A rarely used tactic in tax resistance campaigns is for resisters to turn themselves in for prosecution for having paid taxes. This was used by a group of Welsh war tax resisters who went to the police and “confessed to the crime of paying income and VAT taxes used for British nuclear programs, in violation of international law” in . The police declined to make any arrests.

An American war tax resister reports that when he refused to pay his taxes in , “I also asked the IRS if they could provide legal assurance that paying taxes would not leave me open to prosecution under the Nuremberg Principles. The IRS replied that they could not provide a quick response to my letter since they had received ‘a large number of similar requests.’”

The legal reasoning, in the abstract, is not all that far-fetched, but it is a sort of affected naïveté to expect the government to respect it in this fashion. This sort of tactic is a form of symbolic protest and can help to educate people about their accountability for war crimes conducted with their acquiescence and support.


In , Clarence Marsh Case submitted his doctoral thesis on “The Social Psychology of Passive Resistance” (which he later expanded into the book Non-violent coercion).

As early attempts to get methodical about nonviolent resistance theory and practice, these are interesting works. I’ll note some of what he had to say about tax resistance as a nonviolent resistance tactic here today:

Tax resistance against the Education Act of

This was the organized opposition to the English Education Act of , which extended the private school system of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches at the expense of the general taxpayer. The interest of the matter for the purposes of the present discussion lies in the fact that it was explicitly an example of passive resistance, inasmuch as the agitators called themselves “passive resisters” and published, for a decade or more, a periodical called “Passive Resistance,” from whose pages this account is drawn.

Their method was to refuse to pay the school tax, which they held to be grossly unjust to dissenters, but to submit obediently to the penalty prescribed by the law for delinquency. This punishment came with great regularity in the form of fines, which the passive resisters steadfastly and consistently refused to pay; whereupon their goods were distrained, or, in default of goods, the recalcitrant was cast into prison. The magnitude of the movement is shown by the fact that within two and one half years of its inauguration the league had on file reports of seventy thousand summonses and 254 commitments to prison.

The character and social standing of the members of the movement are facts of significant interest. According to the secretary of the organization,1 “The men and women whose goods have been sold belong to all classes and ranks. They are clergymen and ministers, journalists and teachers, manufacturers and magistrates, members of Parliament and candidates for Parliament, farmers and gardeners, aged women and young men.”2

The movement was losing momentum in , in response, as was supposed, to a feeling on the part of some that the Liberal victory of , for which the Passive Resisters seem to have been more or less responsible, insured the repeal of the obnoxious law. But the decline was doubtless due also to the proverbially early exhaustion which overtakes all sudden expressions of popular indignation. The secretary admitted in that the Passive Resisters were “fewer in number compared with the hosts which at first resisted the fraudulent legislation of .”3


  1. “Passive Resistance,” ; p. 7.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.; p. 4.

Tax resistance in the American Revolution

The merchants, true to the intuition of their class, were by no means revolutionary or even reckless as regards the foundations of law and order, although in this case they permitted their zeal for prosperity to encourage social forces which, in turn, eventually raised a tempest that they could not quell. Their intention, both real and apparent, was the organization of a boycott against British trade, particularly in commodities subjected to taxation or other restrictions under the recently enacted revenue laws. This boycott was planned with clear comprehension of the interplay of interests that obtains in human affairs, and particularly the dependence of political policies upon personal and business influences. Consequently the colonial merchants did not aim a general broadside at the whole British Empire, but planned to reach particular interests with a well-directed blow. More specifically, they hoped, by means of their boycott measures, to give the British mercantile and manufacturing people a motive, in the person of their own imperiled interests, for seeking the ear of Parliament with a demand for the repeal of the objectionable legislation.

The straight, or primary, boycott was the method used to impress the minds of the British trading class, which was, of course, the British government for practical purposes. The secondary boycott, as now known, was in turn brought to bear upon Americans who failed to observe the original agreement and resorted to dealing within the limits prescribed, either as to persons or goods. For instance, in the earlier struggle, waged against the stamp tax, communities that paid the same were made to feel the disapproval of their neighbors, as in Charleston, South Carolina, where a radical fire company agreed that ”no provision should be shipped “to that infamous Colony Georgia in particular nor any other that make use of Stamp Paper.’”1

During the later boycott, directed against the Townshend taxes, Rhode Island yielded to that temptation which constitutes the greatest peril for any concerted movement of this kind, namely the impulse to reap a rich harvest by seizing the opportunities deliberately left to go begging through the self-denial of one’s competitors. This incident also discloses another weakness inherent in such organized “voluntary” efforts, which is that they are really seldom, if ever, completely voluntary. Enthusiasts for every cause, however worthy, almost invariably make use of coercion by means of the hundred and one devices known to social pressure, and thereby incorporate the seeds of their own disintegration. Thus a contemporary Rhode Islander wrote that they “were dragged in the first place like an ox to the slaughter, into the non-importation agreement,” and that adherence to the same “would have been acting out of character and in contradiction to the opinion of the country.”2

The resistance of the colonists was destined, however, to run the entire gamut of forms known to social opposition and constraint. Evasion of law had long been an established business in the form of smuggling; the peaceable boycott, both primary and secondary, was now well under way; but political action, litigation, social ostracism, mob violence, and armed revolution were either already coming into play or waiting to enter the stage as the historic drama proceeded. And this list makes no mention of those subtle methods of persuasion and “influence” which operate between friends and relatives, business and scientific associates, boon companions, and numberless other channels of daily intercourse, not to mention the more overt persuasion of pulpit, press, and platform. And one of the most significant aspects of it all is the tendency of any one of these situations to transform itself into one or more of the other members of the series, so that one method can hardly be used without sooner or later invoking the others. This truth is clearly exemplified in the events now before us.

For example, in the secondary boycott directed by Charleston against Georgia, as quoted above, the resolution threatened death for future offenders, with destruction of their vessels. In Boston, especially during the earlier contest over the Stamp Tax, the disturbances were most serious. The rioters were led by one Mackintosh, a shoemaker, endowed by nature for “government by tumult.” Under his leadership, the mob, which was currently reported to include “fifty gentlemen actors” partly disguised in workman’s attire, not only razed the stamp office but also attacked the house of the registrar of the admiralty, and even the residence of Governor Hutchinson himself. In all these scenes the Sons of Liberty, composed largely of workingmen, did the strong-arm work. Meanwhile the merchants, ostensibly committed exclusively to the boycott and orderly methods, lent in private an anxious but effective moral support. One of them testifies in a private letter of the time that they were endeavoring “to keep up the Spirit” of resistance but were “not a little pleas’d to hear that McIntosh has the Credit of the Whole Affair.”3


  1. “The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution, ,” by Arthur Meier Schlesinger; Vol. ⅬⅩⅩⅧ, Whole Number 182, of “Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law,” edited by the faculty of political science of Columbia University. New York, ; p. 82.
  2. Ibid.; p. 215.
  3. Ibid.; p. 72.

Economic pressure through the boycott and physical force in the form of violence were constantly supported by the more subtle forms of social coercion. Thus the Boston agreement of was to be enforced by a discountenancing “in the most effectual but decent and lawful manner” of all who should fail to aid the movement. At Philadelphia, any person failing to support the boycott was to be branded “An Enemy of the Liberties of America,” and it was the plan to publish such names in the newspapers. The commercial resisters of Savannah likewise agreed that “every violator should be deemed ‘no Friend to his Country’”; while in South Carolina non-supporters were “to be treated with the utmost contempt.” In the Boston boycotters circulated thousands of handbills throughout their own and neighboring provinces calling on the inhabitants to have no trade relations with persons whom they named as lacking in regard for the public good. While this is apparently merely a case of the secondary boycott already described, the publicity methods connected with it are of interest just here. Public disapproval, aside from withdrawal of patronage, was a factor held in view. It was an effort to revive the ancient pillory upon its mental though not its physical side that prompted some of these acts — perhaps that of the Harvard College seniors who resolved never again to deal with Editor John Mein, who championed the non-boycotters.1 The town meeting went a step further, and ordered the names of seven persistent offenders inscribed on the town records in order “that posterity may know who those persons were that preferred their little private advantages to the common interest of all the colonies.”2

Boston, the scene of so many stirring activities, staged a prototype of our present-day “peaceful picketing” on a mass scale, when, during the struggle to prevent disintegration of the boycott forces, in , a procession of more than a thousand persons proceeded, in what Professor Schlesinger describes as “impressive and orderly array,” to the homes and shops of the recalcitrant merchants, among them two sons of the governor, whom they sought under the roof of the executive mansion itself. Having made their demonstration and protest, in every place the multitude quietly dispersed.3


  1. Ibid.; pp. 112, 130, 148, 149, 158, 172.
  2. Ibid.; p. 173.
  3. Ibid.; p. 176.

Francis Deak’s campaign against Austrian domination in Hungary

Deak proceeded to organize a scheme for national education and industry, and a boycott against Austrian goods was set in motion. As relations between the two governments became more tense, “Deak admonished the people not to be betrayed into acts of violence, nor to abandon the ground of legality. ‘This is the safe ground,’ he said, ‘on which, unarmed ourselves, we can hold our own against armed force. If suffering be necessary, suffer with dignity.’ He had given the order to the country — Passive Resistance”; “and the order was obeyed. When the Austrian Tax Collector came to gather the taxes the people did not beat him nor even hoot him — they just declined to pay. The Tax Collector thereupon called in the Austrian police, and the police seized the man’s goods. Then the Hungarian auctioneer declined to auction them, and an Austrian auctioneer had to be introduced. When he arrived he discovered that he would have to bring bidders from Austria also if the goods were to be sold. The government found before long that it was costing more to distrain the goods than the tax itself was worth.”

Gandhi’s campaigns against anti-Indian measures in South Africa

The long struggle, which the London “Times” declared, according to Mr. Polak’s report, “must live in memory as one of the most remarkable manifestations in history of the spirit of Passive Resistance,” was drawing to its close in . Mr. Gandhi, in connection with the discussion in Parliament and elsewhere in England, just prior to the great “March” of , above described, had accepted full responsibility for his advising the Indian community to resist the law. His plan, which he held to be “of educational value, and, in the end to be valuable both to the Indian community and the State,” consisted, as he worded it himself, in “actively, persistently, and continuously asking those who are liable to pay the £3 tax to decline to do so and to suffer the penalties for non-payment, and what is more important, in asking those who are now serving indenture and who will, therefore, be liable to pay the £3 tax upon the completion of their indenture, to strike work until the tax is withdrawn.”1

This, as has been shown, was his plan of procedure at , when he proposed the strike of protest for . But the new year opened with a series of conferences with the authorities, a truce was declared, and the principal points in the long dispute were finally settled by the Indian Relief Act, passed in


  1. “Speeches and Writings,” p. ⅩⅬⅦ.

Gandhi’s independence campaign in India

At the close of his year of silence we find Gandhi organizing the ryots of the Kaira district in his own province in a passive resistance movement, i.e., Satyagraha, against the payment of taxes which they asserted should have been suspended because of a partial failure of their crops. The struggle continued to , when the passive resisters were released from jail and their contention accepted.

Meanwhile the non-coöperation movement, the strangest revolution in human history, had been launched at a special session of the Indian National Congress, which met in Calcutta in . the program was amended and strengthened in what are known as the Regular Congress Resolution, or the Nagpur Resolutions, of . The resolution is based upon the two fundamental propositions, (1) that the British Government in India had forfeited the confidence of the country, and (2) that it should be brought to an end by the non-violent method of simply refusing to cooperate with it longer. The program of non-cooperation was planned to culminate in “civil disobedience,” specifically in refusal to pay taxes for governmental support. It was realized, however, that this drastic measure would subject the social order to a terrific and perilous strain. Therefore a more or less extended period of discipline was seen to be necessary by way of preparation for the final stroke.

It will be recalled that the Non-cooperation Resolutions promised Swaraj within one year. But as the tumult tended to increase with the passing months of , it became necessary, time and again, to postpone the most drastic measure, namely civil disobedience or refusal to pay taxes or remain in the government service, in which it was planned to culminate.

In , the All-India Congress met at Delhi, where Gandhi, according to the despatches to London of , declared it necessary to accelerate the movement by using all the measures in the non-cooperation arsenal. “This,” he declared, “embraces the policy of civil disobedience, which means civil revolution. Whenever it is practised it will end Government authority. It means open defiance of the Government and its laws. I will launch this campaign in my own district, in Gujarat, within the next fortnight. The nation must await the result of this example, which should open the eyes of the whole world.”

The congress committee pointed out in a resolution that only a little more than a month then remained of the year within which Swaraj had been promised. In view of this and the “exemplary self-restraint” observed by the nation in its adherence to non-violence, the committee then authorized “every province on its own responsibility to undertake civil disobedience, including non-payment of taxes,” provided they would observe Hindu-Moslem unity and all the other features of the non-cooperation program. So much for the individual provinces, but, as for the nation as a whole, the decision was that it must await Gandhi’s signal.

And so it came about that at a meeting of the working committee of the All-India Congress on , with Gandhi presiding, a resolution was adopted postponing civil disobedience until , or pending the final result of the negotiations at the round-table conference then in progress between leaders of all parties…

During an interview with an American correspondent, in ,1 Mr Gandhi admitted that mass civil disobedience had been abandoned on the very eve of its promised inauguration, because “the country was not ready.” “The principles of non-violence,” he explained, “had not yet made themselves felt.” But he declared it merely a postponement, adding, “We will continue individual disobedience and boycott.”


  1. Mr. John Clayton, in the Chicago Tribune, .

Shortly thereafter, Gandhi was jailed, and he was still in jail when Case was writing his book.

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