- American Taxation, American Slavery
Robin Einhorn's new book is a valuable entry in the growing and much-needed literature examining the exact impact that slavery had on the American state in the early republic—that is, on the actual workings and structure of the government, rather than on the better-researched political debates involving slavery. Unlike other recent treatments that stress the ways in which slaveholders dominated and used an expanding federal government to protect slavery, Einhorn takes a more traditional approach, arguing that slaveholders limited the power of the state—in this case to tax—to protect their peculiar institution.1 To say that this approach is traditional is not to say that Einhorn has written a hesitant monograph, or is content to present anew the common wisdom. Far from it. This book aims at nothing less than revising the central story that most Americans have accepted about the growth of the national state.
Einhorn's attack on the traditional narrative relates to causation. What [End Page 157] circumscribed the national government's tax and other powers, she argues, was not the continuing influence of the Revolution's ideological hostility to centralized power, but rather slaveholders' successful defense of their economic interests. She assails various traditional narratives, but in particular goes after the libertarian story, which celebrates the early national period as the halcyon days of low taxes and limited government. She is outraged at the notion that "American liberty was most complete when millions of Americans were the chattel property of owners" (3). "Democracy and liberty," Einhorn insists, "produced stronger and more competent governments in early American history," not weaker ones. Therefore, she concludes, "the American mistrust of government is not part of our democratic heritage. It comes from slaveholding elites who had no experience with democratic governments where they lived and knew only one thing about democracy: it threatened slavery" (7–8, emphasis in original). In colonial, state, and national governments, it was slaveholders defending their interests, not the tribunes of "the people" as portrayed in the Jeffersonian/Jacksonian story, who kept taxes low and simple.
In a high quality of prose that one probably has no right to expect in a history of taxation, Einhorn brings wide-ranging evidence to support this striking interpretation. She begins by contrasting the simple but corrupt tax system of colonial Virginia to the more complex and efficient machinery of colonial Massachusetts. Virginia relied on a poll tax that, though regressive, had the virtue of simplicity and unobtrusiveness (no assessors doing valuations of private property were necessary), but foundered on the rocks of administrative ineptitude and malfeasance. Massachusetts taxes were more complex, were no more progressive, and laid a much heavier burden on the taxpayers. But because they were collected by town officials elected annually, the system enjoyed much greater legitimacy, as well as efficiency. The contrast was no accident, for the democratic town governments in Massachusetts could sustain a "recognizably modern" machinery (78), whereas slaveholding Virginia remained "an underdeveloped society" where corruption dovetailed with a social and political system whose "very purpose" was "perpetuating drastically exploitative social relations" and keeping masters sovereign (30, 60).2 [End Page 158]
Lest one object to selecting Massachusetts and Virginia as representatives of all northern and southern colonies, respectively, Einhorn briefly surveys other colonies' tax systems. This exploration reveals a strong general pattern (with some exceptions): Northern colonies had more sophisticated tax regimes than the slave societies to the south. She attributes this pattern both to more democratic governments in the northern colonies and to the "marginal" nature of slavery there. To Einhorn, these are natural companion explanations, for "ultimately, it is impossible to disentangle the impact of slavery from the impact of local democracy" (83).
One might easily object to Einhorn's clear preference for "modern" and "sophisticated" tax structures and administrations over simpler forms. Indeed, one might easily say that each colony chose a system that suited its needs, especially because all she can say for her much-ballyhooed Massachusetts system is that...