Meeting the State Head-On


by Anonymous

[Author’s Note: This article was sparked by recently reading two older voluntaryist essays by Carl Watner: “Highway Tax vs. Poll Tax: Some Thoreau Tax Trivia” (Issue 71), and “Charles Lane: Voluntaryist”, the Introduction to A VOLUNTARY POLITICAL GOVERNMENT: LETTERS FROM CHARLES LANE.]

In Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay “Civil Disobedience” (which was originally titled “Resistance to Civil Government”), he wrote that he had paid no poll-tax for six years. [1] The poll-tax or head-tax, as it was sometimes called, has been part of human history since the times of the ancient Egyptians and Romans. It was basically a capitation tax levied in a fixed amount on each “taxable” person. In colonial America this often meant that the male “head of household pa[id] the tax on himself, his wife, his children sixteen years of age and older, indentured servants, and slaves.” (Rabushka, 15) The poll-tax was epitomized in Jewish law which collected one-half shekel from every man regardless of his wealth: “the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less.” (Exodus 30:11-16)

In the Massachusetts of Thoreau’s day, the poll-tax amounted to $ 1.50 per year. [2] The basis for its assessment was found in the State Constitution of 1780 “which provided that ‘the public charges of government’ should be assessed ‘on polls and estates in the manner that has hitherto been practiced’.” (Broderick, 613) As recounted in TAXATION IN COLONIAL AMERICA, Alvin Rabushka observed that the poll tax was collected in nearly all the North American colonies, and in many cases refusal to pay resulted in distraint of one’s property. [3] Although it was a standard source of revenue for both colonial and state governments, “low taxes, noncompliance, and arrears were a chronic fact of fiscal life.” (Rabushka, 868) In fact, Rabushka asserted that in Massachusetts at the time of Paul Revere’s ride on April 18, 1775, “the residents of Massachusetts had created for themselves a fiscal paradise.” (779)

So why did Thoreau and his friends, Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane, object to paying the poll-tax even though it was such a minimal amount? “It [wa]s for no particular item in the tax-bill” that Thoreau and friends “refuse[d] to pay it. (206) Much like voluntaryists today, they “simply wish[ed] to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it … .” (206) The Massachusetts Revised Statutes of 1836 stated that the poll-tax was to be assessed upon “each taxable person in the town, where he shall be an inhabitant the first day of May in each year.” (Broderick, 614) As Rabushka put it, “To reside was to pay.” (166) It had nothing to do with citizenship (Lane had been born in England and resided there until 1842). It had everything to do with simply being a person living in a particular place. Did they, by their very existence, owe taxes to the town government where they lived? According to the town of Concord and the State of Massachusetts, there was no legal way to avoid the tax, short of leaving the state permanently. Yet, they did not want to leave their homes or lose their property, but neither did they want to support the institution of government.

Thus the “inhabitants” of Massachusetts’ towns had to meet the poll tax head-on, much as people today are faced with confronting local, state, and federal income taxes. [4] Governments, then and now, take one’s very existence as evidence that one owes a tax. In “Resistance to Civil Government,” Thoreau wrote, “If there were one who lived wholly without the use of money, the State itself would hesitate to demand it of him.” (200) However, this is not true today, even if it were in Thoreau‘s time (which is doubtful). If there were such a person in today’s United States, the IRS or a state revenue department would still want to know 1) why that person hadn’t filed a tax return; 2) if that person had any taxable income; and 3) how that person lived without incurring a tax liability. It is just as nearly impossible to hide from the IRS as it would have been to hide from the town-constable in Thoreau’s day. (It might even be more difficult today with the advent of government identifiers, computers, and government-issued birth certificates.)

Thoreau’s refusal to pay the poll tax would be much like refusing to file or pay federal and state income taxes today. It pits the individual against the State. The IRS assumes that your very existence means that you owe taxes, or at least an explanation as to why you don’t. The IRS places the burden of proof on the individual taxpayer to show why no return is due and/or to prove why no tax is owed. In principle, the government assumes that everyone owes, and that it may take as much or as little as the President, members of Congress and the IRS agree on. In effect, what you think you ‘own’ is actually government property that the government lets you ‘rent.’ See what happens to you and your property if you don’t pay your ‘rent’ (i.e., taxes). Much like monarchs of old, the government grants people the privilege of keeping only as much as the government allows. Taxation is not theft, from the government’s perspective, because it is only taking what already belongs to it. The whole premise behind government taxation is essentially the idea that you and your property belong to the State; that the government ‘owns’ everything in the geographic area over which it exerts control.

People are enslaved if their bodies are owned by others; but they are also slaves if others control their property or the results of their labor. If the State may take one dollar out of what a man owns, then it may take up to his last dollar. Once admit the right of the State to tax, then the State becomes the owner of all property. As in most situations in life, it is best to resist at the beginning, and thus it behooves us to stand tall and firm against the State and resist head-on by refusing to file or pay taxes.


[1] See page 203 of Thoreau. Numbers within parentheses in the text are page numbers of a particular article or book referred to below.
[2] $1.50 would be 7.5% of a $ 20 gold piece, which contains slightly less than an ounce of pure gold. We can extrapolate that into today’s prices by taking 7.5% of gold at $ 1300 an ounce and arrive at approximately $ 97, which would have been collected once a year.
[3] Walter Harding (37) was the first to note that the town-tax collectors of Massachusetts were empowered to levy upon the goods and property of the person, and if these were insufficient to satisfy the tax, then the collector was authorized to “take the body of such person and commit him to prison, there to remain until he shall pay the tax and the charges of commitment and imprisonment, or shall be discharged by order of law.”
[4] The problem of avoiding sales tax, which is nearly ubiquitous on most purchases today, is not discussed in this article.


John C. Broderick, “Thoreau, Alcott, and the Poll Tax,” 53 STUDIES IN PHILOLOGY (1956), pp. 612-626.
Walter Harding, “Thoreau in Jail: Was It Legal?” 26 AMERICAN HERITAGE (August 1975), pp. 36-37.
Alvin Rabushka, TAXATION IN COLONIAL AMERICA, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.
Henry Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government,” in Elizabeth P. Peabody (ed.) AESTHETIC PAPERS, NEW York: G. P. Putnam, 1849, Article X, pp. 189-211.

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