Tax Stories from Ancient Times to the 1700’s
While tax season can be a stressful and worrying time, it’s comforting to know you’re not alone. In fact, just about every known civilization throughout history had some sort of tax system.
Even Mesopotamia, a place that existed before coined money, handled taxes similarly to the present day. They looked at what you had and figured out how much you had to give. Though, of course, back then instead of a check you’d give them, say, a cow. Another big difference is taxes in Mesopotamia taxes could include labor. Citizens sometimes paid their taxes by working on farmlands or even by military service. Yikes!
“IN MERRY ENGLAND in the time of old…” Starts the 1883 book The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. Most know the general story of Robin Hood. He was a rebel with a cause, a defender of the people. Most importantly, he took the tax money back from the rich and gave it to the poor. There are many stories about him, but there’s no actual proof of his existence anywhere. Still, the idea of someone taking a stand against corrupt leaders and high taxes has a timeless appeal. Unfortunately, the proven taxes of the medieval period aren’t as romantic of a story.
Early taxes in the medieval period charged peasants to work on the lands of their lord. Then, the lord either served the king, or was rich enough to pay someone else to serve in their place. Also, the Catholic Church charged a tax known as a tithe, literally meaning a tenth. People were expected to give 10% of their total income to the church. If not you were excommunicated and everyone, including your family, was expected to shun you.
Ah, the renaissance, a time of rebirth and culture and art. Also a beard tax…? Henry VIII, of England reportedly passed a beard tax. Poorer citizens couldn’t pay it so only the elite had the ability to grow past a five o’clock shadow.
Similarly, in 1698, Peter the Great of Russia instituted a beard tax. The fee was scaled, so nobles paid much more than peasants to keep their growing stubble. Everyone who paid received a token as proof of their whisker payment. This receipt had to be carried everywhere; bearded citizens were expected to be able to show the coin at anytime.
A Ship Full of Tea and a Tax
“Look when Britain taxed our tea we got frisky…” (The Hamilton soundtrack from Cabinet Battle #1, by Lin-Manuel Miranda)
Frisky is one word for it. In protest of taxes, American colonists dumped hundreds of tea chests into the Boston Harbor. In today’s standards they dumped one million dollars into the ocean.
Now, reaction and protest from unfair taxes is common throughout history. Typically there is either a high amount of taxes or a sudden, large tax enacted. The American colonies were a bit different; all other taxes were repealed before the Boston Tea Party. They were subject to one tax, passed to pay off England’s debt from a war fought to defend the colonies. Still, the argument of no taxation without representation stuck. The colonists refused to pay, so another revolution was fueled, at least in part, by the frustration of taxes.
Thousands of years of taxes later
While its frustrating sometimes to think about how much you pay in sales and gas taxes, it’s probably nice to know you don’t have to keep a beard tax receipt on you. I just picture a meter-maid type official driving around with a mobile barber shop. Though ‘pay or shave’ is quite a catchy slogan…