Mary McCarthy on the Tax Rebellion in Castine, Maine

I just finished Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy. There were a handful of tidbits about war tax resistance, mostly passing mentions during mostly unflattering gossip about war tax resister Dwight Macdonald, who was in their circle, but nothing notable.

But amusingly, McCarthy was living in Castine, Maine at the time of a tax revolt that took place there in (see ), and she shared her impressions of it with Arendt, who had a strong philosophical interest in the practical workings of the polis. Here are some excerpts from McCarthy’s report, dated :

Things have been very quiet here until Jim’s arrival , which more or less coincided with a fearsome heat wave and a village political storm over a property tax voted by the state legislature for the purpose of equalizing Maine’s education. It is a weird business. Castine has had sixteen minutes on national television (CBS), it has been in all the papers because it has voted to refuse to collect or pay the tax. The local people are fired with the Spirit of ’76 and acting like a bunch of minute-men. Ten days ago a Superior Court judge in Portland (Maine) ordered the town officials to pay the tax or be held in contempt, so last night a town meeting was held to decide what action to take in view of the court order.

Everybody attended, some virtually in wheelchairs, with Bangor reporters and TV cameras watching. The point is that the legislation was designed to penalize the “rich coastal towns” with high property assessments to favor the poor parts of the state which don’t raise enough money in property taxes to pay for their local schools. The coastal towns, naturally, are indignant and some have banded together to declare the law unconstitutional and fight it in the courts. On that point almost everybody here is in agreement; they believe the law is unjust, whether because of the principle involved (that the rich should be soaked for the poor) or because property assessments in the state vary widely, some being fixed too high (Castine’s case) and some too low (a few towns like Camden that are full of millionaires and have property assessments that might be suitable for a trailer camp). But on what methods to be used to correct the inequity, there is heated disagreement. The other coastal towns that have joine the legal battle have levied the tax and either paid it over provisionally to the state or are holding it in escrow until the Supreme Court (state) hands down a decision. Castine, however, stands alone in its mutinous attitude and the five town officials risk going to jail or paying a whacking fine. Last night’s town meeting was held to decide whether to persist in this open rebellion or pay up temporarily and remain within the law.

The moderate or law-abiding party includes most of our friends and us; Phil Booth has emerged as a leader. Whereas the immoderates include most of the natives and some transplants like the local retired military (Col. Dodge up the street, Gen. Gillette, who sold us our house). The situation thus is paradoxical, with the richer, i.e., more educated residents — those who stand to suffer the most from the new law — urging compliance, while the poorer — the bulk of the population — are up in arms. In general the moderate party are liberals, and the few liberals among the natives have either been converted to our view or are trying to stay out of it — especially, as you can imagine, the shopkeepers, anxious not to offend anybody — and have found various pretexts for not voting (“Well, you see, I don’t think I ought to vote, because I’m on the school board”). Another complication is that the moderates are mostly summer residents and therefore can’t vote, though they were allowed to speak last night, they weren’t allowed to cast a ballot. At the same time they pay a high share of the property taxes. By a freak of circumstance, Jim and I are on the town rolls as residents and can vote.

…Last night was comical, also depressing, as an example of village democracy. I said to Jim at one point “I do hope the polis wasn’t like this.” The atmosphere was so inflamed that anybody who didn’t want to see the town officials go to jail was treated as a public enemy, and this morning it was being said — by extreme elements — that Phil Booth was “socialist,” even a “communist.” There have been numerous references to “Russia,” now identified with Augusta, Maine. Of course the natives have good reason in a way to be angrier than we are, because they can’t afford, many of them, to pay the additional tax, while we can. So that there is a class division, though the leadership elements of the locals are, naturally, the illiberal rich and propertied. It is easy to pick out, looking at the tense excited faces, the fascists in embryo in the village, who are carrying the more conservative and frightened innocents along with them. Well, it’s a microcosm. And where “Russia” was much invoked by the minute-men, Watergate, though not mentioned by name, played an obvious part in swaying those natives who moved over to the moderate position, mentioning the necessity for “respect for the law” on the part of public officials.

In the town meeting of course we lost but did much better than anybody expected — 125 to 65.… I have a feeling that despite the victory and the jubilation all is not over. There may be another town meeting, when people have started to notice that they will be paying heavy fines and legal costs as well as — probably — the jacked-up property tax in the long run. This prospect, quite realistic, I fear, was not even mentioned last night.

This morning, to cap the story, Jim and I saw a large tourist bus from Brunswick, Maine, drive down Main Street and pause to look at Emerson Hall, the scene of ’s action. A hankering for publicity has a good deal to do with ’s vote. The eye of television has hypnotized these poor people.