On Watch by Marcus Fisk

On Watch: Death and Taxes


Lin-Manuel Miranda and cast in a performance of “Hamilton” on Broadway in 2015. (JOAN MARCUS/THE PUBLIC THEATER VIA AP/FILE

By Marcus Fisk

“Ooh, if the shoe fits, wear it

If New York’s in debt— Why should Virginia bear it? Uh! Our debts are paid, I’m afraid

Don’t tax the South cuz we got it made in the shade

In Virginia, we plant seeds in the ground

We create. You just wanna move our money around

This financial plan is an outrageous demand

And it’s too many damn pages for any man to understand

Stand with me in the land of the free

And pray to God we never see Hamilton’s candidacy

Look, when Britain taxed our tea, we got frisky

Imagine what gon’ happen when you try to tax our whisky”

Jefferson in HAMILTON – The Musical

It’s spring! Yes friends, it’s that time of year when we attack the unfathomable, unassailable – the most powerful force in the world – the Internal Revenue Service (1).

Americans have a long and turbulent history with taxes. Our preoccupation with taxes goes back to our colonial days, when one of the earliest tax revolts was against Colonial Governor Sir Edmund Andros. In 1687, the rookie governor issued a declaration that all pre-existing tax laws would remain in effect. Massachusetts didn’t have any existing tax laws so folks were absolutely giddy with joy. Through years of contractors showing up at his door with all those pesky bills for running a colony, Andros couldn’t figure out why his checks kept bouncing. When his accountants explained that there was no, nada, zero tax revenue, they brought in a bunch of loyal local landowners who recommended instituting taxes based on import duties. Farmers got hacked-off because now their livestock was taxed. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was the tax on liquor.

Andros was governor for only three years when, in 1689, the people revolted. We future Americans fielded a combination of local militias and renegade citizen brigades that kicked Sir Edmund completely out of Massachusetts. Like failed corporate executives of America today, the Crown made Andros Governor of Virginia. He did better his second time at bat and the Crown called him home in 1692, where he became bailiff of the island of Guernsey.

From 1754 to 1763, during what became known as the French and Indian War (2) the British, ever the financial diplomats of the world, decided someone had to pay for the war, so they taxed the colonies. When some members of the pacifist Society of Friends (Quakers) in Pennsylvania realized that their tax money was going to pay for a war, well, roofs blew off Meeting Houses and landed in plowed fields as far away as Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland.

The Whiskey Rebellion statue in Washington, PA. (Photo courtesy of M. Fisk)

Unfortunately, we Americans have a short memory. George Washington, our first war hero, first president, and on the original Forbes 100 list, really stirred up a hornet’s nest when his treasury secretary and one day to be Broadway mega-celebrity, Alexander Hamilton, instituted a tax on whiskey. Farmers out west would process their grain down to alcohol (whiskey) because it was easier to transport to market than grain (or at least that’s what their Congressional testimony said). When the Feds set up that tax, everyone in the country saw red and that started what became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. Tea is one thing, but alcohol – now that’s a reason for an American revolution.

Tax collectors were tarred and feathered, windows smashed, and buildings burned. Many protesters were veterans and felt that “no taxation without representation” applied in America just like it did against Britain.

It got so bad that Washington put on his uniform, mounted up and rallied his officers and men against the citizenry. This was the first example of the federal government putting down a violent revolt. Lots of folks were rounded up for violations of the law, but local juries being what they are, it was tough to nail a neighbor, so few were tried and the tax proved difficult to collect. Go figure.

Henry David Thoreau is one of our standout anti-tax rebels, with more than a hint of liberal leanings (3). Thoreau was hanging out at his cottage on Walden Pond, writing essays about civil disobedience. When he went to town, he ran into the local tax collector, Sam Staples, on the street in Concord, Massachusetts. Staples told Thoreau he owed six years of back taxes. Thoreau said he was opposed to taxes that paid for the Mexican War and for Staples to pound sand (in the vernacular of the day).

Thoreau was thrown in jail for this transgression. He was ready for a long siege on political and ethical principles but, adding insult to injury, his aunt paid his back taxes and sprung him from jail. Robbed of political martyrdom, Thoreau used his one night in jail as the genesis for a whole series of essays that became his book Civil Disobedience, which became a huge bestseller for college professors in the 1960s. I’m not sure what Thoreau’s stand on the Whiskey Tax was, but he was a mover-and-shaker on the anti-tax, anti-war bandwagon.

Americans traditionally go crazy over taxes. The concept is so deeply imbued in our national veins that we actually believe we started the whole “no taxation without representation” thing. It’s as American as fireworks, hotdogs, and 4th of July car sales.

Unfortunately, we’re victims of our own marketing. Since the 1st Century there have been more than 350 recorded tax revolts across the globe.

So, all you Tea Party folks need to just calm down. There really is truth in that “death and taxes” thing. Write your check and quit blaming the nice folks down at the IRS. They’re just doing their job. You can go nuts again after April 15.

1) I get a kick out of ‘Service’ in the title, don’t you? Try to get them on the phone.

2) In Europe it was called the Seven Years War – that’s close but no cigar. Look at the dates. Besides both the Brits and the French used native Americans/Indians to fight. Probably because they wore designer uniforms that were way cool and they didn’t want to get them dirty over in the colonies so they let the Indians do their fighting for them.

3) A liberal opposed to taxes, you say? What???

Marcus Fisk is a retired Navy Captain, Naval Academy graduate, sometime actor, sculptor, screenwriter, pick-up soccer player, and playwright. He and his wife Pamela are former long-time residents of Alexandria and currently live in Connecticut where travel the New England shore in their 42′ Trawler ADAGIO.

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