This is an article I wrote in 2005 for the Vermont Commons newspaper of the Second Vermont Republic, a local movement to restore Vermont’s original status as an independent sovereign republic, which it held from 1777 to 1791.
Though I believe that political secession or severance from the New American Empire is vital to the long-term sustainability of the Vermont culture and is achievable in time, I would like to suggest an interim and powerful strategy of individual economic secession.
Tyranny cannot be sustained without the cooperation of its victims. The lifeblood of empire is money, and the most impactful method of non-violent non-cooperation is to withhold from Caesar the means to fund his armies of oppression.
I’m suggesting tax resistance as a method of severing our personal connection to the umbilical cord of power. Tax resistance, and war-tax resistance in particular, is as much an essential part of the history of American democracy as is pamphleteering and soapbox sloganeering.
But first, let me share a brief history of the income tax in the United States. From 1791 to 1802, our government relied on internal taxes on spirits, sugar, tobacco, and slaves in order to fund itself – similar to what, in New Hampshire, are known as “sin taxes”. In 1812, to help fund the war with Britain, the nation’s first sales taxes were instituted on gold, silverware, jewelry, and watches – a luxury tax.
Then, in 1817, Congress eliminated all internal taxes and relied instead on tariffs on imported goods. It wasn’t until 1862, to fund an economic war against the South, that Congress enacted the nation’s first income tax. Ten years later, the legislature eliminated the unpopular income tax and again taxed tobacco and spirits.
But the income tax was revived in 1894 and declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1895 because it was not evenly apportioned among the states. In response, the 16th amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1913 to make the income tax permanent. Until 1943, when the withholding tax on wages was introduced, only a very small percentage of the population was taxed. The withholding tax “democratized” the income tax and added 60 million people to the tax roles to pay for what was to be the beginning of the military-industrial complex, and to make all citizens slaves to government.
[For a more detailed history of US taxation and the philosophy which underlies it, see: A Short History of Property, Labor, Wealth, Profit & Taxation in America.]
Tax resistance, however, began well before the birth of the nation. In 1637, the Algonquin Indians refused to pay the Dutch a tax for the renovation of a fort to house the very military which oppressed the native peoples. And the colonists learned a valuable lesson from this.
“No taxation without representation” became a rallying cry as the colonists protested the 1765 Stamp Tax intended to pay for the quartering of British troops in the colonies. Thomas Jefferson declared that “The rights of conscience we could not submit [to the state]. We are answerable for them to our God.”
The right of conscience was considered the most inalienable right of natural people.
In the early history of the American nation, however, it was primarily the Anabaptist churches, such as the Mennonites, the Brethren and the Quakers, which openly refused monetary subservience to the state. Early Quakers refused to pay taxes for the American Revolution or to pay for the war debt, and they resisted complicity in the Mexican war because of its aggressive nature and the likely spread of slavery which would result.
And it was the Mexican war which inspired the father of American tax resistance, Henry David Thoreau, to intone, “If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood.”
And from the night he spent in jail, came Thoreau’s “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”, a treatise which proved to have great impact on the following century as it informed the work of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
As it was WWII which created the opening for American economic and military hegemony, it was also that war which opened the door to the nation’s first secular tax resistance movement. In 1941, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the American Friends Service Committee protested the 10% Defense Tax surcharge on the income tax. And it was in 1942 that Earnest Bromley was jailed for 60 days for refusing to pay a $7.09 tax stamp for his car. Thirty-three years later, the home of Earnest and Marion Bromley was seized and auctioned by the IRS, inciting the first nation-wide campaign around war-tax resistance. Eight months later, under constant pressure from people of conscience, the IRS finally relented and reversed the lien and sale. Contrary to popular myth, the IRS is not omnipotent.
In the meantime, Earnest, Rev. Maurice McCracken, Wally Nelson and others formed the Peacemakers in 1948, the nation’s first secular organization devoted to war-tax resistance as an avenue for “more disciplined and revolutionary pacifist activity”. The 40 who began the movement grew, by 1967, to 500 as the Vietnam War deepened.
The powers and principalities began to fight back, albeit meekly. In 1959, Wally Nelson’s life-partner Juanita became the first woman in modern times to be arrested for war-tax resistance, and in 1963 Rev McCrackin was defrocked by the Presbyterian Church for his refusal to pay, saying “to give financial support to war while at the same time preaching against it is, to me, no longer a tenable position.”
The counterculture was introduced to tax resistance when, in 1964, Joan Baez refused to pay 60% of her income tax, the amount that went to fund the military. Though the tax resistance movement was gaining momentum, between WWII and the Vietnam War only six people were imprisoned for war-tax resistance, and all for contempt of court.
In the 1960s, A. J. Muste, another early Peacemaker, convinced 370 prominent Americans – including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, David Dellinger, Dorothy Day, Noam Chomsky, Albert Svent-Gyorgyi, and Staughton Lynd – to proclaim their intention to refuse to pay all or part of their 1965 income taxes. Karl Meyers, a Chicago activist, suggested refusing to pay the 10% phone tax, dedicated to funding the Indochina war, and the War Resisters League initiated the first national campaign of war-tax resistance.
As part of the 1967 Writers and Editors War Tax Protest, 528 wordsmiths stated their refusal to pay for war. From a seed of just a few hundred resisters in 1966, the conscientious tax resistance movement expanded to include 20,000 by the 1970s, and hundreds of thousands were refusing to pay their telephone tax. In 1969, the National War Tax Resistance was organized, and by 1972 there were 192 local chapters throughout the country. By the 1970s, Peoples Life Funds – alternative funds in which to deposit withheld taxes – sprang up in a number of cities, and some are still alive today.
The first constructive response of government to this growing and unstoppable movement was the introduction, by Congressman Ron Dellums in 1967, of the World Peace Tax Fund Act, which would allow a conscientious objection to war taxes and a diversion of the funds to peaceful purposes. This bill has been introduced in every Congressional session since then but has never been allowed to pass.
1978 saw a resurgence of the historic peace churches in their “New Call to Peacemaking”, and the election of Ronald Reagan led to a tripling of the number of war-tax resisters by 1981. It was also that year that Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle urged citizens to refuse to pay 50% of their income taxes to protest spending on nuclear weapons.
In 1982, a “National Action Conference” called by the War Resisters League and the Center for Law and Pacifism led to the formation of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, which became the hub of the resistance movement. In response, the IRS began to issue $500 fines for the filing of “frivolous” tax returns, and in the next few years seized about a half dozen cars and homes from war-tax resisters.
In 1989, in a demonstration of stupendous naiveté, the IRS seized and attempted to auction the Community Land Trust home of Randy Kehler and Betsy Corner. Randy was one of the few of draft age during the Vietnam war who took his draft refusal conviction to the Supreme Court. He ended up spending time in a federal penitentiary, but not before influencing Daniel Ellsberg to engage in a similar act of conscience and copy and release the Pentagon Papers.
Randy had also founded the influential Traprock Peace Center in Deerfield MA and initiated the nuclear freeze campaign. Though he was an easy target since he filed his 1040 each year and informed the IRS which peace groups were receiving his withheld tax money, Randy was well known and highly respected by many in the peace movement and the ill-considered IRS action – which brought them only $5400 – sparked the longest protest action in American history. For a year and a half, thousands from all over the world came to rural Colrain, Massachusetts to occupy his leasehold and an excellent documentary film, “An Act of Conscience”, was made. The consequence was extensive free publicity for the always underfunded war-tax resistance movement, and a resurgence in interest and action. I helped organize and then led a “constructive program” which grew out of this protest, Building Our Swords Into Plowshares, which used 300 volunteers to design and build a super-insulated duplex which was later turned over to Habitat for Humanity.
Operation Desert Storm, Bush Sr.’s invasion of Iraq, led to a flood of inquiries to tax resistance groups by people saying they’d had enough. The IRS admits that 8,000 to 10,000 people today are conscientiously resisting all or part of their income taxes. There are undoubtedly many more they’re not aware of.
The scion of the Bush family dynasty, which made its money from supplying Hitler before and during WWII, George W. Bush engaged in the most blatant and indefensible expansion of the American Empire into the Middle East and Central Asia where most of the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves lie.
We suffer under a government that has completely lost its moral compass and seems determined to bring about the Armageddon that it believes is coming. Now is the time for all American patriots to say “No more”, and Vermont can lead the way as it has at so many important junctures of our collective history.
The military, as Eisenhower so presciently warned, is the engine of empire. And our taxes are the fuel that feeds that empire. It is time to begin to starve the beast. Tax resistance is not without potential consequences, but they are rarely suffered and the consequences of continued complicity are far greater.
For those who support the Second Vermont Republic, I suggest that we use our withheld federal income taxes to fund this movement toward a return of local sovereignty, ecological integrity, collective sustainability, personal freedom, and individual dignity. Conscience is the most basic of rights, and non-cooperation with injustice is the most powerful of weapons in the arsenal of non-violent social change.
In 1982, Secretary of State Alexander Haig laughed, “Let them march all they want to as long as they continue to pay their taxes.” How much longer will we continue to protest governmental injustice while paying for our own servitude? If you work for peace, stop paying for war. It doesn’t need to wait until we become a sovereign republic again. Each of us is free to exercise our conscience and withhold complicity in what we cannot condone. Do it now.
by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced with attribution for non-commercial purposes and a link to this page