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Brian Sawers, The Poll Tax Before Jim Crow, 57 American Journal of Legal History 166 - 179 (June 2017) (259 Footnotes Omitted)


BrianSawerMost histories of the black experience, both before and after the Civil War, do no more than touch on taxation. In Einhorn's studies of colonial and antebellum taxation, slavery's role is appropriately central. The taxation of antebellum free blacks and postbellum freedmen has received less attention. This article provides a history of the direct taxation of black people from first settlement to Jim Crow. Tax was not the most significant facet of the black experience, even in the years of heavy license and poll taxes. Studying tax, however, provides insights not available otherwise because of the role that tax plays in formalizing social obligation, including inequalities the state seeks to emphasize. Tax provides another way to understand both the lived experience of black Americans and the ways in which government sought to define and control them.

The materials available to the tax historian are relatively scarce, despite the importance of tax to American history. Reports by state fiscal authorities account for every dollar of spending, but they often lumped all tax revenue into a single category. Thus, it is often impossible to determine the relative contribution of different taxes and thus relative burdens. Even when fiscal reports included detailed information, the figures respond to questions important to people then, not now. There are few published records of local taxation. Legislative materials and newspaper accounts are decidedly patchy.

Given the paucity of scholarly and contemporary detail, this is an exploratory study. This article aims to collect all the information currently available, providing direction for future scholarship. As such, this article hesitates to conclude too much from the limited record, instead hinting at the story that further archival research might reveal.

The outlines of the story, however, are discernible. Before independence, the poll tax signaled the status of free blacks as labor, not equals. From independence to the Civil War, the tax treatment of free blacks was increasingly hostile. During presidential Reconstruction, unrepentant state and local governments tried to revive the antebellum order. The advent of universal manhood suffrage brought an end to those hopes, and the poll tax became a tax almost exclusively devoted to education. After Redemption, state and local government waged economic warfare against freedmen, but not through the poll tax. Legislatures changed labor, lien, property, and criminal law to coerce freedmen into working for white landowners under poor conditions and for low wages, but poll and license taxes played no similar role, at least after 1868.

Although presidential Reconstruction is a very brief part of the history of the poll tax, this article pays it outsized attention for two reasons. Before 1865, free blacks were a tiny share of the black population, except in Maryland and Virginia. Thus, the poll and license taxes of presidential Reconstruction affected many more people. More importantly, the number of sources, including both newspapers and congressional reports, increases markedly during Reconstruction. Both antebellum and Reconstruction sources indicate that the tax policy of presidential Reconstruction was a continuation of earlier practices, but antebellum sources lack the same detail. Thus, presidential Reconstruction receives otherwise undue attention to shed light better on antebellum tax practices.

Although the South relied on capitation taxes more heavily, these taxes were collected in most of the country at some point. Capitation taxes elsewhere had no racial implications, largely because those states were almost entirely white. Here, California is an exception, and the state did impose a racialized head tax. In 1862, the state legislature imposed a "Chinese police tax" of $2.50. Although state courts invalidated the tax, the California legislature debated another racialized poll tax, now framed as a tax on aliens ineligible to citizenship.

Head taxes have a long history. Perhaps the earliest head tax is recorded in Exodus. At Mt. Sinai, Moses was instructed to tax each man at a rate of one-half shekel. Later, Jesus and Peter paid the same tax in Capernaum. The Roman Empire collected capitation taxes, which Tertullian described as a "mark of slavery." Non-Muslims in Islamic Spain paid a head tax called the jizya; conversion to Islam shrank the tax base and undermined the fiscal basis of Muslim rule. In late medieval England, the collection of the poll tax sparked the peasant revolt led by Wat Tyler. During the gold rush in Victoria, Australia, a special head tax of œ1 per year was collected from Chinese miners. colonial Africa, governments often imposed direct taxes, which prompted men to leave subsistence agriculture to work in mines and plantations. Since direct taxes were unpopular and often sparked revolts, governments shifted to indirect taxes once trade had developed.

The 17 18 and 19 centuries saw both inflation and deflation, so the burden of taxes rose and fell. Wherever possible, the article provides a comparison to wages or other taxes. Although price series are available, this article reports nominal figures without adjustment. Even a price series with good underlying data and robust methodology imperfectly captures tax burdens for several reasons. Price series can overstate fluctuations in tax burdens because the prices incorporated into the series are necessarily for traded goods. Yet many workers received much of their wages in food that they had helped grow themselves. Also, historical price series reflect the prices of a basket of goods, which can overstate fluctuations since workers as consumers substitute in response to price changes. In contrast, a comparison to wages is more useful since most workers cannot substitute away from work as much as they can substitute away from newly expensive products. In the colonial period, estimating the burden of taxes is complicated by the multitude of currencies, since each colony issued its own, which fluctuated relative to each other and the hard currency of the colonies, the Spanish dollar. Colonial currencies were denominated in pounds, shillings, and pence, but dollars were often divided into eighths. Lastly, many taxes could be paid in country money, which were local agricultural commodities or receipts reflecting commodities.

Comparisons to wages should be treated with caution, however. In the South, wages varied considerably between the western states and the Atlantic seaboard. More importantly, workers were offered different wages, depending on the difficulty and danger of the job, the employer's evaluation of the worker, and other factors. These variations explain some of the oddities in the wages reported. In Florida, for example, one source reports a daily wage of 75 cents in 1843, but only 31 cents 10 years later. The same source reports a daily wage of 50 cents in Texas in 1841, but $1 in Louisiana in 1855. The conclusion is not that wages halved in Florida in the same period that wages doubled elsewhere. Instead, comparable figures should be understood as a rough approximation.

The first part traces the poll tax from first settlement to the Civil War, relating the decline of its fiscal importance and the rise of its social purpose. Every Southern state save South Carolina restructured its taxes in the late antebellum, which shrank the importance of the poll tax further in many states. The second part details local, occupational, and other direct taxes before universal manhood suffrage. The third part describes how universal manhood suffrage led to new state governments that restricted poll taxes. The end of biracial government brought many changes, but few to the poll tax, although local poll taxes rose over the rest of the century. Jim Crow transformed the poll tax; the notoriety of its role in disenfranchising blacks and poor whites gave the poll tax its modern meaning.

. . .

This Article traces the history of the poll tax before it became synonymous with voter disenfranchisement. Early in the colonial period, state and local government in the South lacked administrative capacity, so the poll tax was the only feasible tax. Over time, government introduced other taxes and the fiscal importance of the poll tax waned. Poll taxes on blacks raised little revenue, but increased after independence, together with onerous occupational license taxes. The year 1868 marks a break in the history of the poll tax. Universal manhood suffrage limited the poll tax and the revenue was directed to education. The poll tax on blacks funded black schools, while funding for white schools was supplemented from other sources. With the advent of Jim Crow, the rule in Georgia that nonpayment meant forfeiting the right to vote spread to the entire region, leading to the modern meaning of the poll tax.

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