Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

American Taxation, American Slavery

There is an interesting book review of American Taxation, American Slavery (University of Chicago Press, 2006), by Robin L. Einhorn (University of California-Berkeley, Department of History), in the June 28, 2007 New York Review of Books.  From the book's publisher:

We are all familiar with the states’ rights arguments of proslavery politicians who wanted to keep the federal government weak and decentralized. But here Robin Einhorn shows the deep, broad, and continuous influence of slavery on this idea in American politics. From the earliest colonial times right up to the Civil War, slaveholding elites feared strong democratic government as a threat to the institution of slavery. American Taxation, American Slavery shows how their heated battles over taxation, the power to tax, and the distribution of tax burdens were rooted not in debates over personal liberty but rather in the rights of slaveholders to hold human beings as property. Along the way, Einhorn exposes the antidemocratic origins of the popular Jeffersonian rhetoric about weak government by showing that governments were actually more democratic—and stronger—where most people were free.

From the review, Reading the Founders' Minds, by Gordon S. Wood:

Throughout her book, Einhorn has many serious and substantive discussions of tax policies and tax politics, and one wishes she had said more, especially since early American taxation is a much-neglected subject. We can all agree that ... the tax systems of the Northern states tended to be more sophisticated than those of the Southern states.

The author has published an essay accompanying the book, Tax Aversion and the Legacy of Slavery:

Americans are right to think that our antitax and antigovernment attitudes have deep historical roots. Our mistake is to dig for them in Boston. We should be digging in Virginia and South Carolina rather than in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, because the origins of these attitudes have more to do with the history of American slavery than the history of American freedom. They have more to do with protections for entrenched wealth than with promises of opportunity, and more to do with the demands of privileged elites than with the strivings of the common man. Instead of reflecting a heritage that valued liberty over all other concerns, they are part of the poisonous legacy we have inherited from the slaveholders who forged much of our political tradition. This surprising conclusion is one of the major findings of my new history of taxation in the early United States.

Update:  Check out the debate on the book at Legal History Blog:

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I haven't read this book, but I am very suspicious of its underlying thesis. If slaveholding is the key to antitax and anti-Big Government sentiment, why was so much of the intellectual groundwork laid by European economists? And wasn't it the Democratic Party that pitched a combination of Big Government and segregation as its essential platform for two or more generations?

I'm not saying the book is wrong, but it sounds like an effort to discredit antitax sentiment rather than debate it on the merits.

Posted by: Michael Livingston | Jul 4, 2007 4:52:36 PM