Taxing Times: The Trials and Tribulations of Tax Resistance

Greetings on Tax Day, whether you’ve filed early or are digging up your W2 form this morning. In homage to one of life’s certainties, let’s delve into the history of tax resistance and rebellion through resources available at the University of Illinois Library, focusing on materials from HPNL.

“The government is best which governs least.” So opens Thoreau in Civil Disobedience (originally published as “Resistance to Civil Government). Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax for six years as a protest against slavery and the Mexican-American War. While he understood the necessity of funding public infrastructure, he thought the individual’s conscience should overrule civil authority. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly,” he argued, “the true place for a just man is also a prison.”  Thoreau spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his taxes, being released when a relative paid them for him. His act of civil disobedience echoes throughout history, alongside instances of less civil resistance. Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi both took inspiration from Thoreau in their respective acts of civil disobedience For more information on Thoreau see his works at the University Library, or digitized through Hathi Trust.

History is filled with examples of rebellions and resistance triggered by taxation. In our HPNL reference section, you’ll find “A World History of Tax Rebellions: An Encyclopedia of Tax Rebels, Revolts, and Riots from Antiquity to the Present,” containing around 400 entries chronicling acts of tax rebellion. Each of these entries corresponds to numerous books available in the library.

One such example of a tax-related rebellion is of course the American Revolution. Arguably the most famous tax incident in U.S. history is the American Revolution, sparked by the cry of “no taxation without representation.” The Boston Tea Party stands out as a prominent event, where protesters, incensed by heavy taxes on tea, raided ships and dumped their cargo into Boston Harbor. Even today, “no taxation without representation” remains a powerful slogan, evident on license plates in the District of Columbia, which continues to lack full representation in Congress. If on this taxing day, or any subsequent days, you find yourself troubled by tithes consider exploring the long history of taxation and resistance through one of our many books at HPNL.

On a tangentially related note, during my research, I stumbled upon a video game titled “Death and Taxes,” an indie game where players assume the role of the grim reaper navigating an office job. I highly recommend trying it out in between filing taxes or finishing papers.

Reading List

HPNL (non exhaustive list of tax related books in HPNL) 

Bernard, G. W. War, Taxation, and Rebellion in Early Tudor England : Henry VIII, Wolsey, and the Amicable Grant of 1525. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press, 1986.

Burg, David F. A World History of Tax Rebellions : An Encyclopedia of Tax Rebels, Revolts, and Riots from Antiquity to the Present. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Brown, Dorothy A. The Whiteness of Wealth : How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans–and How We Can Fix It. First edition. New York: Crown, 2021.

Einhorn, Robin L. (Robin Leigh). American Taxation, American Slavery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Gardner, Leigh. Taxing Colonial Africa : The Political Economy of British Imperialism. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Gharala, Norah L. A. (Norah Linda Andrews). Taxing Blackness : Free Afromexican Tribute in Bourbon New Spain. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 2019.

Walsh, Camille. Racial Taxation : Schools, Segregation, and Taxpayer Citizenship, 1869-1973. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

Law Library 

McGee, Robert W. The Ethics of Tax Evasion. South Orange, NJ: Dumont Institute for Public Policy Research, 1998.

Yablon, Jeffery L. As Certain as Death : Quotations about Taxes. 2015 edition. Arlington, Va: Tax Analysts, 2015.

On Thoreau

Powell, Brent. “Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., and the American Tradition of Protest.” OAH Magazine of History 9, no. 2 (1995): 26–29.

Thoreau, Henry David, and Jeffrey S. Cramer. Walden : A Fully Annotated Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Thoreau, Henry David, Samuel Arthur Jones, and Paul V. B. (Paul Van Brunt) Jones. On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. London: The Simple Life Press, 1903.

American Revolution 

Fichter, James R. Tea : Consumption, Politics, and Revolution, 1773-1776. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2023.

Gray, Edward G., and Jane. Kamensky. The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution. Oxford ; Oxford University Press, 2013.

Merritt, Jane T. The Trouble with Tea : The Politics of Consumption in the Eighteenth-Century Global Economy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.

DC Statehood