, I mean everybody else—this week’s series will focus on some American moments and issues related to this controversial national theme. Leading up to a special weekend post that will frame that theme very differently!]
On the law that helped prompt the Revolution—and foreshadowed our continuing complex relationship to taxation.
In March of 1765, dealing with the lingering aftermath of the French and Indian War and the resulting need to station a standing army (of 10,000 soldiers) on America’s western frontier, as well as with colonies that had begun to resist their royally appointed governors and leaders in various small but telling ways, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act. The law required all colonists to pay a small tax on every piece of printed paper used (for any activity), and represented, at least as the colonists’ generally perceived it, the first tax created for the specific and sole purpose of raising money for the Crown. It thus also appeared to be an attempt to circumvent the authority of the various colonial legislatures, which had their own mechanisms in place for raising and spending revenues.
The Act itself thus served as a direct precursor to many of the issues that would animate the Revolutionary events (the Boston Tea Party, for example) and rhetoric (the list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence). One particular moment in its aftermath, however, served as an indirect but even more telling step in the path toward those historic events. Led by the newly elected young firebrand Patrick Henry, the Virginia House of Burgesses adopted the Stamp Act Resolutions, protesting the Act and establishing the colonial legislature’s sole right to levy taxes on its own citizens. However, Virginia’s acting royal governor, Francis Fauquier, refused to sign the Resolutions, and instead dissolved the House of Burgesses. Patrick Henry did not deliver his famous “Give me liberty, or give me death!” line for another decade, but the 1765 events and confrontation indicate just how fully he, Virginia, and the colonies were on their way toward such moments.
Henry’s Resolutions, and the overall response to laws such as the Stamp Act, also comprise potential origin points for one of our more complex enduring national attitudes. This is purely interpretative, and if there are statistics related to this question I haven’t seen them, but it seems to me that Americans are far more accepting of local and state taxes than of federal ones (such as the income tax, about which more later this week). Obviously we like to grumble about property taxes, or automobile excises, or sales tax, but I’m not aware of any organized protests against those taxes, along the lines of the kinds of Tax Day events that have long been a part of American political life and have become even more prominent in the era of the Tea Party. There would be various ways to interpret that trend, if it is indeed accurate, but one would hearken back directly to Patrick Henry, and the idea that taxes which come from close proximity to us are somehow more tolerable than ones levied from a centralized government.
Next taxing topic tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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