Colonial Taxes in Virginia

Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society, according to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.1 How those taxes are raised and distributed reflect the values of the society - and the allocation of power among different groups within that society.

In Virginia's earliest days, many taxes were structured to take from the poor and provide to the rich. "[U]ntil the latter part of the seventeenth century, the members of the governor's council were exempt from taxation; and only they, according to an early statute, could wear gold braid on their clothes."2

Virginians paid taxes to the colony, the county, and to the parish. Colonial taxes were poll taxes, allocated per capita. All slaves 16 years and older, and all free men 16 years and older, were classified as "tithables," and the head of that family unit paid the tax. (Children and white women were not taxed, but slave women 16 years and older were taxed.)

Taxes were normally paid in tobacco, because cash was rare in the colony. There was no graduated income tax like today, where the tax rate is based on income levels and those with higher incomes pay more per dollar earned. If you were a tithable, rich or poor, you wewre require to pay the same number of pounds of tobacco to the colony. Since colonial Virginia family units with large numbers of men over 16, or large numbers of adult slaves, had greater income-producing potential and also paid more taxes, rich families paid more taxes than families with few slaves... but taxes consumed a higher percentage of the income of the poor.

The Tax for Colonial Government Operations

The individual tax levy imposed on all tithables for the colony was determined by the House of Burgesses. The elected members of the House calculated the required funding for the operations of the colonial government, divided it by the number of tithables in the colony, and determined the levy to be paid by each tithable.

County sheriffs were required to collect the tax and forward it to Jamestown (later, Williamsburg). To avoid the fixed expensies of salaries, and to provide an incentive for collecting taxes, the sheriffs were entitled to keep a percentage of what they collected.

The amount of the tax levy varied according to both the needs of the colonial government and the relationship between the legislature and the governor. When there was fear of attack by Indians or Europeans, the House of Burgesses would authorize expenditures on the militia and forts - and then establish a higher levy to cover those costs.

In 1674, the House sent two representatives to England to lobby against the execution of special "proprietary" grants issued by Charles II. (These were separate from what became known as the Fairfax Grant, but also shifted most authority to grant land away from the Governor, Council, and House of Burgesses and vested it in a few individuals.) To cover the expenses of sending Secretary Ludwell and Colonel Park to London, every tithable in Virginia was assessed an additional fifty pounds of tobacco above the normal levy.

In 1680, after Bacon's Rebellion, the House of Burgesses approved a permanent two shilling export tax on every hogshead of tobacco shipped from Virginia. This assured the governor's salary would be paid, and thus provided him a certain independence from the legislature.

(The colony operated through fees as well as taxes. When Lord Dinwiddie tried to charge a two pistole fee for approving land surveys and patents, however, the House of Burgesses once raised the levy in order to sent two representatives to London to protest.)

The Tax for County Operations

The county court determined the levy required to finance its operations, such as paying for the courthouse, feeding prisomers in the jail, and the other expenses of administering the county. The county court also assigned to tithables the respopnsibility for maintaining particular stretches of roads, so Virginia colonists had to contribute labor as well as tobacco.

The county officials were not elected by the county residents. The governor, the House of Burgesses, and the county court itself determined who would serve as county lieutenant, a justice of the peace, clerk of the court, sheriff, county surveyor, etc.

If county residents thought that the county levy was set too high, they had little recourse other than to move away. Realistically, however, disgruntled residents did not have the option of transferring their bank accounts and moving to another town. In an agricultural economy, wealth was tied to the land; colonial Virginia was not a cash economy.

The justices of the peace who together formed the county court received no salary. It was an honor to be selected, and in colonial Virginia that had great value. Serving on the court did provide opportunities to acquire the best parcels of land, help a friend or family member get a tavern or ferry license, and otherwise protect the economic interests of the officeholder. Modern ethics laws contrast clearly with practices considered appropriate in colonial Virginia...

The Tax for Parish Operations

There was no separation of church and state in colonial Virginia. Anglican parishes were responsible for many of the social welfare functions, such as arranging for the care of the destitute and orphans. The group of men who managed the parish and determined the annual tax levy for its operations were known as the vestry.

When a parish was initially formed, usually at the same time a county was created, the local residents elected the members of the first vestry. That group would determine the costs for building the first church or churches in the parish, so the election of the first vestry helped determine the initial levies of the psarish.

However, when a vacancy occurred on a vestry, the remaining members selected the replacement. Within a decade or so of a parish being created, an unelected vestry set the tax rate. A parish levy was roughly equal to the county levy. It might increase substantially if the vestry decided to build a new church, however. That tax increase could generate resentment among the large number of taxpayers who paid the levy. The rich gentry decided the design and thus the costs of the new churches, and were entitled to the the best seats in the house - but they paid a relatively low percentage of their income compared to the average resident.

The Rev. Charles Green became embroiled in a political dispute with Lawrence Washington (builder of Mount Vernon and step-brother of George Washington) and the Fairfax family. Green stirred up the taxpayers when the vestry proposed building what is today's Pohick Church. The conflict led to accusations that Green tried to assault Lawrence Washington's fiance, though he was essentially acquitted in the only eccliastical trial ever held in colonial Virginia.3

The minister of the local church was assigned the income from a "glebe," or parcel of land that they could farm. In counties with good soil for growing tobacco, the income from the glebe was relatively high - and those parishes were able to attract the best-quality ministers. Glebe Road in Arlington was the road between the Potomac River and the 500-acre glebe for Fairfax Parish, created in 1765 and home of Christ Church in the city of Alexandria and Falls Church in... surprise, the city of Falls Church.

Links

References

1. U.S. Treasury, "Frequently Asked Questions About the History of the United States Tax System," www.ustreas.gov/opc/opc0038.html (last checked April 4, 2002
2. Abernethy, Thomas Perkins, Three Virginia Frontiers, louisiana State University Press, 1962, p. 10
3. Henriques, Peter, "Lawrence Washington vs. the Rev. Charles Green: A Case Study of the Squire vs. the Parson," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (April 1992).


Virginia Taxes
Virginia Frontiers
Virginia Places