Taxes on Knowledge in America: Exactions on the Press from Colonial Times to the Present

Taxes on Knowledge in America: Exactions on the Press from Colonial Times to the Present

Taxes on Knowledge in America: Exactions on the Press from Colonial Times to the Present

Taxes on Knowledge in America: Exactions on the Press from Colonial Times to the Present

Excerpt

When the King of the Tonga Isles, in the Pacific Ocean, was initiated by Mr. Marriner, the missionary, into the mysteries of the art of writing, he was alarmed at the idea of his subjects learning to read: "I should," he said, "be surrounded with plots."

--Collet Dobson Collet, History of the Taxes on Knowledge

From a historical perspective, the subjects of taxation and freedom of expression are inextricably linked. Indeed, the history of freedom of the press in England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is dominated by the use of taxation as a means of press control. "Knowledge taxes" became, in important respects, the rallying point in the struggle to free the emerging forms of mass distribution of information from control by the Crown and Parliament. The most dangerous and insidious forms of censorship and control of the English press prior to and during the early, formative years of the American republic were not direct and overt censorship, but rather control through the economic force of taxation.

The struggle for freedom of expression in England represented the intellectual heritage from which our American concepts of freedom of speech and of the press evolved. This heritage shaped the very concept of press freedom in America and represented the accumulated experience from which Americans drew in defining the specific safeguards necessary to the establishment and survival of a free press in America. In view of this it is remarkable, and indeed quite puzzling, that the subject of taxation of the press, or knowledge taxes, was rarely mentioned in connection with the ratification of the First Amendment. Even more rarely was the subject discussed with any thoroughness or care.

At the time the First Amendment was ratified, the English struggle against taxation of the press was ongoing, but it was far from over. Resistance to the English taxes on publications and awareness of their impact on the broad availability of political information were increasing, although the apex of the taxes had yet to be reached and the turning point in the struggle for their repeal would not be reached until the 1830s. For Ameri-

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