Originally published in 1884
TAXES AND MONEY IN NEW JERSEY BEFORE THE
(By R. Wayne Parker, a paper read before the New Jersey Historical Society, January 18, 1883.)
IT is as hard to realize the infancy of a State, as for a grown man to think of himself as a child; to go back to the time when powers were untrained and habits unformed, and to believe in his childish griefs, quarrels, hopes and fears, weakness and dependence. So, too, in the affairs of a State, it is hard to look back to the days when New Jersey was an almost unbroken forest, with a few inhabitants busy at whaling, tar making, oystering, lumbering, or plain and simple farming; when our cities were hamlets, our roads mere trails; our industries confined to those of the simplest country life; when our Governors were mostly men sent from a distant land, months away in point of communication; when those Governors, in consequence, were entirely out of sympathy with the Quakers, Independents and Dutch Protestants that formed most of our population, and whose jealousies of King and Bishop were as fierce as the wrongs and contempt which they had had to endure; when these jealousies and hatreds, amid new and unsettled colonial governments and land-titles, caused unceasing quarrel; when settlements were confined to the sea coast, when French and Indians made constant advances on the north and west, and when the connection of the Colonies with the home country was endangered in England itself by the strifes of Jacobites and Hanoverians.
But the child is the father of the man, and even in this infant colony can be discerned the growth of the industries that now make the State chief for her size and population in industrial energy. Yet such progress is hard to put into history. We find reams of documents as to quarrels and riots, which, like waves of the sea, made much disturbance, but interfered little with the unseen ocean-currents of industry, of which little record remains. Even the statutes are incomplete. Some of the originals are lost. There is a single copy in the State Library, but that is defective. Much information is to be found in the English records and correspondence as kept by the Lords of Trade and Plantations. A copy of such of these records as referred to New Jersey, or seemed so the State Library, and selections are now being published. But in all these materials we find little that is definite as to the condition of the people, except what can be deduced from colonial finances and taxes. Figures are dry work, but it is from to do, is contained in some twenty volumes of MSS. in figures only that we can read the romance of astronomy, with its wondrous circles and cycles; and from figures only can we trace the more wondrous and dark circles of human progress.
England is now the commercial power of the globe, but she was far from that when this State was settled. Her colonies were young in the time of Charles II, while those of Spain were old and flourishing. Holland was her more than successful rival in war and peace, sending fleets even into the Thames, and driving her navy from the seas. The East India Company were a small corporation. Her manufactures were contemptible. The Kingdom was impoverished by late civil wars, and broken by factions.
Her finances were in awful disorder. The Crown took presents from France, who then under Louis XIV was the leading power of the Continent. The great credit system of the National Debt and the Bank of England did not yet exist. Spain controlled the gold and silver of the world, and silver was still the chief metal. The English Government was bankrupt. It had confiscated the merchants' funds in its hands, and repudiated its seamen's wages. Fire and plague had crippled London. The coin had been clipped and mutilated till it was often one-half or one-third its true value.
Macaulay has graphically described the brave and terrible measure by which the coinage was reformed in England under William III., and by which all the old clipped coin was ordered out of circulation, and new milled pieces introduced. He has described, too, the consequent distress, difficulty and absence of all circulating medium, and the relief which finally ensued from the new coin. But in the Colonies no such relief was felt. The few shillings that they had could not be called in immediately. Besides, here, as in the rest of the world, the money in use was not so often the English shilling as the dollar, which, under the various names of "Pieces of Eight," "Mexican Pieces," "Portugals," "Peruvian Pieces," etc., was the money of all Europe, and so continued until the French Revolution. But for the debasement of the hard dollar in Germany, Spain and Portugal, and its consequently uncertain value, it would now have been the coin of the commercial world, and was, therefore, selected by the framers of our Constitution. It is since their day that France and Germany have abandoned the debased rix-dollars (worth eighty cents in Bremen, and but a few cents in Portugal), to introduce the franc and mark.
But about the year 1700, in the reign of Queen Anne, the dollar was the coin of the Colonies, exchangeable for shillings at various rates, not, however, as now, for a little over four shillings, but for six, eight and ten ; the shilling not having a real currency here, and being clipped, or otherwise mutilated and useless for foreign trade.
It would have done much perhaps for England if she had made herself one with her Colonies by introducing here the milled shilling and sterling money. But that seemed too radical a measure for the weaker spirits who followed the great William. Accordingly, the foundation of a separate provincial coinage was laid, by a proclamation of Queen Anne, in which our present silver dollar of seventeen pennyweights and a fraction of silver, under seven or eight different names, was ordered to be taken at four shillings and six pence, and no more, under heavy penalties. By this proclamation, however, no real effect was produced. The dollar in silver usually passed for at least six shillings, so that the shilling was equal to sixteen and two-third cents, the pound to three and one-third dollars, and the penny to a little under two cents. Thus the colonies were made in trade a foreign country from England.
Of any money, however, there was little in the infant State. It is hard to realize how weak and small we were for a century and a half after the settlement of New England, and for fifty years after that emigration thence of 1660-1680, which gave us the nucleus of our population. In 1673, West Jersey sold for £1,000. Land was plenty, and (1677) seventy acres apiece were given to emigrants. Two pence a year per acre was the usual quit-rent in West Jersey for the best land. Of any money, they had little. Indians were paid in wampum or goods. Between themselves, the Colonists used "beaver" pay (New Jersey Archives, 1685, p. 504), otherwise called "country" pay, and £10 in such pay, or say $30, would clear a servant of four years' service. Taxes during a hundred years could always be paid in wheat at a small deduction from its price in New York or Philadelphia.
The population was small and exclusively devoted to trapping, lumbering and farming: for lumber, furs and a little wheat were its only staples. In 1701 West Jersey had 832 freeholders. The whole State had about 16,000 inhabitants. The growth was constant until at the Revolution there were about 120,000. But there were no great centres as now. In 1726 there were about 30,000 people, of whom Monmouth had 4,400; Middlesex, Essex, Burlington, Hunterdon and Salem between 3,000 and 4,000 each; Somerset, 1,800; and Cape May, 654. The relative population of these counties was much the same up to the Revolution, though Hunterdon was the growing county, raising in 1766, out of a tax levy of £15,000, over £2,000; while Burlington and Mon- mouth appear for £1,600 odd; Middlesex and Somerset for £1,300; Essex and Gloucester for £1,100; Salem and Morris for 41,000; Bergen, including the now great cities of Hudson County, for £996; Cumberland, £578 and Cape May, £250.
It was thus a scattered farming population, richest where the land was best. The rest of the country was waste. In 1705 the woods are full of wild horses, and horse hunting is in vogue (Archives, IV., 79). Our "Swinefield" road in our own county, tells of the old practice of driving swine and cattle in the fall to the woods and meadows of the Great Piece. The Statute-books of that day are full of acts against letting horses run at large, and one curious act concerning rams survives to this day. Only one-fifth of East Jersey lands was located in 1770. In the returns of the Governors to the Lords of Trade it is reiterated again and again that there were no manufactures and no trade except through New York and Philadelphia. A few iron mines were opened. Some potash was made on trial. But the staples reported are always the same lumber, tar and wheat.
Nor was it a very productive population, measured by the returns of commerce. The sugar and tobacco Colonies did a large trade, and were highly prized by England. In 1718, the Plantation exports to England were estimated at X1,000,000; of which New York sent only £27,000 and New England, £41,000, while St. Christopher sent L88,000; Virginia and Maryland, £317,000; Jamaica and Barbadoes together, £595,000. The imports were in like proportion and amounted to £700,000. The difference of £300,000 went to rich plantation owners in England, and the Lords of Trade represented to the King, as deductions from this table, that "the sugar and tobacco Colonies are of greatest advantage, and deserve most regard. The others are most populous, produce more of what England does, and are capable of subsisting without any dependence on it." Besides, "they supply the sugar Colonies with provisions and manufactures which England had formerly the advantage of furnishing them, and carry back sugar and other produce, which is consumed there, and the benefit is lost." The proportions of trade are now a hundred-fold reversed, and why? Because, though little trade came to New York or New Jersey, or went from them they have a wealth that statisticians and Lords of Trade are wont to pass over, even in our day a people who tilled their own fields, sat at their own firesides, and doubled in number every twenty-five years. The far-seeing patriot will never be deceived by mere figures as to manufacture and trade. He will look at the homes and the men.
But these people had very little money. Like all agricultural populations, they were in debt. Money goes where it can be turned over and over, not to the woods and fields. Again and again we find complaint of the lack of money, even to make exchanges, banks and capital to lend on mortgage, or invest, were wanting.
Even the humblest home products were made under the constant and jealous inspection of the Lords of Trade and the Governors, who were required to prevent traffic in linen or woolen goods made in the Colonies, and to close all rolling or slitting mills, and forges with trip-hammers, for carrying iron beyond the state of the pig or the bloom. The Governor actually had to report the homespun of Somerset ; for which he apologizes, saying that a few sheep must be kept for good farming, and that the homemade garments really cost more but employed the otherwise idle hands. Indeed, the Colonists needed little money. With game, oysters and fish, free range for cattle, plenty of skins for the universal leather breeches, and wool for homespun, they lived comfortably so long as they could keep clear of taxes.
Those they did keep clear of. We taxed mortals hardly understand the seeming suddenness of the stand taken by our forefathers against British taxation. We submit to innovations and tyrannies enough, to elevated railroads, underground boilers, electric light wires charged with death-currents, taxes and assessments. It generally takes time and some good reason for the whole community to wake up to a grievance. We understand the Colonial resistance to taxes better when we find that "no taxation" had been the people's war-cry for fifty years before the Revolution.
Yet these taxes were very small. The whole expenses of Colonial Government rose slowly from £1,000, in 1702, to £3,000, in 1770, or from $3,300 to $10,000. In 1883, with a population only ten times as large, we pay one hundred times as much for State Government and as much more for School Tax, and this for the State Tax alone, which in most places is a tithe of those city and county taxes of which our forefathers had none. Per capita, we pay from fifty to one thousand times as much as they did. Of course, this shows increased wealth as well as increased taxation. But by the value of property, their tax was very small, as we shall see. At most it was the same percentage on the income of improved lands as we now pay on the value of all lands.
The real cause of their jealousy of taxation was that, of the whole amount raised, about half went to the Governor or in rent of his house, and that the Governor was often a foreigner, and always, or almost always, the centre of a clique who were odious to the people. He was at best more tolerated than liked. Colonial Government by a favorite of the Crown or of the London trade management, who was always looking to England for promotion, while he haughtily requested support for his high mightiness from the people here, and at the bidding of his patrons negatived the most desired laws, such government had the advantage of rousing a jealousy and vigilance which were probably more conducive to true freedom than what we now call popular institutions. Certainly, the Governor had no sinecure. Depending for office on the favor of distant English monopolists and grandees, who sent him the most intricate instructions, and looking for his support to a Provincial Assembly who knew their own affairs much better than he, and were determined to have their way, the best Governors (such men as Burnet, Belcher and Bernard) got along by ceaseless attentions and flattery to both parties, while pressing on each the need of mutual concession. Under the unpopular Governors, whether lordly dare-devils, like Cornbury, or ambitious and self-willed men, like Morris, gifted with temper and uncontrol, letters poured over to London by every vessel, with charges and counter-charges, reproofs, suggestions, defences and suspicions, until the little provincial capital boiled as only a little tea-pot can. A better system to promote jealousies than the colonial could hardly be devised. Communications were regularly ordered to be made to the Lords of Trade, but every member of the Governor's Council was instructed to write directly and secretly to the Secretary on matters of State; and all quarrels in a province became, or were thought matters of State, if not high treason. Communication was so irregular (the monthly packets to New York and to the West Indies not being established until 1755), that it became absolutely necessary to have friends at Court; and at last the Assembly spent about one-quarter of the tax levy in paying a London agent to represent them before the Lords of Trade and the Council. Governor Cosby suspended Lewis Morris as Chief Justice for alleged tyranny over the Bar, inattention to duty and drinking. But Morris went to England, got the Governor's action reversed, claimed the Presidency of the Council on the Governor's sudden death, and actually got the appointment as Governor in his room. No wonder that the appropriation bill for the support of such a government was the battle of each year, and that the question of taxation by the Crown became a vexed boundary, on which the whole country-side would rally.
The taxes, as we have seen, were little enough $3,300 to $10,000 a year; half to the Government, $500 to $1,000 to the Chief Justice, something to the second Judge, Clerk of Council, Doorkeepers and Clerk of Assembly, and $250 for printing. The Assemblymen received half a dollar a day and some mileage. The Council had only the honor of the position. Accounts were simple enough. The Assembly were their own comptrollers, and copies of the accounts went to the many records of the English Rolls Office, where they are indexed, recorded and filed in oblivion to this day. There only can we find our New Jersey history or a complete copy of our own laws.
The supply bills of the time are curious reading, and all on a model very different from modern tax laws. Each bill grants a supply for Government, never for over a few years, generally one or two. It fixes salaries and quotas for each county, and names county assessors and treasurers. It then orders rates to be assessed within certain limits, in the discretion of the assessors. For instance, the Act of 1756, raising £3,000, orders rates of
2-40 shillings on merchants.
5-80 shillings on saw-mills.
4-80 shillings on grist-mills.
4-40 shillings on fulling-mills.
30-70 shillings on furnaces.
7-35 shillings on forges.
75 shillings on glass-houses.
120 shillings on molasses stills.
4-80 shillings on ferries.
4-15 shillings on trading sloops.
6 shillings on cartmen.
4 shillings on laboring men.
1 shillings on a bought servant.
9 shillings on a coach.
3 shillings on a chaise.
1 shillings on a chair.
£1-£2 on peddlers.
In practical wisdom we have much to learn from our ancestors as to taxation, though we may teach them as to currency and credit. They taxed visibles only, on which the tax was certain to be assessed. They taxed improved property only, from which the tax could readily be collected by distraint or otherwise. Such a tax fell lightly on the community, because the yearly value of the land would always pay the tax. They recognized the truth that a certain tax on any one kind of property is a tax on all property. We try to tax uncertainties and invisibles, rights, credits, book accounts and unproductive speculative property, and in consequence sharpers dodge our taxes and land-sharks buy up tax-titles, while honest folk are forced to pay for other people, and if poor and unable to advance the money assessed on unproductive property, have to submit to endless interest, forfeitures and penalties. If the old system did nothing else, it got the taxes in, instead of postponing them, as we do, borrowing meanwhile.
In seven years after the surrender of the Crown in 1709, there came a sudden call for an expedition against the French in Canada, and New Jersey, as ever, was at the front, with a vote of £3,000, to be raised on bills of credit. These were to be receivable for taxes, to be sunk in a few years by tax levy, and meanwhile to be a legal tender. Bonded debt, payable in long time, with interest, was then unknown, or, at least, uncommon. Kings usually borrowed of the Jews or issued paper money, and the Colony took the latter course. In 1714 we find the Assembly waking to protective measures, and they lay a duty on slaves, in order to encourage white immigration, and an export duty on wheat, to benefit flouring mills. But as they waked to a sense of their commerce, so did England, and in 1721, when Governor Burnet is com- missioned, he is specially ordered to sign no act for paper money except for support of Government, without a clause suspending its operation till approved by the King, to keep a monopoly of trade to English ships, and to allow no furs or copper ore to go to any place but England.
Meanwhile, with improvement came a strong demand for more circulating medium. There seems to have been a real dearth of silver at the time. England's new trade in the East Indies drew money there, while the neighboring States of Pennsylvania and New York had adopted bills of credit, which were legal tender with them but not in New Jersey, and there was really no money to pay taxes, etc., since the produce of New Jersey sold only for bills of the neighboring States. Accordingly an act was passed to allow the issue of £40,000 of paper money.
The terms of this issue (as of all the ante-Revolutionary bills issued in time of peace) were somewhat peculiar. A loan commission was incorporated by the act in each county, and the proportion of the issue belonging to that county was to be lent by them at five per cent. interest on good first mortgage security, payable in sixteen years, in equal annual installments, the installments of the first eight years being lent out again. Thus the Government was more than supported on the interest, while the principal was to be used as it fell due, to cancel the bills of credit. If honestly managed, the whole fund was soundly secured, and the bills would be kept in good standing. Thus the State did not borrow money at all, and a good currency for internal affairs and a sound system of loans on mortgage, at reasonable interest, were at once obtained. Much to the credit of our State, its bills, unlike the Continental currency, were always honestly sunk when due.
The evils of the system were more remote, but were those incident to any inflexible legislative system of banking: namely, that if continued, there was danger of over-issue, such as had reduced the value of New England currency, so that a guinea was worth X5; while on the other hand, if the bills were sunk, the calling in of the loans would cause distress. The system honestly carried out would probably have been unobjectionable, if there had been grafted upon it the device discovered and adopted by modern bankers, of maintaining a coin reserve, which, if kept up continually to a proportion-often a small proportion- of the bills issued, will of itself avail for specie payment, and indicate by its decrease whether the issue is too large for the natural trade of the country, for which alone paper money is adapted.
Faulty though the measure was, however, it was at first a benefit. It gave a sound circulating medium. It established a bank at which enterprising men, able to furnish good security in property, could raise money at fair interest for further ventures. Besides, it supported the Government for our frugal forefathers without expense or taxation ; and this made the measure none the less popular, we may be sure, with an Assembly that, under the property qualifications of the day, was composed entirely of large freeholders.
But this last fact introduced a curious and new element of strength into the ever-recurring contest about supplies. In course of years, as the principal of the loan was called in, and the bills canceled according to law, the interest of the balance became insufficient for the support of Government, while the Colony was distressed by the forced reduction of the loans. Money became scarce, and new taxation became unpopular just when it became necessary. Lands fell in value, and the cry went up for a new issue of loans. But by this time the Lords of Trade had determined that no more acts for the issue of bills of credit should be passed. In some States, not in ours, they had fallen greatly in value, and the English merchants insisted that they would not be paid in depreciated paper. The Colonists were as obstinately determined that their sole banking and credit system should not be destroyed, and refused supplies by taxation unless a bill of credit act should be passed at the same time. The resident Governors usually stood by the Colonists, but dared not disobey instructions, and the records are full of correspondence on the subject, and of petitions and arguments made before the English authorities by the agents of the Colonies. Colonial jealousy of the land-tax grew with that of the Lords of Trade to bills of credit. As early as 1729, Governor Montgomerie was ordered to force a repeal in New York of the application of the interest on loans to the support of Government, and found it impossible.
In 1733, so much of the old issue in New Jersey had been called in that a new act for £40,000 more was passed, but though urged by the Governor was not approved for two years.
In 1737, Lewis Morris became Governor, coming into office after having had a bitter contest with the Assembly while Chief Justice, and determined to carry out the English instructions against further issue of bills of credit. In 1744, an Act of Parliament passed prohibiting any such new issue in New England, where the currency had fallen most in value, and the analogy of this act was pleaded by the Crown in New Jersey. The result was such a bitter fight between the legislature and Governor Morris that all supplies were refused by the Assembly for four years.
It is obvious that this question was not one of mere taxation, although the battle was always over the supply bill, and the people were thus taught, year by year, to regard the question of taxation for the support of English government as a vital issue. The real grievance was the sudden iron-bound reduction of the whole credit system of the Colony.
Had England remained at peace, a few years might possibly have settled the whole question. There would have been great distress, but the loans would have been paid, the bills canceled, taxes established for the support of Government, and then England might have imposed her excise without much difficulty. But it was not so to be. The struggles against the French and Indians into which the Colonies were drawn, rendered necessary a new issue of currency, and reopened the whole question of support by taxes as against support by interest paid to the Govern- mental Bank. As early as 1746, expeditions were fitted out for the West Indies and Canada by use of the interest on outstanding loans, and of the bills kept for the exchange of torn currency. In the next year, Governor Belcher took office, and though he did his best to reconcile the conflicting parties, the Colony was as inflexible as ever for a new loan. The amount outstanding did not supply interest enough to support the Government. The Colonists refused to tax themselves for that support in addition to the expenses of the war, which amounted to £15,402.
A proclamation under instructions closing all iron mills aggravated the contest. Only a small part of the expenses of the expedition was paid by England, and in 1754, the Colony stoutly refused all supplies unless they were allowed to loan £60,000.
The Lords of Trade consented on condition that the bills should not be made a legal tender, which the Assembly thought would make them useless. Legislation came to a dead lock. Petition after petition was sent, representing the care with which the State credit had been maintained. But with the outbreak of the French war in 1755-6, the contest ceased. The Colonists agreed that the bills should only be a legal tender to the State, and the tide of currency was let loose, both for war expenses and for loans. In 17557, £82,500 were issued; by 1758, £155,151, and by the close of the war, £347,500.
The Colony went gallantly and enthusiastically into the war and the defence of her more exposed neighbors. Her population was largely Quaker in origin, but non-resistance was a dying doctrine and destined wholly to fade away in the sorrows of the Revolution. It is a digression pardonable to State pride to refer to the records as to the mustering, equipment and good service of her troops, and especially to a letter of Governor Belcher reciting that from a population of 75,000, of all ages, including perhaps 15,000 men, reduced by the capture of Louisburgh, or in Canada, of two detachments of 500 each, few of whom had returned from French prisons to their native soil, the Colony had nevertheless sent out 1,000 more men by 1759, thoroughly clothed and equipped, and in a state of efficiency and supply that made them equal to 1,500 from other States, and had raised in two years £140,000 for the service, "a large sum for a community that has no foreign trade." From that day to the Centennial at Yorktown we have been proud of our militia and their fighting qualities.
Our aid was especially needed in New York, our then weaker neighbor, with a population of only 55,000, scattered along the Hudson and Mohawk ; and it was generously given. But after the war the reaction came. Taxes were unsparingly imposed to the amount of £15,000 a year, to sink the bills of credit, and by 1766, the debt had been reduced to about £190,000.
Then the ever-recurring question came up, whether the people in time of distress should be forced to pay off the loans on their farms, or whether new bills should be lent out as before. In the last case the Government would be supported by interest. In the first, taxes only could be relied on, lands being depreciated in price to half their value by the calling in of mortgages.
If England had then assumed even her own share of the expenses of the war, the question of separation might not have arisen. Instead of that, she tried to tax the Colonies. In 1771, the question came up flatly whether New Jersey would tax herself to support regiments of the line here. She refused. The States united, and the Revolution came with its storms of war and woe.
Taxes and money are a dry subject. But it has been interesting to discover that the Revolutionary motto, "No taxation without representation," was not a new cry, but an old grievance kept alive from generation to generation by its curious alliance with the struggle as to State banking and loans and all the evils of money legislation. On the other hand, we can look back at that Utopia when men were not under the tyranny of municipal assessments and debts; while we may congratulate ourselves in the possession of a sounder system of banking and credit, and that our politics, if less pure, are at least less bitterly earnest than those of our forefathers.