“How then will it be possible, under these circumstances, to endure this Tax which is laid upon us by Parliament? –Add to this, that it will drain the Province of the little Cash left among us, which at present barely serves for a Medium of Trade…And if you should be active in bringing this Tax upon yourselves, at it will inevitably destroy our constitutional Privileges, so it will perpetuate to the latest Posterity, a most despicable Opinion of the civil Principles of their Ancestors…But should your Representatives be instructed by you, (which God forbid!) by a solemn and public Act to promote the Operation of this Law, you will implicitly declare that you resign that inestimable Right; and, in Consequence of such Resignation, you may next expect a Tax on your Lands; and after that one Burthen on the Back of another, till you are reduced to a State of the most abject Poverty…The Effects I presage are dreaded far and wide. –Would to God our Terror was merely panic, and that the Disagreeableness of the Act arose only from its Novelty. –But our Fears are founded on Reason and universal Experience…Consider gentlemen, that the least infraction of your Liberties is a Prelude to Encroachments…Indolence –Indolence has been the Source of irretrievable Ruin –Languor and Timidity, when the Public is concerned, are the origin of Evils mighty and innumerable” –A letter authored only using the initials W.B. “To the Inhabitants of the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay,” concerning the Stamp Act, appeared in The Boston-Gazette and Country Journal, October 7, 1765.
In 1765, the Stamp Act ignited a storm of protest and led to a series of events that sparked a revolution of the American colonies against Great Britain. The dreaded act was a British tax on colonial stamps on newspapers, legal documents, and playing cards among other items. The taxes provoked a strong reaction against the colonists who raised cries that they were being taxed without representation in Parliament.
The colonists resorted to several different forms of protest to the taxes. At first, they petitioned the king and Parliament claiming their constitutional liberties as Englishmen and their natural rights. Soon after learning of the impending taxes, in December 1764, the Virginia House of Burgesses was the first to level a protest and sent a petition stating that, “The people are not subject to any taxes but such are laid on them by their own consent.”
In addition, colonists formed mobs that intimidated and coerced the Stamp Act collectors into not collecting the tax and resigning their offices. Some were threatened with violence, others were burned in effigy, and one was frighteningly buried alive until he relented. Other acts of violence erupted, with Boston mobs tearing down the Stamp collector’s office and vandalizing and plundering the home of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson.
The colonists also began to demonstrate a sense of common identity and unity when nine colonies agreed to meet at the Stamp Act Congress in New York. After their deliberations, the delegates agreed to a declaration of rights asserting their fundamental liberties. Foremost among these was the right not to be taxed without their consent. “It is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.”
British merchants were devastated financially by the colonial boycotts of British goods. They petitioned the king and Parliament for relief and eventually found it when Parliament revoked the Stamp Act Taxes. However, the Parliament also passed the Declaratory Act, which affirmed that principle that the body could legislate and tax the colonists in “any case whatsoever.”
The clashing perspectives of the colonists and British showed a fundamental disagreement over taxation and the powers of government. The parliamentary assertion of unlimited authority to govern the colonies led to additional attempts to tax the colonists, who predictably stood by the principle of no taxation without consent and resisted the taxes.
In 1767, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts which were a tax on a variety of items including glass, paint, paper, and tea. The colonists again resolved not to import British goods, which dried up trade between Great Britain and her colonies. Parliament relented and revoked the taxes but soon passed the Tea Act which collected three pennies per pound.
While it might seem like a trifling amount, Virginian George Washington explained that it was the principle that was at stake rather than the money. “What is it we are contending against? Is it paying the duty of 3d. per pound on tea because burdensome? No, it is the right only…as Englishmen, we could not be deprived of this essential and valuable part of our Constitution.”
The Boston Tea Party in late 1773 was the clearest expression of colonial opposition to being taxed without consent. The British retaliated harshly with the Coercive Acts shutting down the Port of Boston, banning town meetings and self-government, and allowing British colonial officials to escape American justice. This course led to the First Continental Congress and the first shots of the war being fired at Lexington and Concord. One of the grievances of the Declaration of Independence was “imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.”
During the war and after, however, the opposition to central authority provoked by resistance to British tyranny meant that one of the problems in the new nation was the inability to tax and collect adequate revenue. During the period, the Continental and Confederation Congress relied primarily on requisitions to the states for taxes, which were frequently ignored. Meanwhile, the states and national government were burdened by large war debts. The national government under the Articles of Confederation was especially unable to pay it off or use revenue to pay for armies to suppress internal rebellions such as Shays’ Rebellion.
Article I of the new United States Constitution empowered the Congress to pass taxes with the consent of the people through their elected representatives. Article I, section 8 stated: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”
However, because of the fear that the Senate might form a corrupt cabal with the executive branch, and because the House of Representatives was the only popularly-elected branch of government and was closest to the people, any bills in Congress for taxes had to start in the House. Article I, section 7 states, “All Bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives.”
Taxation in the United States was often controversial from the tariff and protective tariff in the nineteenth century to the escalating tax rates to fund a growing federal government in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The ideals of the American founding continued to shape American concerns and fears of centralized government and taxation. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall asserted in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) that, “The power to tax involves the power to destroy.” Americans have believed since the founding that a government that taxes too much destroys liberty.
Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.