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  • The contested state: Revenue agents, resistance, and popular consent in the United states from the early republic to the end of the nineteenth century
  • Romain Huret (bio)

In Ohio, during the Civil War, one Thomas H. Hanner imposed himself upon a Revenue Officer of the 19th district as a special agent of the Bureau of Internal Revenue and made “decisions as to the effect of the law, giving directions as to the management of cases involving large amounts and borrowing money upon the strength of his alleged position.”1 Another usurpation of identity occurred in Philadelphia where a person named Gillepsie collected taxes in the city.2 In many States, an impostor under the name of Thomas Glanner also sought to collect federal taxes.3 Numerous cases of false agents occurred under the new war tax regime, and sparked strong resentment against revenue officers during the Civil War. Such usurpation of identity reveals the fragility of the bureaucratic system designed to collect taxes in the country.

From the Early Republic to the end of the nineteenth century, policymakers in the federal government sought to create a coherent and efficient cohort of officers.4 To properly police his district, it was required of each revenue agent “the utmost energy, industry, and vigilance of which he is capable” as 1878 instructions put it.5 However, federal employees were seen not only as federal intruders, but also as corrupt agents since they were paid a percentage of their [End Page 87] collection or penalties collected. The fluid boundaries between private and public spheres sparked opposition at the local and national levels. As a consequence, many taxpayers expressed their distrust through a wide range of political mobilizations. While most Americans accepted postmasters in their towns and counties, they frequently opposed the establishment of revenue officers to collect taxes.6 In the field of taxation, opposition was the rule, and led to the dismantlement of each new tax regime during the nineteenth century with the exception of the tariff regime which implemented indirect and external taxes.

By focusing on the very place of contacts between citizens and revenue officers at the local level, this article demonstrates that the expansion of the federal taxation was limited because of the inability of the government to select revenue officers based on their standing in the local community. As many scholars have argued, fiscal action requires, on the whole, administrative consent.7 The recent scholarship on the nexus between state and society has stressed reciprocal interactions between institutions and various social groups.8 Citizens are more likely to comply and even give active consent when they perceive institutions as procedurally fair in both decision-making and implementation processes and when they believe other citizens are also doing their share. Resistance, ranging from petitions to violence, occurred when opportunities to manoeuvre were not anymore available for taxpayers. The local ineffectiveness of tax officials helps to explain the pressures behind the creation of entirely new social roles such as, for example, that of the exciseman or the custom officer. Such offices lacked a generalized legitimacy—their holders were active only as revenue agents and they were presumed to have a direct personal interest in increasing yields. They were, thus, suspected of corruption and they were referred to as invaders. The functional ineffectiveness of county officeholders in raising taxation had been a product partly of how they had understood themselves and how others had understood their roles.

In this article, I focus on five categories of tax officers (gaugers, storekeepers, assessors, customs’ officers and deputy collectors) at different periods during the nineteenth century. By refusing to abandon the patronage system, and by implementing a hybrid system including private and public officers, the federal government paradoxically increased the number of tax opponents and created a strong distrust of institutions and bureaucracy. First, I describe [End Page 88] resistance in the Early Republic against excise and direct taxes. Then, I turn to the Civil War experiment in the field of taxation and the way people perceived the new role of the federal government. Finally, I pay close attention to the moonshiners’ crusade against revenue agents from the Reconstruction to the end of the...


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pp. 87-113
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