Tax Refusal in the Abolitionist Movement

This interesting excerpt from Black Freedom: The Nonviolent Abolitionists from 1830 through the Civil War (Carleton Mabee, ) introduces some tax refusal advocates from that period that I had not come across before:

Like the Garrisonians, Thoreau defied the fugitive slave law; he hid a fugitive in his house. Like the Garrisonians, Thoreau advocated the secession of the North from the South. Also like the Garrisonians, Thoreau did not vote. In his early years he did not vote largely from indifference to politics, but even when he became concerned about the folly of the Mexican War and the corruption of slavery, he remained a nonvoter; in fact he remained a nonvoter all his life. At an abolitionist meeting Thoreau explained tersely: “The fate of the country does not depend… on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.” All the Concord individualists, including Emerson, were likely to be nonvoters — they were likely to be willing to take but little responsibility for government, the economic order, education, or the church; they were anti-institutional and anti-establishment.

But Thoreau went beyond the Garrisonians by practicing one form of noncooperation with government that the Garrisonians seldom practiced. “Some are petitioning the state to dissolve the Union,” Thoreau wrote. “Why do they not dissolve it themselves — the union between themselves and the state — and refuse to pay their quote into its treasury?” For six years Thoreau did refuse to pay poll taxes, and accordingly in , during the Mexican War, he was imprisoned in Concord for one night until a friend paid his fine. Prison, said, Thoreau provocatively, “is the only house in a slave state in which a free man can abide with honor.”

The idea of tax refusals as a means of social protest was not new. There was considerable tradition among Quakers both in England and America to refuse to pay war taxes, and when they did refuse, the government sometimes confiscated their property. Just before the American Revolution, Americans resisting British encroachments often refused to pay stamp taxes. During the Revolution the young Quaker-raised sailor, Paul Cuffee, the son of a Negro father and an Indian mother, refused to pay his Massachusetts taxes because as a nonwhite he was not allowed to vote. He was jailed, but he continued to agitate the question, using the popular slogan, no taxation without representation, and by Massachusetts Negroes had won the right to vote.

In the early years of the Nonresistance Society, it considered the question of refusing to pay taxes. For example, the society’s treasurer, Charles K. Whipple, argued in that the American Revolution could have been won more speedily and under more favorable circumstances for the later development of America if the Revolutionists’ tax refusals had been entirely nonviolent and on a larger scale. [See ♇ 27 October 2007.] The result would have been widespread suffering for Americans, Whipple admitted; their property would have been confiscated to pay the taxes. But if they had patiently submitted to this and continued their noncooperation, the prisons would have been “filled to overflowing” with nonviolent rebels, the British could have accomplished nothing, and their power would have come to a stop without blood.

In Negro leaders became well aware of circumstances in which they felt it was unjust for them to be required to pay taxes. Charles Lenox Remond, writing from England — where he was lecturing with one of the Nonresistance Society’s tax-refusal advocates, John A. Collins — urged Negroes to be more radical in their demands, and added: “Let every colored man, called upon to pay taxes to any institution in which he is deprived or denied its privileges and advantages, withhold his taxes, although it costs imprisonment or confiscation. Let our motto be — no privileges, no pay.” … The black national convention, meeting in Cleveland, adopted a resolution that came close to being an endorsement for Negroes refusing to pay taxes wherever they could not vote: “Whereas we firmly believe with the fathers of , that taxation and representation ought to go together; therefore, resolved, that we are very much in doubt as to the propriety of our paying any tax… until we are permitted to be represented.”

Garrisonians usually recommended paying taxes even if the taxes seemed unjust. When the tax question came up during the Mexican War, the Negro antislavery lecturer W.W. Brown gave the stock Garrisonian answer: we are coerced to pay taxes; we are not to blame for what the government does with the money it seizes from us. As usual with the Garrisonians, when they discussed whether they should pay taxes, they discussed it more in moralistic than in pragmatic terms. They were more likely to ask whether paying taxes was consistent with nonvoting and disunion than to ask whether it would be an effective form of protest, and, if so, under what circumstances and at what cost.

Despite the usual Garrisonian opposition, there were a few abolitionists, in addition to Thoreau, who helped to strengthen the slender thread of tax-refusal tradition by deliberately refusing to pay taxes.

Before Thoreau refused to pay taxes, his Concord friend, nonresistant Bronson Alcott, had already refused. Alcott had acted as a general protest against government interference with individual liberty, including government support of slavery. Three years before Thoreau was sentenced to jail for tax refusal, Alcott had already been sentenced to jail for the same reason, but Alcott was released before being actually jailed because someone quickly paid his tax.

A Negro storekeeper in Bath, in upstate New York stopped paying taxes for a new school building in when he discovered that his children as Negroes were to be excluded from it. The tax collector insisted on his paying, and when the storekeeper still refused, the collector auctioned off some of his goods in his store. The storekeeper was noble, said Douglass’s North Star.

In , Garrisonian leader [Robert] Purvis protested the new policy that segregated his children in the public schools of Byberry, Pennsylvania, by refusing to pay school taxes; the Liberator called it a “manly protest.” Purvis also protested at the same time by boycotting the segregated schools, having his children privately tutored.

Purvis’s influence was weighty. He was the highest-ranking Negro in the antislavery societies; he had served as one of the vice-presidents of the American Antislavery Society and for at least five years as president of one of its strongest auxiliaries, the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society. In addition, gentlemen farmer Purvis was the second largest taxpayer in his township. Purvis’s weight made itself felt. He succeeded in having the Byberry schools reopened equally to white and black children. [See ♇ 4 November 2013.]

In the struggle for the control of Kansas in the mid-1850s, free-soil settlers sometimes refused to pay taxes to the pro-Southern Kansas government because they did not recognize it as legitimate. John Brown was a guerrilla abolitionist who supported such refusal, and his brother-in-law, American Missionary Association agent Samuel Adair, was a Tappanite nonviolent abolitionist who also supported it. Adair joined his Kansas community in an open decision to refuse to pay taxes, for which pro-Southerners punished the community with violence.

The quote from Lenox Remond comes from a letter that appeared in the Liberator on .