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If Virginians think taxation is a new idea, they'd best think again.

The Tax Man Cometh (Again)

April 15 is past and unless you filed for an extension, tax time is over for this year. But tax time seems to bring out the griper in all of us, politicians and citizens alike. Of course, no one likes to pay taxes, the governor's car tax and the food tax rebates notwithstanding. But most folks seem certain that there was a golden age in America, and especially in Virginia, when we did not have to "render unto Caesar."

Every school child learns the catch phrase "no taxation without representation," and many, adults included, seem to believe, because of that phrase, that one of the results of the Revolution was no taxation. Perhaps it was this misunderstanding of history that led a correspondent to the Richmond Times-Dispatch to aver that he was certain none of the Founding Fathers would have abided our current taxes and standing in the tax lines, as he had. And on the latter point the writer was probably correct. But only because the Founding Fathers were too busy thinking up ways— and things — to tax.

To be sure, Virginia's Founding Fathers started relatively small. In December 1792, the General Assembly decided to tax land, slaves, and ordinaries (taverns). Upset about having to pay a tax on your transportation? In 1792, owners of horses, mares, colts, and mules paid a tax on them (owners of stud horses paid an additional tax), as did owners of "carriage wheels," defined as "coaches, chariots, post chariots," and other "riding four wheel and two wheelcarriages."

Remarkably, the 1792 Assembly also taxed billiard tables! And because tax cheats were known even then, the Assembly insisted, in view of the "frequent abuses have been practiced by owners of billiard tables by taking them down, so as to defeat the intention of this act ... such tables shall at all times be liable for the tax."

The following week, the Assembly made provisions for county taxes and proclaimed all males over the age of 16 and all female slaves over the age of 16 "titheables" and "chargeable for defraying the county levies and poor rates." Heads of households thus had to pay a tax on every male, free or slave, and every female slave over the age of 16 who lived with them. In short, the legislators instituted a head tax in order to raise funds for the county government and to take care of the poor. It was, by the way, a flat tax, that "new" idea that was so touted in the last election.

Within a year, the General Assembly was searching for new sources of "revenue" — the "t word" was avoided even then. Thinking perhaps that since almost 30 years had passed since colonists had gone crazy over the Stamp Act, no one would remember its provisions and object, the Assembly decided to tax many of the same things. Need to file court papers? Pay a tax. Need to file an appeal? Pay a tax. Need a subpoena? Tax. Your certificates need a state seal? Tax. Documents need a county seal? Tax. Notary? Tax. (The legislators at least had the good sense to wait until 1843, when surely all of those Stamp-Act rabble-rousers were dead, to begin taxing newspaper presses.)

Soon the commonwealth decided that merchants might be a good source of income for Virginia, and by 1800 those who wished to "sell merchandise of foreign growth or manufacture by wholesale or retail" had to pay a $40 tax for a license. Those who sold only retail paid $15. Even itinerant "hawkers and pedlars [sic]" paid 25 cents in every locale where they sold their wares.

Well before the Civil War, the tax code of Virginia had a very modern look to it. Houses and lots in towns were taxed. For those legislators — and governors — who believe that the BPOL tax is a recent invention of post-World-War II tax-and-spend liberals, think again! By the 1840s taxes on merchants were indexed to sales. (Those who also wished to sell "ardent spirits" paid an extra $15.) Insurance sales offices paid $100. Brokers and "vendue masters" were taxed, along with "tin pedlars" and "clock pedlars." "Exhibitors of Shows" had paid a tax to each locality in which they appeared.

If you think the government wants to know your worth now, consider the possessions of Virginia's citizens which were taxed in 1843, which I hesitate to enumerate for fear of giving eager legislators any ideas: dividends, interest, bonds, state bonds, foreign stocks, deeds, gold watches, "patent lever or lepine silver" watches, metallic watches, brass and metallic clocks, all other clocks, and pianos.

And for those who are certain that income tax is a 20th-century invention, perhaps it's comforting to know that all income over $400 was taxed. However, legislators allowed attorneys (of course!), physicians, surgeons, and dentists to avoid the percentage tax on income over $400 by paying a flat $10 tax to the state.

Finally, in 1844, the general Assembly decided to tax any "collateral inheritances, devises, bequests ... or all estates, real, personal and mixed of every kind whatsoever, passing from any person who may die ..." And, to be sure, there were taxes and fees to be paid on all the legal documents surrounding wills and estates.

So as you think about all those taxes you have paid, and you think wistfully about the "good old days" without taxation, rest assured, there were none.

James D Watkinson is a historian who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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