Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

“Taxation No Tyranny!”

Such was the title of a famous political tract, which was issued at a moment when a people, in a state of insurrection, put forth a declaration that taxation was tyranny! It was not against an insignificant tax they protested, but against taxation itself! and in the temper of the moment this abstract proposition appeared an insolent paradox. It was instantly run down by that everlasting party which, so far back as in the laws of our Henry the First, are designated by the odd descriptive term of acephali, a people without heads!1 the strange equality of levellers!

These political monsters in all times have had an association of ideas of taxation and tyranny, and with them one name instantly suggests the other! This happened to one Gigli of Sienna, who published the first part of a dictionary of the Tuscan language,2 of which only 312 leaves amused the Florentines; these having had the honour of being consigned to the flames by the hands of the hangman for certain popular errors; such as, for instance, under the word Gran Duca we find Vedi Gabelli! (see Taxes!) and the word Gabella was explained by a reference to Gran Duca! Grand-duke and taxes were synonymes, according to this mordacious lexicographer! Such grievances, and the modes of expressing them, are equally ancient. A Roman consul, by levying a tax on salt during the Punic war, was nicknamed Salinator, and condemned by “the majesty” of the people! He had formerly done his duty to the country, but the salter was now his reward! He retired from Rome, let his beard grow, and by his sordid dress and melancholy air evinced his acute sensibility. The Romans at length wanted the salter to command the army — as an injured man, he refused — but he was told that he should bear the caprice of the Roman people with the tenderness of a son for the humours of a parent! He had lost his reputation by a productive tax on salt, though this tax had provided an army and obtained a victory!

Certain it is that Gigli and his numerous adherents are wrong: for were they freed from all restraints as much as if they slept in forests and not in houses; were they inhabitants of wilds and not of cities, so that every man should be his own lawgiver, with a perpetual immunity from all taxation, we could not necessarily infer their political happiness. There are nations where taxation is hardly known, for the people exist in such utter wretchedness, that they are too poor to be taxed; of which the Chinese, among others, exhibit remarkable instances. When Nero would have abolished all taxes, in his excessive passion for popularity, the senate thanked him for his good will to the people, but assured him that this was a certain means not of repairing, but of ruining the commonwealth. Bodin, in his curious work “The Republic,” has noticed a class of politicians who are in too great favour with the people. “Many seditious citizens, and desirous of innovations, did of late years promise immunity of taxes and subsidies to our people; but neither could they do it, or if they could have done it, they would not; or if it were done, should we have any commonweal, being the ground and foundation of one.”3

The undisguised and naked term of “taxation” is, however, so odious to the people, that it may be curious to observe the arts practised by governments, and even by the people themselves, to veil it under some mitigating term. In the first breaking out of the American troubles, they probably would have yielded to the mother-country the right of taxation, modified by the term regulation (of their trade); this I infer from a letter of Dr. Robertson, who observes, that “the distinction between taxation and regulation is mere folly!” Even despotic governments have condescended to disguise the contributions forcibly levied, by some appellative which should partly conceal its real nature. Terms have often influenced circumstances, as names do things; and conquest or oppression, which we may allow to be synonymes, apes benevolence whenever it claims as a gift what it exacts as a tribute.

A sort of philosophical history of taxation appears in the narrative of Wood, in his “Inquiry on Homer.” He tells us that “the presents (a term of extensive signification in the East) which are distributed annually by the bashaw of Damascus to the several Arab princes through whose territory he conducts the caravan of pilgrims to Mecca, are, at Constantinople, called a free gift, and considered as an act of the sultan’s generosity towards his indigent subjects; while, on the other hand, the Arab Sheikhs deny even a right of passage through the districts of their command, and exact those sums as a tax due for the permission of going through their country. In the frequent bloody contests which the adjustment of these fees produces, the Turks complain of robbery, and the Arabs of invasion.”4

Here we trace taxation through all its shifting forms, accommodating itself to the feelings of the different people; the same principle regulated the alternate terms proposed by the buccaneers, when they asked what the weaker party was sure to give, or when they levied what the others paid only as a common toll.

When Louis the Eleventh of France beheld his country exhausted by the predatory wars of England, he bought a peace of our Edward the Fourth by an annual sum of fifty thousand crowns, to be paid at London, and likewise granted pensions to the English ministers. Holinshed and all our historians call this a yearly tribute; but Comines, the French memoir-writer, with a national spirit, denies that these gifts were either pensions or tributes. “Yet,” says Bodin, a Frenchman also, but affecting a more philosophical indifference, “it must be either the one or the other; though I confess, that those who receive a pension to obtain peace, commonly boast of it as if it were a tribute!”5 Such are the shades of our feelings in this history of taxation and tribute. But there is another artifice of applying soft names to hard things, by veiling a tyrannical act by a term which presents no disagreeable idea to the imagination. When it was formerly thought desirable, in the relaxation of morals which prevailed in Venice, to institute the office of censor, three magistrates were elected bearing this title; but it seemed so harsh and austere in that dissipated city, that these reformers of manners were compelled to change their title; when they were no longer called censors, but I signori sopra il bon vivere della città, all agreed on the propriety of the office under the softened term. Father Joseph, the secret agent of Cardinal Richelieu, was the inventor of lettres de cachet, disguising that instrument of despotism by the amusing term of a sealed letter. Expatriation would have been merciful compared with the result of that billet-doux, a sealed letter from his majesty!

Burke reflects with profound truth —“Abstract liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found. Liberty inheres in some sensible object; and every nation has formed to itself some favourite point, which, by way of eminence, becomes the criterion of their happiness. It happened that the great contests for freedom in this country were from the earliest times chiefly upon the question of taxing. Most of the contests in the ancient commonwealths turned primarily on the right of election of magistrates, or on the balance among the several orders of the state. The question of money was not with them so immediate. But in England it was otherwise. On this point of taxes the ablest pens and most eloquent tongues have been exercised; the greatest spirits have acted and suffered.”6

One party clamorously asserts that taxation is their grievance, while another demonstrates that the annihilation of taxes would be their ruin! The interests of a great nation, among themselves, are often contrary to each other, and each seems alternately to predominate and to decline. “The sting of taxation,” observes Mr. Hallam, “is wastefulness; but it is difficult to name a limit beyond which taxes will not be borne without impatience when faithfully applied.” In plainer words, this only signifies, we presume, that Mr. Hallam’s party would tax us without “wastefulness!” Ministerial or opposition, whatever be the administration, it follows that “taxation is no tyranny;” Dr. Johnson then was terribly abused in his day for a vox et præterea nihil!

Still shall the innocent word be hateful, and the people will turn even on their best friend, who in administration inflicts a new impost; as we have shown by the fate of the Roman Salinator! Among ourselves, our government, in its constitution, if not always in its practice, long had a consideration towards the feelings of the people, and often contrived to hide the nature of its exactions by a name of blandishment. An enormous grievance was long the office of purveyance. A purveyor was an officer who was to furnish every sort of provision for the royal house, and sometimes for great lords, during their progresses or journeys. His oppressive office, by arbitrarily fixing the market prices, and compelling the countrymen to bring their articles to market, would enter into the history of the arts of grinding the labouring class of society; a remnant of feudal tyranny! The very title of this officer became odious; and by a statute of Edward III. the hateful name of purveyor was ordered to be changed into acheteur or buyer!7 A change of name, it was imagined, would conceal its nature! The term often devised, strangely contrasted with the thing itself. Levies of money were long raised under the pathetic appeal of benevolences. When Edward IV. was passing over to France, he obtained, under this gentle demand, money towards “the great journey,” and afterwards having “rode about the more part of the lands, and used the people in such fair manner, that they were liberal in their gifts;” old Fabian adds, “the which way of the levying of this money was after-named a benevolence.” Edward IV. was courteous in this newly-invented style, and was besides the handsomest tax-gatherer in his kingdom! His royal presence was very dangerous to the purses of his loyal subjects, particularly to those of the females. In his progress, having kissed a widow for having contributed a larger sum than was expected from her estate, she was so overjoyed at the singular honour and delight, that she doubled her benevolence, and a second kiss had ruined her! In the succeeding reign of Richard III. the term had already lost the freshness of its innocence. In the speech which the Duke of Buckingham delivered from the hustings in Guildhall, he explained the term to the satisfaction of his auditors, who even then were as cross-humoured as the livery of this day, in their notions of what now we gently call “supplies.” “Under the plausible name of benevolence, as it was held in the time of Edward IV., your goods were taken from you much against your will, as if by that name was understood that every man should pay, not what he pleased, but what the king would have him;” or, as a marginal note in Buck’s Life of Richard III. more pointedly has it, that “the name of benevolence signified that every man should pay, not what he of his own good will list, but what the king of his good will list to take.”8 Richard III., whose business, like that of all usurpers, was to be popular, in a statute even condemns this “benevolence” as “a new imposition,” and enacts that “none shall be charged with it in future; many families having been ruined under these pretended gifts.” His successor, however, found means to levy “a benevolence;” but when Henry VIII. demanded one, the citizens of London appealed to the act of Richard III. Cardinal Wolsey insisted that the law of a murderous usurper should not be enforced. One of the common council courageously replied, that “King Richard, conjointly with parliament, had enacted many good statutes.” Even then the citizen seems to have comprehended the spirit of our constitution — that taxes should not be raised without the consent of parliament!

Charles the First, amidst his urgent wants, at first had hoped, by the pathetic appeal to benevolences, that he should have touched the hearts of his unfriendly commoners; but the term of benevolence proved unlucky. The resisters of taxation took full advantage of a significant meaning, which had long been lost in the custom: asserting by this very term that all levies of money were not compulsory, but the voluntary gifts of the people. In that political crisis, when in the fulness of time all the national grievances which had hitherto been kept down started up with one voice, the courteous term strangely contrasted with the rough demand. Lord Digby said “the granting of subsidies, under so preposterous a name as of a benevolence, was a malevolence.” And Mr. Grimstone observed, that “they have granted a benevolence, but the nature of the thing agrees not with the name.” The nature indeed had so entirely changed from the name, that when James I. had tried to warm the hearts of his “benevolent” people, he got “little money, and lost a great deal of love.” “Subsidies,” that is grants made by parliament, observes Arthur Wilson, a dispassionate historian, “get more of the people’s money, but exactions enslave the mind.”

When benevolences had become a grievance, to diminish the odium they invented more inviting phrases. The subject was cautiously informed that the sums demanded were only loans; or he was honoured by a letter under the Privy Seal; a bond which the king engaged to repay at a definite period; but privy seals at length got to be hawked about to persons coming out of church. “Privy Seals,” says a manuscript letter, “are flying thick and threefold in sight of all the world, which might surely have been better performed in delivering them to every man privately at home.” The general loan, which in fact was a forced loan, was one of the most crying grievances under Charles I. Ingenious in the destruction of his own popularity, the king contrived a new mode of “secret instructions to commissioners.9 They were to find out persons who could bear the largest rates. How the commissioners were to acquire this secret and inquisitorial knowledge appears in the bungling contrivance. It is one of their orders that after a number of inquiries have been put to a person, concerning others who had spoken against loan-money, and what arguments they had used, this person was to be charged in his majesty’s name, and upon his allegiance, not to disclose to any other the answer he had given. A striking instance of that fatuity of the human mind, when a weak government is trying to do what it knows not how to perform: it was seeking to obtain a secret purpose by the most open and general means: a self-destroying principle!

Our ancestors were children in finance; their simplicity has been too often described as tyranny! but from my soul do I believe, on this obscure subject of taxation, that old Burleigh’s advice to Elizabeth includes more than all the squabbling pamphlets of our political economists — “Win hearts, and you have their hands and purses!

1 Cowel’s “Interpreter,” art. Acephali. This by-name we unexpectedly find in a grave antiquarian law-dictionary! probably derived from Pliny’s description of a people whom some travellers had reported to have found in this predicament, in their fright and haste in attempting to land on a hostile shore among savages. To account for this fabulous people, it has been conjectured they wore such high coverings, that their heads did not appear above their shoulders, while their eyes seemed to be placed in their breasts. How this name came to be introduced into the laws of Henry the First remains to be told by some profound antiquary; but the allusion was common in the middle ages. Cowel says, “Those are called acephali who were the levellers of that age, and acknowledged no head or superior.”

2 Vocabulario di Santa Caterina e della Lingua Sanese, 1717. This pungent lexicon was prohibited at Rome by desire of the court of Florence. The history of this suppressed work may be found in Il Giornale de’ Letterati d’ Italia, tomo xxix. 1410. In the last edition of Haym’s “Biblioteca Italiana,” 1803, it is said to be reprinted at Manilla, nell’ Isole Fillippine! — For the book-licensers it is a great way to go for it.

3 Bodin’s “Six Books of a Commonwealth,” translated by Richard Knolles, 1606. A work replete with the practical knowledge of politics, and of which Mr. Dugald Stewart has delivered a high opinion. Yet this great politician wrote a volume to anathematise those who doubted the existence of sorcerers and witches, &c., whom he condemns to the flames! See his “Demonomanie des Sorciers,” 1593.

4 Wood’s “Inquiry on Homer,” p. 153.

5 Bodin’s “Commonweal,” translated by R. Knolles, p. 148. 1606.

6 Burke’s Works, vol. i. 288.

7 The modern word cheater is traced by some authors to this term, which soon became odious to the populace.

8 Daines Barrington, in “Observations on the Statutes,” gives the marginal note of Buck as the words of the duke; they certainly served his purpose to amuse, better than the veracious ones; but we expect from a grave antiquary inviolable authenticity. The duke is made by Barrington a sort of wit, but the pithy quaintness is Buck’s.

9 These “Private Instructions to the Commissioners for the General Loan” may be found in Rushworth, i. 418.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37