Antebellum slave tax has lingering effect in Alabama politics, finances

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In the late spring or early summer of 1822, a man named Bolling Hall made a list of all his property before taking it to the Autauga County assessor and paying his taxes.

On the left side of a piece of parchment, Hall listed hundreds of acres of land he’d acquired since leaving Georgia four years before. He would pay between $2 and $8 an acre on it. He listed a gold watch, as well as a coach, which he valued at $250. The state would collect about $2.50 on it.

And in the top right-hand corner, Hall listed “15 negroes under 10 years” and “30 negroes over 10 years.” By law, Hall would have paid 25 cents for every slave younger than 10, and a dollar for those older than 10 — $33.75 for the human beings whose unrequited toil allowed him to buy coaches and gold watches.

Alabama tax assessments that year — and for more than four decades after — would include nameless columns of slaves whose existence was critical to the operations of state government. Alabama’s compact with the institution was, for whites, very profitable, and nowhere more than in the state’s slave tax.

“It holds the land tax to very low levels because most of the revenue comes from the slave tax,” said J. Mills Thornton, a retired University of Michigan professor and historian of the South. “The result is that small farmers pay virtually no direct taxes.”

As slavery twisted politics and society in Alabama and throughout the South, it also warped the state’s finances. For decades, the slave tax was a major pillar of the state’s tax system. Historians estimate that at least through the mid-1850s, the tax on the wealth created by the men, women, and children suffering exploitation — and often, physical and sexual assaults — was the single biggest revenue source for state government.

Like slavery, the slave tax would leave a permanent wound on the state. When slavery died, so did the tax. Reconstruction-era efforts to replace the lost revenue with increased property taxes — the only major source left — sparked an angry reaction. Legislators rushed to introduce tax restrictions after Reconstruction without making serious efforts to find other sources of revenue.

That set in place decades-long policies that, to this day, make it difficult and sometimes impossible for Alabama to generate enough revenue to pay for its state services. The $1.8 billion General Fund, which pays for most non-education services in the state, should grow no more than $25 million in 2018; the state’s Medicaid agency alone has requested a $44 million increase for the year.

“The slave tax in a weird way was a stabilizer,” said Susan Pace Hamill, a University of Alabama professor and expert on state taxation. “It was a bad stabilizer — the whole system of slavery was a bad stabilizer. A shameful stabilizer.”

Taxes on slaves weren’t limited to Alabama. In a 2003 article, Boston University School of Law professor Kevin Outterson wrote that the slave tax brought in anywhere from 30 percent of public revenues to, in South Carolina, 60 percent. The federal government levied slave taxes from 1798 to 1802, and again from 1813 to 1817, both times to pay for war.

“From colonial times to the Civil War, American governments derived more revenues from slave taxes than any other source,” Outterson wrote.

The slave tax went away after the Civil War, but the services it paid for did not. During Reconstruction, Republicans tried to make up the difference with property taxes — the only major source of revenue left — which embittered a population that had grown used to slaveholders paying most taxes.

“The history is complicated, but we can say with some certainty that that probably hurt small landowners more than big landowners, and fueled their resentment,” Hamill said.

When Democrats recovered control of the Legislature in 1874, they called a constitutional convention. That convention created a document that began the slow disenfranchisement of black voters. But it also put caps on property taxes.

“An eminent statesman has said, ‘the power to tax is the power to destroy,'” said Leroy Pope Walker, a Confederate general who served as president of the convention. “Governments should provide against possibilities, as possibilities often become facts.”

But the Bourbon Democrats who ruled Alabama for decades — and imposed even more stringent property tax caps in the still-operative 1901 Constitution — never considered the possibility of taxes that might try to replace the lost slave tax. For the most part, officials have avoided the issue. An income tax approved in 1933 enshrined tax rates in the Constitution; the state income tax rates still reflect Great Depression-era values. In the 1970s, the George Wallace administration advanced the “lid bills,” which further restricted the property taxes in the state.

Those revenue shortfalls are one of the lasting legacies of slavery: A state government that struggles to pay its bills.

“Racial policy is an obvious wound that festers,” Thornton said. “Tax policy is much less so, but it is one of the festering wounds of slavery.”

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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