The Founding Fathers and Taxes: The Real Story

Alabama congressional candidate Rick Barber, a Teabagger, has a buzz-creating political ad that’s gathering attention. The out-there bit of marketing casts Barber as a tax revolutionary — and lumps in some American luminaries with his fringe views.

Observers have mostly focused on the video’s kookiest parts — Barber’s calls for the impeachment of Pres. Obama, and Fake George Washington’s call to “Gather Your Armies” — and don’t get me wrong, those are plenty crazy sentiments.

But it’s the milder portions of the video that actually caught my attention. Specifically, the assumption that the Founding Fathers would have opposed any taxes, especially the progressive kind.

It’s funny how the people who venerate the Founding Fathers most tend to know the least about them, and the people who use the constitution as a political prop don’t seem to have read it. For one thing, it’s pretty silly to treat the Founding Fathers as a unitary entity that didn’t have internal dissent.

The populist Jefferson got into numerous debates with his more elitist contemporaries, and history has been much kinder to the redhead than his opponents, who referred to everyday people (the people Barber is trying to incite) as “the rabble.”

And Jefferson was openly pro-progressive taxation. As he said in a 1785 letter to James Madison, “Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise.”

Thomas Paine was also a vocal advocate of the progressive income tax. The country passed a progressive estate tax in 1797, and this debate’s been settled at least since the days of Teddy Roosevelt.

Even George Washington, who “appears” in the ad as an impersonator, wasn’t anti-tax. General Washington levied the first tax in the new republic, the Whiskey Tax, and when people rebelled, he “gathered his armies” — and not in the way Barber would like. Yes, he used the military to enforce tax policy.

Conservatives always quote one snippet from Washington where he says that taxes are always “inconvenient and unpleasant.” Strangely, they never quote the whole passage, which shows Washington’s views in context. He said this in his farewell address (emphasis mine):

To facilitate to them the performance of their duty, it is essential that you should practically bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant; that the intrinsic embarrassment, inseparable from the selection of the proper objects (which is always a choice of difficulties), ought to be a decisive motive for a candid construction of the conduct of the government in making it, and for a spirit of acquiescence in the measures for obtaining revenue, which the public exigencies may at any time dictate.

In other words: yeah, it’s always going to be a pain to pay taxes, but to promote the common good, we need them so we can raise revenue and do the things the public needs done.

Which is still the mainstream position among Americans now.

Next time you hear a Teabagger ranting about the Founding Fathers, give them a history lesson. The history of this country — like the constitution — is a lot more interesting and rich if you actually read it.


  1. […] post by Jeff Shaw and software by Elliott Back Comments […]

  2. AdamL

    June 16, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    I would add that the people who most venerate the market seem to understand it the least.

  3. HunterC

    June 16, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    How dare you bringing facts and context into a America’s fiscal history discussion!

    More slogans, less thinking!

  4. […] reading here: The Progressive Pulse – The Founding Fathers and Taxes: The Real Story Comments […]

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by jeffshaw, north_carolinaBNN. north_carolinaBNN said: The Progressive Pulse: The Founding Fathers and Taxes: The Real Story: Alabama congressional candidate Rick Barber… http://bit.ly/b47DgR […]

  6. Adam Searing

    June 17, 2010 at 10:16 am

    and we shouldn’t forget that it wasn’t “no taxation” it was “no taxation without representation”…

  7. jason smith

    June 18, 2011 at 1:07 am

    To be fair, he was talking about the IRS and the federal government’s role in hindering individuals. A federal tax system is considered by constitutional scholars as being unconstitutional. City, county and (sometimes) state taxes are fine. It’s what funded the states to govern the people. The federal government then received funds from the states.

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