Month: March 2016


The Colonial Period


Colonial people established property taxation mechanisms in order to fund their collective or communal interests. For instance, in 1620, the pilgrims who had landed at and started settling in Plymouth, Massachusetts received a rather weird gift from the local Indians.
They were sent a bundle of arrows wrapped in snakeskin. Interpreting this as a threat, the 102 colonist got together and decided to build a fort to protect their community. To fund the fort, they established a tax on all produce from the land. Although each settler had been allocated an equal tract of land, the tax was based on the yield from the land.
The best illustration of the property tax system during the colonial period is the one established in Boston. The puritans who had settled in Boston implemented taxes to pay for the church and also for religious education of their children. This tax was supposed to be paid irrespective of one’s religious leanings.
Besides the church, the property tax also intended to pay for making and maintaining community amenities like roads and street lights. It was also supposed to pay for local town council expenses like night-patrol, the sheriff and other instruments of maintaining law and order.
The property taxes were maintained through a meticulous record system. For instance, the Boston Town Records of 1676 indicate details of each tax payer. This includes their name, number of acres of land, a map of the land, number (and value of the houses), number of mills, number of animals (i.e. cows, swine and sheep) and an assessment of their personal estate.
The taxes were collected by sheriffs (who were the tax assessors and collectors). They calculated the value of each person’s tax base on the recorded value of their property. Each person was expected to pay their due.
The amount of taxes were determined at an annual town council meeting. During this meeting, people exempted from taxes were called out. This usually included the poor, sickly and widows. For instance, during one council meeting, a widow with twelve children was not only exempted from taxes, but the council directed that some of the money collected be given to her to support her children.
Although Boston’s tax system wasn’t implemented in all colonies, other colonies had similar property taxation systems. Typically, property taxes were levied on land, houses, animals, mills and other personal property. The amount of taxes was agreed on a collective consensus by the communities, and there was a specific authority charged with collecting them.


Early United States


During the American War of Independence, all colonies agreed to raise taxes in order to fund the war. Most of the colonies raised property taxes – with the exception oproperty tax buildingf Southern colonies in which the taxation system was mostly based on poll tax. The amount of money raised wasn’t enough and the Continental Congress ended up borrowing money from France to fund the war.
The failure to raise enough money made for a rather fiery Constitutional debate. There were delegates who were pushing for a national property tax in order to raise revenue. However, Southern delegates opposed this move. They said that any such taxes should be imposed at state level.
In the end, the US constitution’s statement on direct taxes (of which all property taxes are) is that they should be appropriated to each state according to their population. The exact system of collecting them is left to each state.
However, this did not stop different administrations from attempting to levy national property taxes. A case in point is the John Adams administration which asked congress to pass a national property tax bill in 1797. This was because he was anticipating an imminent war with France. This bill appropriated a tax on each state according to population.
This bill prompted a rebellion in Pennsylvania. According to the national allocation, the state of Pennsylvania was supposed to pay $237,000. The state imposed a tax on each property depending on the number of windows. As such assessors would move from home to home, counting the number of windows.
This aroused a lot of resentment, causing a band of locals to beat up and kidnap a group of assessors. When the sheriff arrived and arrested the culprits, a group of 400 men surrounded the Sherriff and forced them to release the kidnappers. Shortly afterwards, the leader of the revolt – John Fries – was arrested, tried and sentenced to death. However, following a public outcry, he was released at the last minute, and the law was repealed.
Throughout the 19th, century, property taxes were mostly imposed at state levels. Most state constitutions provided for a uniform property tax. Throughout most of this period, local sheriffs were the tax assessors and collectors. However, in the late 1800s, most tax assessment and collection duties started getting passed onto the financial officer.


20th Century To Date


In the early 1900s, advocates started calling for a lowering of property taxes. There was especially advocacy for the reduction of personal property taxes. Specifically, the aim was to reduce the taxes paid by homeowners and the owners of intangible assets.
These calls gained traction especially given that state or federal government had alternative means of income through sales and income tax. As a result, Presidents McKinley, Cleveland, T. Roosevelt and Wilson started pushing for the lowering of property taxes and implementation of income and sales taxes. Different states started adopting this approach.
The movement towards lowering property taxes gained traction during the Great Depression. As a result of the loss of personal wealth, the amount collected from property taxes was increasingly lower. As such, most states started levying sales taxes instead. In fact, between 1932 and 1933, 16 states implemented laws which limited personal property taxes. This is because, given the inflation brought by the depression, property taxes had nearly doubled from 5.4% of personal income in 1929 to 11% of personal income in 1932. As well as limiting personal property taxes, certain kinds of property – notably homes – were exempted from property taxes.
From the 1930s to-date, not much has changed in terms of the movement towards reducing property taxes. There has been an emergence of movements pushing for tax reforms. Also, federal, state and local authorities are getting an ever lower portion of their revenue from property taxes. Income tax and sales tax is now the most prominent sources of revenue.
Property taxes are still prominent in almost every part of the US. The specific properties taxed, as well as the rates differ from state to state.

Property tax is one of the oldest forms of taxation known to man. The history of property tax seems to stretch back to the very dawn of civilization. Every civilized society discovered to date has had property tax in one form or another.
The earliest property tax records discovered so far date from about 6,000 BC. They are from the ancient city-state of Lagash – situated north-west of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, in modern-day Iraq. According to records unearthed in Lagash, the King operated a rotational tax system called “bala.”
Under this system, tax assessors (who also doubled as tax collectors) would focus on a specific area of the city every month. They would assess and collect taxes on certain types of property (mostly land and food) in the area. The next month, they would focus on another part of the city.
This rotational system enabled assessors to break down tax collection into manageable chunks. It also ensured that the citizens weren’t overly taxed. Generally speaking, property taxes in Lagash were low (approximately 2 to 5 percent of property value). However, in times of crisis or war, they were raised to 10 percent of the property value.
Despite the relatively low taxes, it seems that the citizens of Lagash weren’t overly fond of tax assessors. An inscription unearthed in Lagash summarized the feeling of ordinary citizens towards the tax assessors:
“You can have a Lord,
You can have a King,
But the man to fear
Is the tax assessor.”


Other Ancient Civilizations


Although it is the earliest recorded case, Lagash isn’tancient property tax the only ancient civilization which had property taxes. All the major renowned civilizations had property taxes as well. These included Egypt, Babylon, Persia, China, Greece and Rome.
In ancient Egypt, during the golden era from

5,000BC to 4,000BC, a sophisticated property tax system existed. Taxes were levied against the value of various properties including land, cattle, grain, oil and beer.
The tax assessors were learned scribes – highly skilled in arithmetic and capable of reading and writing hieroglyphics. These assessors kept records of all the land owners, as well as the size of their fields. They also collected data biannually by counting cattle and inspecting grain yields. This ensured that everyone paid the right amount of tax – which was 10 percent of property value.
There was also a system to handle tax dodgers or defaulters. Whoever did not pay their taxes would be arrested, brought before a court and justice would be dispensed. In most cases, the punishment for dodging taxes was a public flogging, followed by being charged twice or thrice of the amount defaulted.
The tax assessors were highly valued and respected people in Egypt. This is because of their skill in collecting revenue. In fact, when a Pharaoh died, while all his other staff were buried along with him, the tax assessors were spared.
All the other ancient civilizations had their own property tax systems which were analogous to the Egyptian system. Basically, there were specific properties upon which taxes were levied, a set amount levied on each property, specific officials were charged with collecting taxes (tax assessors or collectors) and there were means of enforcing the taxes.


Middle Ages


In Medieval England, the most prominent form of property tax was levied on land. After 1066, William the Conqueror established a basic type of land taxation. Officials in each town kept a detailed record of everyone who owned land. This included their names, acreage and an estimation of its value. Every year, the total amount of tax due to each person was calculated, and the records kept. Each person was supposed to pay their said tax to the crown.
In the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries, the land tax was passed onto the peasants. This is because the land lords typically rented out their land to peasants. The peasants would till the land and were required to pay one-tenth of each crop yield to the landlord. The landlords then passed on their taxes to the King.
Besides paying their landlords, peasants were also often required to pay a clerical tax. This was supposed to be paid to the church. It also consisted of about one-tenth (a tithe) of their crop yield.
The value of the land tax was often determined by the king. Some kings were ruthless to the point of extortion. In fact, it was exorbitantly high taxes which forced the barons to revolt in 1215 and force King John to sign the Magna Carta. This limited the King’s power to arbitrarily impose taxes.
In the year 1290, personal property taxes were introduced for the first time. This was collected against the value of personal property. The rate of this tax was one-tenth for city residents and one-fifteenth for rural residents. The amount was calculated from the rough estimation of a person’s assets.
There were certain kinds of property which were exempt from personal property taxes. For instance, people who were extremely poor weren’t taxed. Church property wasn’t taxed as well. Also, a knight’s armor and merchant’s capital were exempt from personal property taxes.
Between 1662 and 1689, a form of property tax called hearth tax was introduced in England. This type of tax was levied on buildings. The value of a building was estimated using the number of hearths in it. Each house holder was charged two shillings per year for each hearth, stove or fireplace in the house. As a result, peasants with small houses paid significantly lower amounts than barons with mansions.

Property Tax History in America