Notable acts of tax resistance throughout history

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March 6, 2018

Notable acts of tax resistance throughout history

As long as governments have been imposing taxes people have been conducting acts demonstrating their oppositions against them. The acts of resistance have ranged from century to century, from country to country, and from small, personal conflicts to the beginnings of revolutions.

Some tax protests saw success by defeating tax proposals or repealing tax laws, while others have drawn more violence and resistance from both citizens and law enforcement. Either way, taking a powerful stance against taxes still happens today. 

Here are 19 notable expressions of resistance ranging from 1791–2017. We compiled our list of acts of tax resistance by consulting government websites and newspapers, and other media which chronicled the battles between taxpayers and government officials. 

1791: Whiskey Rebellion

The Whiskey Rebellion started in 1791 during George Washington’s presidency. Farmers who used whiskey to barter goods and services were angered by the federal tax placed on distilled spirits. In 1802, after years of violent conflicts, the tax was repealed by Thomas Jefferson’s administration.

1773: Boston Tea Party

In 1173, the Sons of Liberty threw shipments of tea into the Boston Harbor because the British government wanted them to purchase tea from the East India Company. The British responded by closing the port of Boston and restricting the local government which led to further resistance that would become the American Revolution. 

1846: Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau, the American philosopher, essayist, and abolitionist, wound up in prison for failing to pay taxes as a protest against the Mexican-American War in 1846. This imprisonment inspired his famous essay “On Civil Disobedience,” as well as The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, a play written by Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence in 1969.

1848: Karl Marx

Karl Marx, a German philosopher and economist famous for developing the theory of Communism, published an article in Cologne, France encouraging readers to resist paying taxes. He was accused of incitement to revolt, but eventually acquitted of the crime. 

1850: Foreign Miners Tax

The Foreign Miners Tax of 1850, which stated that all miners working in California must pay a tax of $20 monthly, targeted Mexican and Chinese workers. The foreign miners protested and the tax was repealed in 1851. However, it was reenacted in 1852, and then updated to require a lower fee of $4 per month in 1853.

1898: Dog Tax War

In 1898, then British colony New Zealand, required all Māori natives to register their dogs and pay a yearly tax on those pets inciting conflict in the country. This ruling, along with other taxes and restrictions on pigeon hunting, were seen as discriminatory against the Māori, and inspired a rebel faction in Hokianga led by trader Hone Riiwi Toia to threaten war against the British settlers. But, when British troops were sent to stop the rebellion the Māori surrendered and the so-called Dog Tax War was over without a single casualty.

1898: The Hut Tax War in Sierra Leone

In 1898, the British government instituted a Hut Tax on individual property for the Temne and Mende chiefs in Sierra Leone who were growing tired of British interference in their territory. For the Mende chiefs this was the straw that broke the camel's back. Their protest resulted in the deaths of British officials involved in the tax.

1903: Americans in the Isle of Pines

A new U.S. tax bill enforcing tariffs on imports from foreign countries led to the seizure of a shipment of cigars from the Isle of Pines -- an island off the coast of Cuba. At the time, it was unclear whether the Isle of Pines fell under the jurisdiction of Cuba or the U.S. Despite the protests of hundreds of U.S. citizens and businesses residing on the Isle of Pines, the Supreme Court ruled that Cuba owned the island, and Americans had to pay.

1904: Income tax resistance in Tasmania

In the early 20th century, an income tax bill introduced in Tasmania was so egregious it completely ousted the local government and a new government formed in its place.  However, to the anger of many Tasmanians, the new government proceeded to keep the tax bill in place and continued to demand its collection. Inevitably leading to further resistance at public meetings and protests.

1905: Sugar manufacturers in the Dominican Republic

Tensions arose on the island of Santo Domingo in December of 1905 when the local government declared that sugar plantation owners would not be allowed to ship out their sugar cane until they paid a tax on those shipments. The plantation owners, who had been promised that they would face no taxes for twenty years, protested the tax by halting production on their estates.

1905: Years of the Red Cockerel

Unlike other nations, Russia in the early 20th century did not have an income tax. Instead, the government taxed peasant farmers, who had been freed from serfdom in the 1860s but were still economically limited by their small plots of land. Anger at these taxes led to periodic riots, escalating into widespread seizure of government land by peasants in 1904 and 1905, known as the Years of the Red Cockerel. Similar tensions among city workers led to the first Russian revolution in 1905.

1907: Greek community in Lewiston, Maine

The town of Lewiston, Maine instituted a poll tax in 1907 to help pay for public schools, police and fire services, and infrastructure. A faction of the Greek immigrant community was skeptical of this change and refused to pay. James Matis, a leader in the Greek community, offered to become a constable believing that he would be able to convince his countrymen to pay the tax, but as the local newspaper pointed out, “the position of an American tax collector is likely to be anything but pleasant.”

1907: Winemakers' Tax Strike

In 1907, winegrowers in the South of France grew angry at the French government for their low sales, placing the blame on the government’s failure to control competition of “fraudulent,” non-local wines from Algeria and other locations.  One small meeting of 87 viticultural defense committee members in the village of Argelliers grew into a protest throughout the region and erupted into revolts, marches, and widespread refusal to pay taxes.

1909: Japanese laborers in California

In 1909, 450 Japanese-American farm workers in Oxnard, California were paying a city tax at their residences in the city. They faced discrimination in 1909 when they were asked to pay a county tax while working in the beet fields outside city limits (the law only required that a laborer pay one of the two.) Some workers fled the area, while others resisted openly by refusing to pay resulting in the seizure of their horses and other property by the police. The conflict left many beet growers short on labor.

1909: The Women's Tax Resistance League

In 1909, British suffragettes formed the Women’s Tax Resistance League to point out a hypocrisy in the British governing system: women were required to pay taxes, but were not allowed to vote.  Resistance League members who refused to pay taxes were met with property seizures; they sought to publicize their cause by inviting friends and drawing press attention to the distraint sales of their own property.  The League was dissolved in 1918 after women won the right to vote in England.

1919: Soft Drinks Tax

One of the U.S. government’s strategies for raising money during World War I was a tax on all sodas.  Many American consumers were annoyed by the tax, and it drove some to give up soft drinks; economists also criticized the tax for not being high enough to actually bring in significant revenue.  When the war ended and the tax was not yet repealed, this irritation caused some soda-drinkers to refuse paying the tax entirely.

1933: Association of Real Estate Taxpayers

The Great Depression caused a disastrous convergence of dropping property values and rising unemployment as tax rates nearly doubled in only three years (from 11.6% of national income in 1929 to 21.1% in 1932).  To protest these rising tax burdens, some Americans advocated for smaller government and cuts to public services.  The Association of Real Estate Taxpayers in Chicago took these demands to the extreme in 1932 and 1933 as they led a tax strike so large that at its height it boasted 30,000 members, a budget of $600,000, and a weekly radio show. At one point, the mayor of Chicago even threatened to turn off the strikers’ city water in order to push them to pay their taxes.

1968: The Vietnam War

During the height of the Vietnam War, protests involved a tax protest (against the 10% surtax imposed to pay for the war) by 528 well-known writers and editors, including James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg, and Gloria Steinem. These writers pooled their resources to put ads in national papers encouraging American citizens not to pay their taxes. Only three papers were actually willing to run the ads: the New York Post, the New York Review of Books, and Ramparts magazine.

2017: Protests against GOP tax bill

In 2017, Republicans introduced a sweeping bill to trim taxes by $1.5 trillion. Many democrats were against the proposal, which tended to benefit corporations and wealthy individuals. Disruptive protests were staged throughout the U.S., but the bill passed.

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