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Slavery Reexamined, Part 2

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But the tax slavery vs. chattel slavery story is not over. The one place medieval serfdom did not take root was in Russia. Unlike the farmers in Europe, the small farmer in Russia during the Middle Ages was free, and he could travel about the land and sell his services to the highest bidder. Serfdom had not come to Russia just yet. But it did come, the same way it came to the West.

Montesquieu, who so inspired the Framers of our Constitution with his immortal study, The Spirit of Laws, recalls the events that brought serfdom to Russia. Beginning in Moscow. Russians chose to be slaves in order to avoid the tsar’s taxmen — exactly what had happened a thousand years before in the Roman Empire. This flight of Russian peasants to chattel and land slavery ended up making Russia the bastion of slavery in Europe long after Western Europeans had ended serfdom.

In 1860, Tsar Alexander II ended serfdom and slavery in Russia through a process of emancipation that puts our emancipation to shame. He spent 10 years studying the problem and set up a process that eased the serfs into a free society. No long-lasting bitterness, as happened in America’s emancipation, even to this day.

But again, the story of tax slavery is not yet over. It resurfaces as a powerful force in American history, of all places.

The American Revolution

If you dig deep into the causes of our Revolution, you will discover that the primary cause was tax slavery. Our Founders said so time and time again. They called British taxes the “badge of slavery,” and they weren’t exaggerating or blowing off steam. When the Sons of Liberty (an underground organization throughout the colonies) paraded through the streets of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, singing ballads against British taxes, the chorus that was repeated after the main verses was:


“Parliament’s voice has condemned us by law to be SLAVES
Brave Boys!
Has condemned us by law to be SLAVES.”

Records of these ballads have the word “slaves” capitalized, for emphasis.

Patrick Henry’s famous speech to the Virginia convention on March 23, 1775, which ended with “Is life so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death,” and which every American child learns early in school, contains the same tax-slavery message: “There is no retreat, but in submission and slavery. Our chains are forged. Their clanking may be heard on the Plains of Boston! The war is inevitable — and let it come!! I repeat sir, let it come!!”

Paul Revere, known for his famous ride in 1775 and shouting, “The British are coming,” should also be known for having preserved in his writings a sketch of a monument for the Bostonians erected in 1766 to commemorate the repeal of the Stamp Tax. On the monument is a picture of the Goddess of Liberty as an angel with wings and inscribed above the goddess are words to the effect that it would be better to die than to be SLAVES. Again, tax slaves, with the word SLAVES capitalized.

The root of our Founding Fathers’ hatred of taxation and their equating taxes with slavery came from the immigrants, who fled to avoid Europe’s hated taxes more than anything else. One Irish settler wrote home to his family and friends in Ulster in the 18th century, urging them to come to America because “there are no revenue hounds” here. Thomas Paine, the voice of the American Revolution, discloses in his writings that the American family of four paid only one-fifth of the taxes an English family of four paid. And the taxes in England were among the lowest in Europe. The American patriots hated taxes, and they were willing to die to prevent European-style taxes from taking root in the colonies. They were not to be tax slaves.

The Civil War

Fear of tax slavery did not die with the American Revolution. Southerners raised the issue in their acts of secession in 1861. After the Civil War, fear of tax slavery arose again when there was a move to adopt a peacetime income tax. According to the thinking of the times, an income tax could be justified only as a war-tax measure. It had no place in peacetime in a free society. It would lead to tax slavery. In 1878, Harper’s magazine condemned income taxation with a caricature showing the Goddess of Liberty with head bowed and a heavy chain around her neck marked “income tax.” On the platform where Liberty was enchained were the words: “The Slave of Liberty,” borrowing from the words of Montesquieu, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, and the Sons of Liberty.

The 20th century

By the end of the 19th century, fears of tax slavery all but disappeared, and the 20th century hasn’t heard a word on the subject. The age of big government came to pass, and that meant big taxes for big wars and big spending on all fronts.

It also meant the necessity of ushering in an era of tax slavery — slowly, step by step, bit by bit, until everything is now under the eyes of our tax master. No need for a Diocletian style system leaving every person to his job. With the tax identification number on everything you do of a fiscal nature, taxpayers can be permitted to roam about as they please because Big Brother can easily learn where their money is and where it came from. A new kind of tax slavery has been born.

Leo Tolstoy the great Russian writer must have seen what was coming, for he gave slavery a new definition, so applicable to our times: “The essence of all slavery consists in taking the produce of another’s labor by force. It is immaterial whether this force be founded upon ownership of the slave or ownership of the money that he must get to live.”

Of course, there is slavery in all taxation, for taxes are collected by the police power of the state. The question for us is, how much slavery can we tolerate? Those who have fled our country to avoid taxes are like the Romans who evaded Diocletian’s tax with the admonition “Let us flee to the land of the barbarians where we may live as free men.”

The rest of America’s taxpayers live for tax-freedom day which has been slipping away each year for the past century. Tax-freedom day in 1902 was January 31,

in 1922 was February 17,
in 1948 was March 28,
in 1958 was April 10,
in 1968 was April 24,
in 1978 was April 30,
in 1988 was May 2,
in 1998 was May 10.

All indications are that tax-freedom day will continually be delayed until we become half-slave and half-free. In 1858, Lincoln said, “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free.” As the century draws to a close, we too should ask ourselves the same question with respect to tax slavery.

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    Charles Adams, the world’s leading scholar on the history of taxation, is the author of For Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization, 2nd edition, 1999, from which this article was derived. He was the winner of the 2000 Paradigm Book Award for his book on the Civil War, When in the Course of Human Events.