Bring back the carriage tax!

What we can learn from the backlash against Thomas Jefferson's tax slashing

Published July 15, 2012 7:00PM (EDT)

Thomas Jefferson         (White House Historical Association)
Thomas Jefferson (White House Historical Association)

The Litchfield (Connecticut) Monitor hasn’t published since 1807, but it just came up with a good idea. When the famously cost-cutting Thomas Jefferson was president, the Monitor printed a series devoted to exposing how the “hollow hearted and meanly selfish” Congress allowed the heavier taxes to fall on the “industrious poor,” while those who had always been living well kept getting all the breaks. The Monitor’s message was simple: Those who went around talking the loudest about their love of liberty didn’t really represent the interests of ordinary folks.

Here’s what was going on in America in Jefferson’s first term. The carriage tax had been repealed. “Who of you, my countrymen, have been benefitted by the repeal of the laws imposing taxes upon carriages?” the Monitor’s editorializer charged. Small businessmen didn’t own fancy carriages; only aristocrats, a breed apart, came and went attended by their servants, who sat up top taking their whip to the horses, while inside padded coaches, “traitors to liberty” enjoyed their free ride.

“Why, my countrymen, should there exist such notorious inequality in bearing the public burdens?” Shouldn’t the rich pay their fair share?

Those in government were talking out of both sides of their mouths. They and their pampered friends in the new federal city of Washington could “riot in luxury,” while holding the everyman in contempt. While they called themselves republicans, they maintained a system that insured continued privilege. Small government champions, indeed! Jeffersonian hypocrisy!

Let’s talk about today. In some ways, little has changed in our national debate over taxes. Some folks who don’t need tax breaks still insist on them. Take a certain Republican presidential candidate with several estates and a chauffeur or two, whose wife drives multiple Cadillacs, and who can afford to install an automobile elevator in one of his homes – shouldn’t he be paying his carriage tax?

President Obama isn’t actually proposing to harm those who gain the most from the Bush tax cuts. The first $250,000 that the wealthiest earn is not subject to tax; and despite what Mitt Romney and Republicans in Congress keep telling us about the small-business owner they are allegedly aiming to protect, analyst Robert Reich reports, and President Obama reiterates, that only 3 percent of small-business owners earn more than $250,000. The other day, candidate Romney insisted that ending the Bush tax cuts for his wealthy buddies would be “another kick in the gut to the middle class.” Meanwhile, of the 400 highest-income taxpayers, one-third paid an average rate of 15 percent or less in 2008. They have plenty leftover to build new barns for their carriages.

Still, the Republicans stick to their guns, claiming that today’s version of the slave-owning carriage owner is really a “job creator.” Has anyone calculated just how many jobs are created for every Tiffany’s credit line a man can boast, or every acre he buys, every carriage, every yacht? The Litchfield Monitor knows how to frame the debate: “Is it possible that any of you should labor under such an inveterate delusion, as to believe, that such men are the benevolent friends of humanity?”

Something else important should not be overlooked in our little parable. People in the age of Jefferson understood that taxes affected different social classes in different – unequal – ways. To point this out was to recognize a basic unfairness in the existing tax system. It was not imagined as “class warfare.” We need a reasonable level of taxation. Period. Yet you’ll still hear the same Republican talking point: “The last thing we need to do in this economy is to raise taxes on anyone.” Really? Anyone?

Today’s Republicans keep saying (and too many buy their spin) that the simple act of pointing out class differences is akin to a thought-crime. Recognizing the existence of class is an essential element of our at once flawed and precious democratic society. Citizens in 1800 – the landed rich as well as those who were then called “the middling sort” – all knew how class worked.  We shouldn’t turn a blind eye now, just because the national conversation about fairness tends to focus first on race inequality. Class exists in America. It always has.

Mitt Romney says that failing to extend the Bush tax cuts for the super-rich will be a job killer. He is proud that he can afford to buy as many carriages as he wants and not pay taxes on them.  He wants you to believe that one day you, too, will ride in a carriage.

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Picks Taxes