Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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POLL TAX (Fr., taxe personnelle or capitation; Ger., kopfstener), a tax levied upon each poll or head of population. It is one of the most ancient and universal taxes, being met with in the history of almost every nation, and has survived in many countries to the present day. Although a very unequal tax, in that it takes from each payer a like sum, irrespective of his circumstances, and although it is not in its simplest form an elastic tax, the ease with which it is collected has recommended its adoption. It is a direct tax, and when imposed upon laborers forms a tax upon wages. Adam Smith (book v., chap. ii) claims that such taxes when collected upon slaves are properly taxes upon the profits of a certain species of stock employed in agriculture.


—Aristotle ("Economics") mentions one instance of a tax of two minas imposed upon those who possessed no real property, but it was exceptional, as all direct taxes, whether levied on the soil, trades or persons, were deemed tyrannical unless self-imposed. "The most ignominious imposition was the poll tax, which none but slaves paid to their tyrant, or to his deputy the satrap, or subjugated nations to their conqueror, as, for example, the inhabitants of the provinces to victorious Rome. 'As the field,' says Tertullian, 'is of less value when it is subject to a tax, so are the persons of men more despised when they pay a poll tax; for this is an indication of captivity.' He whose person was not free had assuredly to pay a tax upon his head, that it might not be taken from him." (Boeckh's "Public Economy of the Athenians.") There is some doubt as to whether the capitation or poll taxes levied at Rome were really such, or rather property taxes. An account of them as levied under the empire is to be found in Gibbon. A law of Valens and Valentinian recites that up to that time each man had himself paid a certain capitation tax, but henceforth two and even three might unite to pay this tax; an arrangement that probably resulted from the imposition of other taxes.


—Although the Romans collected this tax from the tribes subjugated by them, in France it was after a time abolished. During the reign of John the estates voted a capitation tax, to be levied upon all, without exception, from the members of the royal family to the peasant. It was not, however, until 1695 that the poll tax assumed a definite form, and it then became a graduated tax, twenty-two classes of payers being recognized, with taxes ranging from 2,000 livres to twenty sous, the basis of classification being the estate and rank of the person assessed. (See Taine L'ancien Régime, book v., chap. ii., for the injustice of such a scale.) During the revolution all internal taxes on consumption were abolished, and among new imposts established, was that of three days' labor upon the roads. This could be commuted into a payment of money, the value of the labor being determined by the local administration. This charge passed through various forms, and finally became the taxe personnelle of the present day, which is based upon the value of three days labor. But as the tariff for estimating the money value is the same that was used in the last century, although wages in the meantime have doubled and even tripled, the revenue is small, and much less than it ought to be.


—In some countries of Europe, as, for example, Russia and Hungary, the poll taxes appear to have been paid to the landlord, but in the other cases, and they form much the larger number, they have been paid to the government. In the former instances they may be regarded as a sort of rent, but in the latter they are taxes upon wages. In England a poll tax was first levied during the reign of Richard II., and its subsequent history forms quite an important episode in history. In 1377, to meet the demands of the treasury, in addition to the usual taxes and duties, a new charge of a groat a head was imposed, which was intended to reach every person in the realm. In 1379 it was renewed in a somewhat different form, being graduated according to the dignity of the payer. The duke of Lancaster was to pay ten marks, earls £4, barons and baronets £2, and so on down to the lowest ranks, in which every person above the age of sixteen was to pay one groat. The chief result of this impost was the preparation of the poll tax rolls of 1379, "one of the most important records of the state of the population of England that was ever drawn up." As a financial measure it proved miserably inadequate, producing in 1379 not more than £22,000, and was in the following year made more severe. This led to the peasant revolt of 1381. Never a popular tax, the feeling against it became stronger each year. "One of the attractions of the new mode of taxation seems to have been that the clergy, who adopted it for themselves, paid, in this way, a larger share of the burdens of the state; but the chief ground for its adoption lay, no doubt, in its bringing within the net of the tax gatherer a class which had hitherto escaped him, men such as the free laborer, the village smith, the village tiler." (Green.) The constant pressure of taxation, which by the poll tax was felt in its most irritating form in every household, goaded into revolt the oppressed peasants. "Nothing," says Stubbs, in his "Constitutional History of England," "had helped so much to maintain the national feeling against the papacy as the payment of Peter's pence, the penny from each hearth due for the Romescot. So the poll tax interpreted to the individual, far more intelligibly than any political propaganda, the misdoings of the rulers. The appointment of the chancellor and the treasurer, the misdoings of the court, the mismanagement of the war, became home questions to every one who had his groat to pay." Graduated poll taxes were imposed during the reigns of Henry VIII., Charles I. and II. and lastly in that of William III., when they were abolished.


—The federal government has the power to impose poll taxes, but only in proportion to the enumeration or census. (Constitution, art. I., § 9.) This power has never been exercised. The states have, however, assessed them until recent times, but very few do now. The capitation tax was doubtless among the first charges imposed, as the condition of the colonies would tend to show. In the early days of a community there is almost nothing besides visible and tangible property that can be taxed. And as men were more nearly equal in rank and condition, and regarded as being equally protected by the law in the enjoyment of life and property, the poll tax naturally suggested itself as the simplest and most equitable form of taxation. As an example may be mentioned the occurrences of the poll tax in Maryland, as described by a writer in the circular of the Johns Hopkins university. In 1641 a capitation tax was granted by the assembly, in testimony of its gratitude toward Lord Baltimore for his efforts to promote the welfare of the colony. In the act of 1692, establishing the Protestant religion in Maryland, every taxable person was made to pay forty pounds of tobacco yearly for the building of churches and the support of parish ministers. To hinder the growth of papacy, an act was passed in 1704 taxing all Irish servants who came into the colony. The same year a tax was imposed on all imported negroes. In 1717 the proceeds of this latter tax were appropriated toward the public school fund, and for erecting one free school in each county. In 1728 every taxable person was made to present the local authorities with three crows' heads or squirrels' scalps. Poll taxes were at various times levied for special objects, such as the building of alms-houses and the construction of highways. The last poll tax in Maryland was levied in 1774, for the purpose of constructing a new road. In fact, from 1641 down to the last year of the proprietary government (1774), a poll tax was collected in this state.


—In 1860, according to a report made to the New York state legislature, twenty-seven states and territories employed the poll tax. Some of the special features are worthy of notice. Thus, while Alabama taxed both male and female free negroes, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia taxed slaves. In California, Mongolians not engaged in production paid a monthly special poll tax of $2.50, known as the Chinese police tax, and in the same state a special federal war tax was laid on polls. In Nebraska and Utah this impost could be commuted into so many days labor on the roads, probably on account of a scarcity of ready-money. Louisiana appropriated the proceeds exclusively for the support of her free public schools. In Connecticut and Delaware the polls were rated at a certain capital value, which varied from $300 in the former state (it was at one time only $10) to $2,700, which was the highest limit in Delaware. In South Carolina the state constitution provided, that, whenever a tax is laid upon land, a capitation tax of not less than one-fourth of the tax levied upon each hundred dollars of the assessed value of the land taxed shall be imposed upon polls, and the constitution of Virginia contained a somewhat similar provision. There were many exemptions from poll taxes mentioned in the laws, among which were persons attached to the army or navy, or who had been wounded while in the military service of the country; paupers and the insane, the deaf and dumb, the blind and infirm; ministers of the Gospel (Tennessee); persons of color (Wisconsin), and uncivilized American Indians (Nevada). In some states the payment of a poll tax was made a necessary qualification of the voter, as it is in Massachusetts to-day (1883).


—On the other hand, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Michigan levied no poll taxes; the constitutions of Ohio and Maryland declared them to be grievous and oppressive, and Rhode Island provided by law that "no poll tax could be laid for any purpose," although the constitution allowed the collection of a registry tax, which was in reality a capitation tax.


—To take from each payer an equal sum, which is the simplest form of a poll tax, does not necessarily make each man pay an equal tax. On the contrary, such a duty is very unequal in its incidence, as the condition of the payers must vary within wide limits. It would obviously be unequal to levy this tax upon every member of the family, parents and children, because the number of children in a family is no measure of comfort or of ability to pay taxes. Leroy-Beaulieu believes that only males should pay a poll tax, and that it should be joined to political rights. Every man, he says, who possesses and exercises the right of suffrage, ought to pay a direct tax, the rate to depend upon the needs of the local administrations and the existing indirect taxes. Among some of the United States, in which the payment of a poll tax is necessary to an exercise of the elective franchise, the door has been opened to abuse and frauds, as it is customary for the party managers to indirectly buy the votes of the delinquent tax payers by settling for them their poll tax dues.


—The inequality of the capitation tax has frequently been noticed, and in attempting to make it more equal the tendency is to change it into a tax upon income; if not based directly upon the income of each payer or class of payers, it may at least bear a certain relation to it. Where the existence of privileged classes permits such a graduation by rank, it has been resorted to, as in France and England. In Prussia a tax of this description is still levied, the classenstener. The population is divided somewhat arbitrarily into various classes, according to their supposed income, and a tax proportioned to this classification imposed upon each group. Thus, the tax that is paid by each member of one class or group is the same, and is to that extent a poll or capitation tax; but as the tax payers are grouped according to their supposed or determined incomes, it partakes of the character of an income tax. The one or other feature predominates according as the number of groups formed is small or large. The classenstener has proved a very productive tax, but poll taxes as a rule can never be counted upon to furnish a large revenue, and are being superseded by other and more productive taxes.


—AUTHORITIES. Leroy-Beaulieu, Science des Finances; Levi, and M'Culloch, on Taxation; Report on State Assessment Laws, N. Y., 1863; and the various Manuals of Political Economy.


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