Esteemed Tax Rebellions of Yore, Heroes, and Myths

Tax resistance campaigns have found it useful to identify resonances with popular myths, esteemed tax rebellions of yore, and semi-fictional heroes. Here are some examples:

  • Just about every tax revolt in the United States (and many elsewhere as well) appropriates the example of the Boston Tea Party as an evocative reminder of a grassroots uprising, the recent “Taxed Enough Already” TEA Party movement being just the latest of many, many examples.
  • In Spain, the tancament de caixes plays a similar role to the Tea Party in America, with modern Spanish tax resisters comparing their campaigns with that legendary struggle. In England (and the British empire), John Hampden has long been the exemplar of choice, with his example being used from South Africa to Ireland to India to prove that celebrated patriots can refuse to pay their taxes.
  • The phrase “no taxation without representation” has such resonance, especially in the descendant nations of the British Empire, that it gets trotted out even to support tax resistance campaigns in which representation isn’t really an issue at all. It was especially potent in the American revolution and in the women’s suffrage movements.
  • The Rebecca Rioters in Wales, painting their faces and dressing in drag to destroy tollgates and mete out justice in the middle of the nineteenth century, were tapping into a folkloric form of grassroots justice that was centuries old. “Jack a Lents” painted their faces and dressed in women’s clothing to tear down turnpikes in England a century before, and I’ve found references to protesters led by men in women’s clothing and using the shared pseudonym of “Lady Skimmington” in the Western Rising in England a century before that.
  • Resistance to the “Foreign Miners Tax” in California in gave birth to the myth of Joaquin Murieta, a sort of Robin Hood-like outlaw who became a desperado when he was forced off his claim by the tax.
  • The Robin Hood myth itself has taken on a tax resistance theme in recent years. The popular Disney animated version of the Robin Hood story makes the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham a tax collector, and Robin Hood’s robbery of him a case of redistributing the taxes back to the people they’d been seized from:

    While he taxes us to pieces
      And he robs us of our bread
    King Richard’s crown keeps slippin’ down
      Around that pointed head
    Ah! But while there is a merry man
      in Robin’s wily pack
    We’ll find a way to make him pay
      And steal our money back

  • Urban legends helped to fuel tax resistance during the French Revolution. Rumors that the King had abolished taxes led people to refuse payment or to destroy the obsolete offices and apparatus of taxation. Here is a similar example from Russia (as found in James C. Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance):

    After the emancipation [of the serfs] in , the peasants in Biezdne (Kazan Province) were demoralized to discover that with redemption payments, labor dues, and taxes their burdens were, if anything, heavier than before. When one of their number claimed that the emancipation decree granted them complete freedom from such dues — the term volia (freedom) appeared in many contexts in the decree — but that the squires and officials had kept it from being implemented, they leapt at the opportunity, now sanctioned from on high, to refuse payment.

    The myth of the czar’s benevolence, which was of course promoted by the czarist government, could backfire in this way when peasants refused to pay onerous taxes or obey other commands of the czar’s subordinates, under the theory that because the czar was so good he could not possibly have ordered such terrible things:

    Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the myth was its plasticity in the hands of its peasant adherents. First and foremost, it was an invitation to resist any or all of the czar’s supposed agents, who could not have been carrying out the good czar’s wishes if they imposed heavy taxes, conscription, rents, military corvée, and so forth. If the czar only knew of the crimes his faithless agents were committing in his name, he would punish them and rectify matters. When petitions failed and oppression continued, it may simply have indicated that an impostor — a false czar — was on the throne. In such cases, the peasants who joined the banners of a rebel claiming to be the true czar would be demonstrating their loyalty to the monarchy. … In a form of symbolic jujitsu, an apparently conservative myth counseling passivity becomes a basis for defiance and rebellion…

  • Scott also talks (e.g. in his paper Everyday Forms of Resistance) about how “much of the folk culture of the peasant ‘little tradition’ amounts to a legitimation, or even a celebration, of [resistance]…”

    In this and other ways (e.g. tales of bandits, tricksters, peasant heroes, religious myths, carnivalesque parodies of authorities) the peasant subculture helps to underwrite dissimulation, poaching, theft, tax evasion, evasion of conscription, and so on. While folk culture is not coordinational in any formal sense, it often achieves a “climate of opinion” which, in other more institutionalized societies, might require a public relations campaign.

  • The very name “Poll Tax,” which came to be the most widely-accepted name for what Thatcher’s government hoped would go down as the “community charge,” was a potent propaganda coup for the resistance movement. Danny Burns, a chronicler of that successful tax rebellion, says that “the story of [Wat Tyler’s] peasants revolt against the Poll Tax in 1381 was told in virtually every meeting. Calling on these traditions was an important part of explaining why non-cooperation was needed…” Signs that people would hang in their windows reading “No Poll Tax Here” also hearkened back to the tax resistance accompanying the Reform Act agitation in the .
  • Today, tax resistance actions like the ongoing Household Tax resistance in Ireland compare themselves in turn to the successful Poll Tax revolt.
  • The Lady Godiva myth concerns a “noblewoman who, according to legend, rode naked through the streets of Coventry in order to gain a remission of the oppressive taxation imposed by her husband on his tenants.”
  • A motley variety of myths about “common law,” about the True Constitution, about the significance of fringed edges to flags, and other what-not, fuel the often bizarre Constitutionalist tax protester movement in the United States.