In the United States this weekend is an unofficial helliday. A helliday is the opposite of a holiday. It’s time to pay the tax man! By April 18th, you better have your 1040s in, your Schedules calculated, and your W-2s organized. Hubby and I are still counting the pennies and nickels spent on my business and on our two rental properties (because we were transferred and couldn’t sell them). This got me thinking:
How did characters in Jane Austen’s books have to pay taxes?
And so far the answers I have found make me feel much better about MY tax burden. 🙂 Granted, the cultures in the United States vs England are very different. In the US, we’ve never really liked the idea of taxes going to the Crown. And from our founding, the framers of the Constitution were very particular about HOW the government could tax citizens. It was not until tax reform after the (American) Civil War, and finally the 16th Amendment in 1913, that our federal government had a clear path to what we have today in the IRS, and state and local taxes.
The tax structure in Jane Austen’s time was far more complex because it was applied to well, just about EVERYTHING. From windows greater than 6 in a building to how many servants an estate employed to mail to anything purchased and even carriages and horses! Despite the high number of taxes, there was interest in levying taxes in a fair manner.
For example, take the window tax. The window tax began in 1695 to help compensate for people clipping coins. This is a complicated situation, back then coins were often weighed, not counted. So what people could do was clip just a tiny bit of an edge so the weight would be within the deviation of the scale (we’re not talking digital precision here). Then you take those clippings, melt them down, and press a counterfeit coin with the King’s mark. It would be like if you could tear a little corner off a dollar bill today, take all of those bits and glue them together and print what could pass as a legitimate bill today.
It sounds absurd to tax someone based on how many windows they have, but in 1695, only the rich had more than 6 windows. If you were poor and living in a small cottage, you might only have 3 or 4 windows. And therefore, no tax.
But eventually, taxes did creep down to affect the working classes. And it was controversial that taxes went to pay for the poor. We learned at JASNA’s AGM from scholars there that in Jane Austen’s time there was a gross discrimination against the poor as being in such a state from a defect in morality. We can still see these attitudes in modern times when discussions come up about welfare and social programs. Some things, never change.
In the cartoon below, the “poor” seemingly have a lever to get beer to pour out at the expense of John Bull who has had to move to living above his shop and complains he will have not a head nor hole if he pays all of the taxes. Beer has been a cheap method of nutrition since Ancient Egypt. The fat, government official explains it’s for good of country, and argues what does John Bull want a house for, can’t he live in a room or cellar? The book of tax includes a listing of items there are taxes on, such as soap, candles, tobacco, beer, salt, hats, etc.
Here is an excerpt from England in the Nineteenth Century by Elizabeth Wormeley Latimer which was originally published in 1894. In it she quotes clergyman Sydney Smith who complained about taxation in an 1813 speech.
“The schoolboy whips his taxed top; the beardless youth manages his taxed horse with a taxed bridle on a taxed road; and the dying Englishman, pouring his medicine, which has paid seven per cent, into a spoon that has paid fifteen per cent, flings himself back upon his chintz bed which has paid twenty-two per cent, and expires in the arms of an apothecary who has paid a license of a hundred pounds for the privilege of putting him to death.”
The longer excerpt also talks about taxes on just paying bills! At the time, no payment greater than £10 was legally valid UNLESS it was paid on stamped paper, and a stamp meant the tax had been paid! This is like paying a tax just for your checkbook or debit card!
As far as income taxes go in England, the 1790s to 1810s were the first experimentation with an income tax, again progressive in nature and beginning at an income of £60 pounds (the equivalent in 2015 would be £5,696). However, in 1816, the income tax was abolished and not reinstated until 1842.
Jane Austen was born in 1775 and died in 1817, so she would have seen the rise and fall of the income tax in her lifetime. And yet there is very little mention of tax in her books. According to the Jane Austen Thesaurus, the word tax is only used 8 times in all of her novels, and usually not in the context of a government levy. Instead, Austen’s use of the word ‘tax’ is in a social context, as a tax on one’s nerves or forbearance. 🙂
Despite the difference of hundreds of years, those of us paying our taxes this weekend have a kinship to those living in Jane Austen’s time: paying the tax man! They say there’s nothing certain but death and taxes, though sifting through all of this tax law and history on both counties, I do not find taxes to be certain at all! In modern times, we use loopholes and creative deductions to find savings on the tax bill. In historic times, other than fraud, the only way the taxes changed was a change in political leadership.
And despite my grumbling that I have to pay a hefty tax bill this year, even for that I can tip my hat to the woman herself, Jane Austen. The opportunity to write stories in her amazing world of characters and settings is what resulted in the West family paying such a sizable check to Uncle Sam this weekend. 🙂 At least I don’t have to pay a tax on the check paper itself!