Blame the Car Tax on George Washington

January 27 2024

by William Page Johnson, II

It is ironic that a country founded on freedom from oppression in the form of taxes, as a new nation the country also faced its own crisis involving taxes.

picture of woodcut depicting four-wheeled carriage from 1700s
A four-wheeled carriage manned by a coachman and footman at the back. Woodcut, 17

In 1765, and short on cash after the Seven Years War, the British parliament began instituting a series of taxes on their colonists. A tax on all imported paper products – The Stamp Act – was imposed that year followed quickly by the Townshend Duties in 1767 – which imposed a tax on just about everything else imported from Britain. These measures so infuriated the American colonists that local leaders in every colony passed non-importation resolutions.

In June 1770, the Virginia House of Burgesses, whose members included George Washington, of Mount Vernon, and Richard Henry Lee, of Sully, Fairfax County, drafted similar resolutions:

“…the subscribers will not hereafter, directly or indirectly, import or cause to be imported from Great Britain, or any part of Europe… any of the goods herein after enumerated: spirits, wine, cider, perry, beer, ale, malt, barley, peas, beef, pork, fish, butter, cheese, tallow, candles, oil, fruit, sugar, pickles, confectionary, pewter, hoes, axes, watches, clocks, tables, chairs, looking glasses, carriages, joiners and cabinet-work of all sorts, upholstery of all sorts, trinkets and jewellery, plate and gold and silversmith’s work of all sorts, ribbon and millinery of all sorts, lace of all sorts, India goods of all sorts except spices, silks of all sorts except sewing silk, cambrick, lawn, muslin… hats, stockings (plaid and Irish hose excepted), shoes and boots, saddles and all manufacturers of leather and skins of all kinds, until the late Acts of Parliament imposing duties on tea, paper, glass, etc. for the purpose of raising a revenue in America are repealed…

All this uproar resulted in a war against Britain that lasted ten years – a war through which a fledgling American Army was led by George Washington.

bottle of whiskey from 1700s
Photo: Mount Vernon Ladies Association

After the Revolutionary War, the newly formed United States of America found itself in the same predicament that the British faced in 1765 – we were broke! President George Washington, who owned the largest distillery in America at the time, was personally opposed to the whiskey tax. However, in 1794 to raise money for the Federal treasury, and at the urging of his Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton (yes, that Hamilton), Washington recommended a tax on whiskey and horse-drawn carriages to Congress.

Hardly anyone noticed the tax on carriages because almost immediately citizens were quite literally up-in-arms, in what became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. Whiskey in those days was like gold. In addition to its obvious use as a consumable, it was widely used to barter. Many Virginia families, particularly in the southwest, operated small stills.

However, Richmond, VA resident Daniel Hylton, didn’t care much about whiskey. He was, however, apparently deeply concerned with the new annual tax of $16 on his carriages. Hylton was understandably upset. According to one estimate, the average annual income in 1794 was just $65. The new tax on carriages constituted 25% of that income.

drawing of people
Tarring and feathering a tax collector during the Whiskey Rebellion. Photo: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In 1796, Hylton, who was also Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia under Governor Thomas Jefferson, filed suit against the United States and the Carriage Tax, claiming it was unconstitutional. In Hylton v. United States, Alexander Hamilton came out of retirement and successfully defended his brainchild. The United States Supreme Court unanimously agreed with Hamilton that the Carriage Act was constitutional because the carriage tax was a permissible excise tax, rather than a direct tax that needed to be apportioned among the states.

This landmark case is widely considered as the first test case of the constitutionality of an act of Congress. 

The fight against the Car Tax (aka Carriage Tax) continues to this day. In December 2023, in a speech before the Virginia General Assembly, Virginia Governor, Glenn Youngkin, renewed the call for the elimination of the personal property tax, aka Car Tax.

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