From Slave South to New South: Public Policy in Nineteenth-Century Georgia

By Peter Wallenstein | Go to book overview
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4
TAX UPON THE TIME AND LABOR OF OUR CITIZENS

COMMITTED AS Georgians were to the expansion of state power, they refused to predicate it on greatly increased taxes. Like antebellum Americans elsewhere, they attempted to avoid direct taxation whenever possible. Expenditures varied according to the total amount of revenue available -- tax and nontax -- and in more years than not between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, taxes paid for less than half the state's spending. Nonetheless, revenue had to match expenditures. Whether derived from land sales, investments, or the federal government, nontax revenue fluctuated, so taxation carried varying proportions of the burden of public expenditures. Even when the state borrowed, it had to find the money to service its debt.


State Taxes

The Georgia tax system at midcentury rested directly on the tax act of 1804. That act taxed some property not at all, some according to value, and most at various specific rates regardless of precise value. The tax structures of 1804 and the 1840s were basically identical, except that the state uniformly increased all rates by one-fourth in 1842.1

As might be expected in an agricultural society with roughly half of its wealth invested in slaves, the bulk of state tax revenue came from levies on rural property. In 1849, 49 percent of state property taxes came from the levy on slaves (the characteristic form of planter wealth) and another 20 percent came from agricultural land (owned by yeomen as well as planters). Other important sources included town real estate (14 percent), pleasure carriages (6 percent), and merchants' stock-in-trade (6 percent).2 At that time, Georgia did not tax crops, livestock, furniture, or such occupational necessities as wagons and tools. Nor did it tax income or sales, the staples of its revenue system today. And the only tax on corporations was a tax on bank stock.3

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