Today, some notes about a successful organized tax resistance movement in South Australia.
The Great Confederated Anti-Dray and Land Tax League of South Australia formed in to fight taxes associated with a recently-enacted Road Act. The League felt the taxes were excessive; oppressive to poor farmers while exempting rich merchants, mine owners, and bankers; had been imposed by a non-representative government body; and operated largely for the benefit of land-holders who were also members of the board that was imposing the tax and designing the road system.
A Mr. Wells, when proposing the motion to form the League, said: “I have not paid, nor will I pay one farthing of either tax. I am prepared to become a martyr… This martyrdom, little or large, I will submit to; my friends will submit to; the entire of the thinking and intelligent farmers in my district will submit to, rather than be fleeced against our will, and without the franchise.”
Wells proposed a big demonstration at the Government House. Mr. [William?] Parker reminded people of a successful resistance to taxes in Van Diemen’s Land . Mr. Sutherland brought up “the example of the heroic Americans in resisting the famous Stamp Act, and threw the tea into Boston harbour.” The example of John Hampden in England was also brought up as precedent.
Mr. [Thomas?] Wilson said the he thought “[t]he best plan was [for the League] to subscribe ample funds, and defend any case in any district, in which the Commissioners were so ill-advised as to proceed to extremities.”
The League announced itself with the following declaration, which gives you an idea of how seriously they took the matter:
Fellow Colonists— In venturing to put forth this address to you, our aim and object is, to encourage the faint and feeble-minded, and to stimulate to still greater exertion the zealous and persevering. We have expatriated ourselves from our native land, and embarked on the vast field of colonial enterprise, with a view to reap a more liberal reward for our toil and exertions. We have severed the ties both of paternal and fraternal affection, which bind together the children to the parents and brothers and sisters to each other. We have severed the ties of early friendship and denied ourselves the pleasure of the company of those we dearly love.
We have left our native land in consequence of the overgrowth of its population, its vast competition, and its enormous taxation, to seek in this our adopted land a home for ourselves and our children, free from the immense burthens of the parent state, where we might enjoy in all its plenitude the fruits of our labour, see our families grow up to manhood enjoying the freedom purchased by us by the sacrifice of our own early affections, and in the decline of life to know and feel we are amply repaid for the sacrifice we made by seeing our children and our children’s children enjoy the blessings of peace, plenty, and freedom.
Fellow Colonists— How are our hopes likely to be realized? Already have the few irresponsible legislators of this our adopted land — not content with a treasury full to repletion — commenced a system of oppression and misrule, unparalleled in the history of British legislation, if we except the oppressive poll tax. The introduction of a system of direct taxation by an irresponsible Government, with a revenue already yielding an excess equal to forty thousand pounds a-year, cannot but excite the indignation of every lover of freedom in the colony.
What, Fellow Colonists! shall we who have laboured to give both birth and life to this flourishing colony — who have been buoyed with hope during its struggles in infancy — who have suffered privations to give stability and energy during the period when many, through fear, deserted it — shall we, therefore, tamely submit to the mad freaks of this unconstituted few — shall we bow our neck to the yoke, and see vanish into thin air the hopes which have buoyed us up against all adversities? We should be undeserving the name we bear if we did. Russian or Turk would be a more becoming name than Britons. We should deserve the execration of every free nation, and the curses of our own offspring.
But rather let us say, We dare and will be free. We will not submit to misrule or oppression in any form, whether unconstituted or not. Let us to a man join in denouncing and opposing the attempt to saddle us with imposts and burthens beyond all precedent. Let us imitate the example set us by the Cape colonists. Let us league in opposition to the odious and unjust measure, and rally around the Standard already erected, viz., “No Taxation without Representation.”
Fellow Colonists, be true to yourselves and to your families; join with us in opposition to this odious and unjust measure; and be assured that nothing can withstand the united voice of a united people. The Associations already formed in various Hundreds, and now through the Delegates assembled, resolved into one Grand League in opposition to all Taxation without Representation.
The League now formed has for its object a legal opposition only; but if not attended with the success the unanimous voice of a free people deserve, we are disposed to take such steps as shall secure that freedom we left our native home to obtain.
Later, “an eccentric gentleman” “named Launcelott” made a lyrical interpretation of this declaration and put it to music (later made available as sheet music with lyrics for a shilling):
We’ve sever’d ourselves from our friends and home,
And far over the ocean we’ve come, my boys!
To reap from our toil, on this sunny soil,
A better reward than at home, my boys!
But sorrow clouds Hope’s sunny face;
Our autocratic* rulers base
Have taxed our roads, and taxed our drays
And coward slave is he who pays.
Then down with the road and the dray-tax, too,
And show to the minions of tyranny,
Bold Britons are we, who dare to be free,
And die for our rights and liberty.
To direct taxation we’ll not submit,
Without representation, I trow, my boys!
’Tis base, and, what’s worse, ’tis the monster curse
Of Turkey and Russia,† e’en now, my boys!
We’ll dare to brave oppression’s brand,
Hurl despotism from the land;
We’ll wear no chains of slavery–
We will be free — we will be free!
Then down with the road and the dray-tax, too…
Shall we to ourselves play the traitor knave?
Shall we who for freedome came here, my boys!
Resign all our rights, like a dastard slave,
And be ruled like a serf through fear, my boys?
Our wives, and sons, and daughters see,
Racked by the stings of poverty?
Oh, no, by Heaven, as men we’ll die,
Ere we to despot rule comply!
Then down with the road and the dray-tax, too…
* Another version says “aristocratic”
† Another version says “Prussia”
In representatives of the League met with, and were rebuffed by, the Governor, who said that the tax was fair enough for government work, was necessary for the road improvements that people in South Australia had called for, and was supported by more people than opposed it. The representatives of the League restated their case, and, according to the papers, added: “if any property were seized upon for payment of the tax, that they were determined to resort to physical force, the consequences of which it would be impossible to foresee.”
But a meeting of the league directly following the conference with the Governor showed there to be debate on the wisdom of threatening violence, and a consensus to stick to legal means for the time being:
Mr [Jonathan?] Norman submitted that their work with regard to the [petition to the Governor] was done… but they could take a step in another direction, and that was, that every one present should pledge themselves to take every means to the utmost of their power in resisting any measure the colonial legislature should pass that would be a tax upon land and drays. Even if it only amounted to sixpence it should be resisted.
Mr [Hiram?] Manfull concurred in the proposition, but discouraged resorting to physical force. If they would have their property, let them take it, said he, and if they take every hoof and stick off my farm, he would not resort to physical force in resisting.
Mr Wells said… Although he was not a fighting man yet he knew sufficiently of his own mind to assert emphatically that no two men should enter his homestead without physical resistance. He would not advocate a display of physical force; but it was evident the Governor was preparing to enforce the Act in some shape or other.
Mr Norman then proposed the following resolution―
“That the delegates assembled pledge themselves, individually and collectively, to resist by every legal and constitutional means any Act that may emanate from the present Council which shall add any additional amount of taxation, particularly any amendment of the Road Act.”
Seconded by Mr Wilson, and carried unanimously.
Mr Anderson had heard a great deal about moral force from the commencement of the present agitation. Physical force had never entered into his mind; but if any collector came into his place he would pitch him over the fence, like he would a skittle ball, and kick him afterwards.
Mr Parker said he would give the first collector who called on him a right good trouncing.
reports started coming in of people being summoned for payment of the offensive tax. At a meeting of the League, they tried to decide how to respond:
Mr Wilson proposed that notice of the summonses served on Messrs Oliver and Bennett be given to [the attorney] Mr Fisher, and that he be instructed to defend them; if it were too late to do so, then let the same course be pursued with regard to the next issued.
[Mr. Norman’s] proposition was that they should let judgment go by default, and if a seizure took place, they would then have grounds for an action of trespass in the Supreme Court.
Mr Wilson considered that they ought to defend the outposts with as much vigour as if the citadel itself were assailed. If summonses were issued in a Court, in that same Court they should be defended.
Mr Anderson supported the proposition. It was of no use appointing legal advisers, and framing rules, unless they intended to act up to them. His intention all along had been, if any seizure had been made, either on himself or his neighbours, to have immediately communicated with Mr. Fisher. The gentlemen at Willunga, although doubtless actuated with the best intentions, had not done as the League required, by taking no notice of the legal proceedings on the part of the Commissioners.
Wilson’s motion that Oliver and Bennett be represented by the League’s legal team was carried unanimously. Mr. [John?] Darby noted that since only one case would eventually be the test case they planned to take to the Supreme Court, they should go on record as saying that “the other party should be indemnified from all loss in the matter.” This was agreed to, but only in a “here, here” sort of way, without any formal motion or discussion of the mechanics of how this would be done.
In July the dray tax was repealed, and those who had paid the tax received refunds. The land tax, however, was still in force, and the resistance to it continued. Here is an update from a meeting:
Mr Norman said that … a general organisation of the hundreds forming the League had taken place; that, as then anticipated, their Commissioners had attempted to enforce the payment of the odious land tax, but that they had subsequently been compelled to abandon the attempt. The results were the same in every instance where resistance to the tax was properly carried out. Some solitary cases might possibly be adduced, when persons not belonging to the League might have paid, but those were very few. They had before them an example of what might be achieved by union. In everything they had been victorious; the dray-tax. which from time to time was threatened to be enforced, was ultimately abandoned altogether. The various memorials from the different hundreds, backed by the memorial of the united delegates, had caused the Government to introduce an amended Act, which promised almost everything they desired. The Governor, at all events, had shown a desire to make the new Act just what was wanted. His Excellency had given up in the progress of the new Bill, almost all the objectionable clauses contained in the old one. But how was the Governor to know to what extent he was acting in accordance with their wishes, unless they took some direct means of letting him know what those wishes were? One part of the business of the meeting then called was to consider the propriety of sending in a memorial stating in plain terms how much of the new Act was consonant with their wishes, and what was wanting to make it thoroughly, acceptable.
From here the meeting went on to go over the details of the expenses of the League’s successful campaign and how the responsibility for paying these expenses was going to be distributed among the various groups making up the League.
Mr. Norman then proposed that a memorial be prepared by the Committee, to be forwarded to his Excellency the Governor, praying his Excellency to forward the passing of the new Road Act, leaving the power of fixing the amount of the rate to a majority of the rate-payers, and enacting that the non-payment of the old rates should not be allowed to interfere with the right of voting under the new Act, as the retention of an untoward clause would inevitably consign the new Act to the same fate as the old one had undergone.
The resolution was seconded by Mr. T. Colton. He considered that it was nothing but right that the Governor and Council should know their sentiments upon the proposed new Act; a memorial was therefore necessary.
After some further observations the resolution was carried unanimously.
A follow-up meeting was also covered by the South Australian. Apparently the League were feeling the strain of funding a mutual legal defense. Excerpts:
[Mr Norman ―] …they had given instructions to Mr Fisher to defend every case in which the commissioners should sue.
Mr Wilson ― No; not to defend — the resolution was that such cases should be referred to the legal advisers.
The Secretary [Mr Darby] said that legal advice was only to be taken in case of seizure.
[Mr Norman ―] … It was clear they could not afford a repetition of such bills as that they had just paid, which though very moderate as regarded the services rendered, was far more than the funds would bear on many occasions; perhaps a committee might be appointed to decide what cases should be defended. He moved to that effect.
Mr Parker reminded the meeting of the resistance in Van Diemen’s Land to the Dog Tax, and recommended that the course which had been taken there should be adopted here — that of suffering a single case to go before the Supreme Court and thus settling the whole question in dispute.
Mr [Charles?] Watson seconded Mr Norman’s motion. It was quite wrong that persons not belonging to the League should be defended from its funds.
Mr Wells strongly objected to defending actions in the Local Courts. It was no triumph to defeat a summons on technical grounds while the principle remained unshaken. He thought Mr Fisher should be instructed to defend no more cases in those Courts.
Mr John Fisher of Gumeracks and Lyndoch Valley, mentioned that he had been summoned to Gawler Town for his rate, and had put in an appearance. He and many other settlers in the north were anxiously awaiting the result.
A conversation followed upon ways and means. It appeared that £80 had been already spent and that some of the hundreds had not sent in the agreed subscription of £20. Eventually two motions were put to the meeting — namely: moved by Mr Manful and seconded by Mr Watson, “That the action against Mr Fisher be defended by the League,” and an amendment by Messrs Wells and Parker, “That no expense be incurred on behalf of any person whose hundred has not contributed £20 to the funds of the League.” The original motion was carried on by a division by 8 against 2, and it was determined that Mr Fisher be instructed to take such steps as should be requisite to bring the case before the Supreme Court.
It was proposed that all hundreds not sending in the agreed amount of £20 should be struck off the list, but on the Chairman’s recommendation the motion was postponed till next meeting that they might first be written to.
A meeting was held later that month. The South African Register was there. John Fisher went to court, defended by a lawyer hired by the League (confusingly, also named Fisher). The court ruled in favor of the government. An appeal to the Supreme Court was made, but “until that decision was received the League could proceed no further in the matter.”
The determination of the members to abolish the impost had, if possible, grown more strong, pending “the law’s delay,” as the Commissioners would find out, should the decision of the Judges be such as to induce them to proceed to extremities in collecting the assessment. [According to acting League chairman A. Anderson.]
The debate over whether the League would defend people who did not pay their dues was engaged again:
The Secretary of the hundred of Willunga had received a letter from the Secretary of the League, calling for the payment of £20, such being the amount required from each hundred to meet the expenses incurred for the benefit of all. He (Mr. Norman) had no idea when he joined the League that any such payment should be required to render a hundred eligible to participate in the advantages likely to result from the protection of the League. He had conversed also with a number of delegates and found that they concurred in opinion with him, that any attempt to impose any arbitrary condition would savour strongly of the principle they were associated to oppose, and would work injuriously, inasmuch as it might exclude the smaller and poorer hundreds from the benefits of membership. That would inevitably be the case if the League adopted a resolution such as had been proposed at a recent meeting. (Hear, hear.) He was anxious to be rightly understood. He only deprecated a policy likely to weaken the League by disuniting the smaller hundreds from those larger and wealthier.…
Norman suggested that instead of collecting dues per-hundred, that the League collect dues per-person. “That plan,” he said, “had the advantage of experience in its favour; it was always found to work well in England, in the various unions and associations that adopted it.”
Mr. Parker reiterated that he felt the League should concentrate its legal resources on a single good test case that would be suitable for getting the offensive taxes declared unlawful in the Supreme Court, rather than playing technical whack-a-mole with dozens of individual cases at the lower court level.
Mr. Watson disagreed, saying that “the moral force of the League was greatly enhanced by every triumph over those tools of tyranny the District Commissioners.”
The debate over whether poor hundreds should pay as much dues as rich ones, or populous ones more than sparsely-populated ones, continued, and the rhetoric grew to such a pitch that one debater said that “to require any fixed amount from the hundreds, irrespective of their extent, population, or means, would be a worse tyranny than any contemplated by the concoctors of the Road Act [the tax they had associated to fight].” (“Hear, hear,” the Register reports after this remark.)
An important background to all of this agitation was that the British government was in the process of passing the Australian Colonies Government Act, which advanced the cause of self-government in Australia. There were questions in the air about who would be qualified to vote, and to what extent the acts (and taxes) of the superseded government would still be in force under a new Constitution.
At a meeting in , for instance, a member of the League worried that land tax resisters might be disfranchised because of their resistance, and that the long battle to gain a voice in government might leave behind those who had joined the tax resistance movement. But more determined voices prevailed, and passed the following resolution:
That it would be inconsistent for any member of the League to pay the old land-tax in order to secure a vote at the ensuing elections, and that they individually pledged themselves not to pay it [even] at the risk of being disfranchised.
Mr. Wilson reported at this time that the dray tax resisters in his hundred had voluntarily pledged money to the repair of roads now that the mandatory dray tax had been rescinded:
…the levy was resisted, and, after the payments were suspended, the people subscribed cheerfully towards the repair of the roads. He had himself given much more than the assessment would have extorted from him…
My understanding is that the resisters were ultimately successful in bringing the land tax to an end, as they had been with the dray tax, but I haven’t found much to confirm this by press time.