Taxation in the Confederate States of America is a subject not often studied by either professional academics or laypeople. This is not at all surprising: there is a natural tendency to avoid giving deep attention to things considered deplorable, and since the legacy of the Confederacy is construed as wretched by so many people, it follows that a great many are ignorant of the details of Confederate society. Today, we will go against natural tendency and take a look at the tax acts passed by the rebel government in its attempt to raise revenue for the war.
Revenue derived from taxation made up only a very small part of the war fund for the South. In total, taxes constituted roughly 8.2 percent of the war account; this is less than half of the percentage contributed by taxes for the Union. Compared to the North, the Confederacy was slow to impose a “direct” tax on its population in large part because of its strong commitment to state’s rights and opposition to centralized government. As we will explore in detail below, the Confederate Congress passed two tax measures during the course of the war; neither of these measures generated sufficient income, and by the end of the war it was evident that financial trouble had played a substantial role in the demise of the South.
War Tax of 1861
At the beginning of the war, the Confederate government relied on tax revenue derived from international trade (i.e. tariffs and taxes on exports) and financial contributions from private citizens. These sources of funding started off well, but by the close of 1861 both had dried up almost entirely. The collapse of these sources prompted the Confederacy to impose a “War Tax” which was passed in August of 1861. The War Tax consisted of taxes on a number of items identified by the Treasury and a tax on real property greater than $500 in value.
In its first year (1862) of operation, the War Tax contributed a measly 5 percent of total war revenue. Not only was the tax relatively gentle in its basic terms, collection proved to be much more difficult than Confederate lawmakers had anticipated.
Agricultural Produce Tax of 1863
In response to the lackluster performance of the tax act of 1861, the Confederate Congress passed the Tithe Act – otherwise known as the Tax-in-Kind – in April of 1863. On top of the taxes imposed by the War Tax, the Tithe Act placed a tax of 10 percent on agricultural produce. The Tithe Act was referred to as the “tax-in-kind” because it was not paid in currency but with physical goods; under this act, 10 percent of the actual produce of plantation owners was handed over directly to the government, not 10 percent of their profits. Though it was plagued by implementation difficulties of its own, the produce tax was relatively successful and contributed a substantial portion of overall tax revenue in the remaining years of the conflict.
Controversy surrounded the tax-in-kind because it was interpreted as a direct tax by the Confederate Congress. Though they were in rebellion against the Union, the lawmakers of the Confederate Congress still adhered to the constitutional principle of apportionment for direct taxes and so many felt the Tithe Act unacceptable on this principle. The financial condition of the South ultimately tipped the scales and the act was passed out of sheer necessity.
Richard Burdekin and Farrokh Langdana, “War Finance in the Southern Confederacy, 1861-1865,” Explorations in Economic History, Vol. 30, No. 3, July 1993.
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