Taxation and Manifest Destiny

Opposing taxes, it is said, is as American as apple pie. The surest way for a candidate to lose an election in the United States is to both propose a new program AND to provide a tax-based means of paying for it. Americans like their freedoms, which are protected by our governments — but they don’t like to see the money actually coming out of their own pockets. This is rather like a carnivore who has a distinct aversion to visiting slaughterhouses: you want the result, but don’t want any part of how it got to your table. Why is this? Why do we not pull back in horror when we have to buy groceries? Why do we not hold a weighty grudge against the person who sells you gasoline? And yet, in both cases, some of what you spend is tax. The god-awful thing: tax.

Understanding this aversion requires knowing how this country financed itself for is first 125 years. There was an awful lot to pay off, too: the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Civil War. All had to be paid for somehow, and there was no income tax nor any real-estate transfer tax in those days. In the early years, there were two main ways of providing revenue to the government: the so-called American System of protective tariffs, and land sales through the General Land Office. As the territory of the United States began to grow, through purchases, treaties, and wars, the Land Office assumed greater responsibility for raising revenue. After the American System was knocked down and strangled by Andrew Jackson’s Democrats, the Land Office had to do, well, Land Office business.

The Preemption Act of 1841 provided, among other things, that 500,000 acres be given by the feds to the states included in the Act. This money was to be used for public works such as roads, canals, and such. Sort of like a Community Development Block Grant, but much more quaint. One of America’s greatest orators, Daniel Webster, made his great speech to Gov. Hayne because of the restriction on Western land sales proposed by Sen. Samuel Foot. Webster, a Northerner, didn’t mind much if the government continued to be financed by protective tariffs, since his native New Englanders, as merchants and purveyors of manufactured goods, stood to profit from them. The South, on the other hand, mulled nullification of federal laws if western land sales were restricted, because how else was the South to be provided with sufficient revenue?

This aspect of western expansion, of Manifest Destiny as a means of funding government, has not heretofore been sufficiently explored. History books are filled with ruminations about some misty-eyed fundamentalists whose belief in God somehow translated into a command to expand westward. Manifest Destiny, a term coined by journalist John L. O’Sullivan around 1841, was another term for American expansionism, which, as envisioned by John Quincy Adams: 

The whole continent of North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation, speaking one language, professing one general system of religious and political principles, and accustomed to one general tenor of social usages and customs. For the common happiness of them all, for their peace and prosperity, I believe it is indispensable that they should be associated in one federal Union.

Note his mention of the North American continent. He was including in this thought what is now Canada, Nunavut, Mexico, and Central America — not simply a westward horizontal movement hemmed in by a northern and a southern parallel. So much for the misty-eyed dreamers. (This may be the first instance in history of anyone referring to John Quincy Adams as ‘misty-eyed’.) I’m sure it occurred to Adams that convincing these places already operating under their own laws and political systems probably did not want to be under any other jurisdiction, least of all that of John Quincy Adams. We were content with 49 degrees north latitude in the Oregon Territory, and we left a rump state of useless land to Mexico.

Why, then, did we need all that land? What was behind the misty-eyed rhetoric of craven politicians not otherwise given to poetry? 

Ah…money. Having lots of money gives one a sense of personal security like nothing else. Well, unless you lose a Presidential election, that is. But just as no politician now can run on a policy that mentions the nitty-gritty of taxes, no politician of the 19th Century could run saying, “Let’s go to war with Mexico so we can pay for roads in Michigan!” No, it had to be couched in loftier terms. We went to war with Mexico because of an ill-defined border issue, but the enormous price we forced Mexico to pay (while we paid them $15 million for their trouble) gave us decades of roads, decades of railroads, canals, land improvement, and forts, all taken care of without a penny taken from a taxpayer’s pocket.

From early on, the tax policy of this country was, “You need a bridge? Great! Let me sell this lot to Mr. Jones…okay, here’s your bridge appropriation.” We literally got used to getting things for nothing. In essence, the Mexicans and Native Americans paid our taxes throughout the second third of the nineteenth century.

Manifest Destiny was not a term commonly used by those in government. Expansionism, though, was the dominant ideology among those who were elected, but it was not an ideology based on a quasi-religious zeal as is commonly assumed. John Quincy Adams wrote, in 1838: 

The neglect of public worship in this city is an increasing evil, and the indifference to all religion throughout the whole country portends no good.

Three years later, if we accept the quasi-religious argument for the nature of the expansionist ideology, Adams’ observation was turned on its head? I sincerely doubt it. The westward expansion of this nation in the 19th Century was nothing but a massive evasion of responsibility for a proper tax policy. We have been seeking consensus on just such a thing ever since we ran out of land to sell, and had to change the Constitution in 1913 to allow for income taxes. It remains a dubious achievement in many people’s minds.

We still want something for nothing. We still think that out there, somewhere, the government can turn land into gold.


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