Those Dirty Rotten taxes: The Tax Revolts that Built America


In 1798, after Congress had passed its first direct tax on houses, the government cooked up a scheme to count and measure the windows on every taxpayer's house, in order to calculate how much to charge. But German settlers in eastern Pennsylvania would have none of it. They organized into small bands, armed themselves, and scoured the countryside for assessors who were seized, assaulted, and driven across county lines. When some of the rebels were arrested, an auctioneer named John Fries marched on the courthouse...

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In 1798, after Congress had passed its first direct tax on houses, the government cooked up a scheme to count and measure the windows on every taxpayer's house, in order to calculate how much to charge. But German settlers in eastern Pennsylvania would have none of it. They organized into small bands, armed themselves, and scoured the countryside for assessors who were seized, assaulted, and driven across county lines. When some of the rebels were arrested, an auctioneer named John Fries marched on the courthouse and freed them. President John Adams called out the militia. Fries was arrested, tried for treason, and sentenced to be hanged.

It was hardly the first tax revolt in American history. From the Boston Tea Party to the Whiskey Rebellion to the Fries Rebellion, the late eighteenth century in America was full of armed violence in response to hated taxes. Yet, as Charles Adams recounts in this remarkable book, the Fries Rebellion was also far from the last of its kind.

Throughout its history America has been home to a series of little-known tax rebellions. These rebellions have played major roles in the presidencies of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and many of their successors. They have helped bring about the Civil war, the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, and, ironically, the birth of the Internal Revenue Service. When the old Internal Revenue Bureau was strengthened to control moonshiner tax rebels in the Appalachias, it started a "Second Whiskey Rebellion" that continues even today. Country singer George Jones' popular ballad recalls:

G-Men, T-Men, Revenuers too, looking for the place where my pappy made his brew.

Today, as long-overdue calls for abolishing or overhauling the IRS are finally being heard in the halls of Congress, Those Dirty Rotten Taxes teaches us that we are continuing a long and vitally important American tradition. We have overthrown the tyranny of British taxes, Federalists' taxes, the Tariff, and the Revenuers' system. Has the tyranny of the Income Tax finally had its day?

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Editorial Reviews

Scott McLemee

Cartoonist Matt Groening once drew a guide to the species of professor a student could expect to encounter at college. There was the Marine-like disciplinarian, the I'm-OK-you're-OK classroom therapist, the inaudible lecturer, the midlife lech and so on. One square in the cartoon was devoted to the instructor with an idée fixe -- an obsessive theme coming up, lecture after lecture, no matter what the topic. Groening portrayed him as a wide-eyed little guy saying (if memory serves), "Remember kids, it's all about magnesium!"

According to the biographical note to Those Dirty Rotten Taxes, lawyer and independent scholar Charles Adams was "formerly a lecturer at UCLA." I'm pretty sure where he fits on Groening's professorial grid. Adams hates the income tax with a passion. That is not, in itself, so unusual -- especially this time of year. And lately, it does seem that public disgust with the high-handedness of the Internal Revenue Service is at an all-time high. But for Adams, taxation is more than a burden. It is the root of all evil.

"The ever-increasing extension of federal bureaucratic power into everyday life has only been possible because of our tax system," Adams writes on the first page. "Our excursion into Vietnam was possible because of our tax system." The subject gets him excited: "There were easily a dozen revolts in America and Europe in Jefferson's lifetime, and all of them were over taxes!" Taxes destroyed the Dutch Empire! The French Revolution was basically a tax revolt! The IRS is indistinguishable from the Gestapo and the Soviet secret police! Magnesium!

An audit reveals that about one-third of Those Dirty Rotten Taxes consists of chatty tirades ("Shouldn't the government forget handouts and clean out the vipers' nests of vicious criminals that are everywhere around us?") that were probably delivered at dinners sponsored by various Junior Chambers of Commerce. Far more interesting are the remaining chapters, which treat the history of the world (and the U.S. especially) as a conflict between tax collectors and tax rebels. Some of his narrative is well-grounded: The struggles over taxation and representation that started the American Revolution continued throughout the early years of the republic. But when Adams interprets the English Civil War in the same terms (ignoring little details like, say, Puritan religious belief), it's clear that historical facts are just useful decoration.

The monomania reaches full bloom in some engaging but deeply muddled chapters on the American Civil War -- or, as Adams prefers to call it, the War for Southern Independence. The Confederates objected to protectionist tariffs imposed by the tyrannical Yankees. The war had nothing to do with slavery, it seems. The author notes in passing that the postwar Ku Klux Klan was an organization of heroic tax rebels. He does not elaborate, which may be for the best. Adams believes that the income tax will be abolished sometime in the next century. He makes some half-hearted gestures to distance himself from Montana Freeman-style "tax rebels." Yet he also endorses the attitude that "violence and civic disorder -- murder and mayhem -- [are] the consequence of an unjust tax system." It's astonishing that a major publisher has issued this book. I mean, why bother? Isn't that what Usenet is for? -- Salon, March 3, 1998

Library Journal
In his dedication to Chairman Bill Archer of the House Ways and Means Committee, Adams (For Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes on Civilization, LJ 3/1/93), a Washington tax consultant, boldly declares his hostility to the prevailing U.S. income tax system. Adams divides U.S. history into five periods, running from Colonial times through the Cold War, and in every segment he argues that excessive taxation constitutes the root cause of all the wars, rebellions, and social turmoil that have beset the American people. The author laments the passing of the concepts of limited government in favor of a massive federal bureaucracy, governmental paternalism, supposedly high taxes, and runaway deficit spending. Adams scarcely conceals his sympathy for this country's long line of tax dodgers and resisters, and observes with equal satisfaction that today America's affluent evaders employ far less violent and more effective means to confound the IRS. A highly partisan yet provocative history of the U.S. tax system and its influence on the American people; recommended for public and academic libraries.John Carver Edwards, Univ. of Georgia Libs., Athens
Kirkus Reviews
This reads like a selectively informed version of a barroom conversation on April 15: lots of venom, little thought. Adams surveys familiar American tax revolts to extend the diatribe introduced in his earlier work (For Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes on Civilization, 1993). From British taxes to American excises, tariffs, and the income tax, Adams revels in historical evidence that people have always hated taxation. This is not surprising—who likes to pay taxes?—but he's convinced that we have been infected by socialism and must be reminded of the joys of keeping our money for ourselves. Apparently, the rich don't need this lesson, however, for they are fleeing the country en masse to avoid an income tax based on the "Marxian concept" of "ability to pay." Nevertheless, Adams's concern about the wealthy extends so far that he sets aside his general antipathy for taxes when it comes to the poor. His response to a Clinton administration official's comment about America being undertaxed is that "she was right if you look at the taxes paid by the lower-income classes." The historiography and analysis are superficial throughout, and while entertaining, the volume is so immersed in a conventional antitax framework that it's utterly predictable. No question that requires exploring basic assumptions is recognized, for example, how the US could have become the strongest power in the world with a skyrocketing standard of living during the time period that the horrible and counterproductive income tax was in place. There is a definite need for better understanding and real reform of taxation in the US, but discussions that embrace popular prejudice and self-interestmore than careful consideration of relations between government and society are not likely to be helpful. (illustrations, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684871141
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • Publication date: 5/1/1999
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 0.59 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 9.00 (d)

Table of Contents

Pt. I The Tyranny of British Taxation, 1764-1776
1 The Roots of the American Revolution 5
2 "There Were Giants in the Earth in Those Days" 17
3 "Perfect Nonsense" 28
4 Vandalism with a Patriotic Fervor 44
5 On the Horns of a Dilemma (To Tax or Not to Tax?) 49
Pt. II The Tyranny of Federalist Taxes, 1791-1799
6 Tax Revolts Against the Federalists 65
7 Madison's Problem: What the Tax Rebels Were Fighting For - and Still Are 73
Pt. III The Tyranny of the Tariff, 1828-1861
8 The Abominable Tariff 81
9 The "Other" Great Debate 84
10 Taxes or War! 95
11 What on Earth Is the North Fighting For? 100
Pt. IV The Tyranny of the Revenuers, 1865-1900
12 Discovering the Roots of the IRS and the Second Whisky Rebellion 117
Pt. V The Tyranny of the Income Tax, 1913-199?
13 The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg 135
14 "Do Not Dig a Hole for Somebody Else, Lest You Fall in it Yourself" 145
15 "A Perfect System of Espionage" 152
16 "The Detestable Race of Informers" 160
17 Fiscal Whiz-kids or Nitwits? Or, You Can Never Accuse the Government of Being Smart 167
18 The Rebellion of the Rich (Patriotism Is Soluble in Taxes) 178
19 "No One Can Steal from the State" 188
20 Putting on a Friendly Face 198
21 Yankee Ingenuity: The Tax Rebels Find a New Weapon 210
22 The Search for the Just Tax 215
Suggestions for Further Reading 231
Index 235
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