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Tax per head

A poll tax (head tax or capitation tax, in U.S. English) is a tax of a portioned, fixed amount applied to an individual in accordance with the census (as opposed to a percentage of income). Head taxes were important sources of revenue for many governments from ancient times until the 19th century. There have been several famous (and infamous) cases of head taxes in history, notably in parts of the United States with the intent of disenfranchising poor people, including African Americans, Native Americans, and white people of foreign descent. The tax was marginal, but payment of the tax would be a prerequisite for minority voting. In the United Kingdom, poll taxes were levied by the governments of John of Gaunt in the 14th century, Charles II in the 17th and Margaret Thatcher in the 20th century.

The word poll is an English word that once meant "head" - and still does, in some specialized contexts - hence the name poll tax for a per-person tax. In the United States, however, the term has come to be used almost exclusively for a fixed tax that had to be paid in order to vote. Since "going to the polls" is today a common idiom for voting in many countries (deriving from the fact that voting was carried out by counting heads, or "polls"), a new folk etymology has supplanted common knowledge of the phrase's true origins in U.S. English.


  • Mosaic law 1
  • Roman Empire 2
  • Islamic law 3
  • England and Scotland 4
    • 14th century 4.1
    • 17th century 4.2
    • United Kingdom 4.3
  • France 5
  • Russia 6
  • United States 7
    • Capitation and federal taxation 7.1
  • New Zealand 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11

Mosaic law

As prescribed in Exodus (30: 11-16) Jewish law imposed a poll tax of half-shekel, payable by every man above the age of twenty ("the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less").

Exodus 30:11-16: 11 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 12 When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the LORD, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them. 13 This they shall give, every one that passeth among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary: (a shekel is twenty gerahs:) an half shekel shall be the offering of the LORD. 14 Every one that passeth among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering unto the LORD. 15 The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when they give an offering unto the LORD, to make an atonement for your souls. 16 And thou shalt take the atonement money of the children of Israel, and shalt appoint it for the service of the tabernacle of the congregation; that it may be a memorial unto the children of Israel before the LORD, to make an atonement for your souls. (Authorized Version)

The money was designated for the Tabernacle in the Exodus narrative and later for the upkeep of the Temple of Jerusalem. Priests, women, slaves and minors were exempted, although they could offer it voluntarily. Payment by Samaritans or Gentiles was rejected. It was collected yearly during the month of Adar, both at the Temple and at special collection bureaux in the provinces.

Roman Empire

The ancient Romans imposed a tributum capitis (poll tax) as one of the principal direct taxes on the peoples of the Roman provinces (Digest 50, tit.15). In the Republican period, poll taxes were principally collected by private tax farmers (publicani), but from the time of Emperor Augustus, the collections were gradually transferred to magistrates and the senates of provincial cities. The Roman census was conducted periodically in the provinces to draw up and update the poll tax register.

The Roman poll tax fell principally on Roman subjects in the provinces, but not on Roman citizens. Towns in the provinces who possessed the Jus Italicum (enjoying the "privileges of Italy") were exempted from the poll tax. The 212 edict of Emperor Caracalla which formally conferred Roman citizenship on all residents of Roman provinces, did not however exempt them from the poll tax.

The Roman poll tax was deeply resented - Tertullian bewailed the poll tax as a "badge of slavery" - and it provoked numerous revolts in the provinces. Perhaps most famous is the Zealot revolt in Judaea of 66 AD. After the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, the Emperor imposed an extra poll tax on Jews throughout the empire, the fiscus judaicus, of two denari each.

The Italian revolt of the 720s, organized and led by Pope Gregory II, was originally provoked by the attempt of the Constantinople Emperor Leo III the Isaurian to introduce a poll tax in the Italian provinces of the Byzantine Empire in 722, and set in motion the permanent separation of Italy from the Byzantine empire. When King Aistulf of the Lombards availed himself of the Italian dissent and invaded the Exarchate of Ravenna in 751, one of his first acts was to institute a crushing poll tax of one gold solidus per head on every Roman citizen. Seeking relief from this burden, Pope Stephen II appealed to Pepin the Short of the Franks for assistance, that led to the establishment of the Papal States in 756.

Islamic law

Jizya is a poll tax imposed under Islamic law on non-Muslims - specifically, the dhimmi ("People of the Book", i.e. Jews and Christians). The tax is levied on free-born abled-bodied men of military age. The poor are exempt, as well as those who are not independent or wealthy, such as slaves, women, children, the old, the sick, monks and hermits.

There are several legal rationales for the jizya (and its equivalent land tax, the kharaj). The common argument is that jizya was a fee in exchange for the dhimma (permission to practice one's faith, enjoy communal autonomy, and to be entitled to Muslim protection from outside aggression). Other rationales assume such rights were every person's birthright (Muslim or non-Muslim), and the imposition of jizya on non-Muslims similar to the imposition of zakat (one of the Five Pillars of Islam, an obligatory wealth tax paid on certain assets which are not used productively for a period of a year) on Muslims.

Although jizya is designated as a poll tax, its assessment and collection is often qualified by income. For instance, dirhams for the rich, 24 for middle class and 12 for the poor.[1]

In 1855, the Ottoman Empire abolished the jizya tax, as part of reforms to equalize the status of Muslims and non-Muslims. It was replaced, however, by a military-exemption tax on non-Muslims, the Bedel-i Askeri.

England and Scotland

The poll tax was essentially a lay subsidy (a tax on the movable property of most of the population) to help fund war. It had first been levied in 1275 and continued, under different names, until the 17th century. People were taxed a percentage of the assessed value of their movable goods. That percentage varied from year to year and place to place, and which goods could be taxed differed between urban and rural locations. Churchmen were exempt, as were the poor, workers in the Royal Mint, inhabitants of the Cinque Ports, tin workers in Cornwall and Devon, and those who lived in the Palatinate counties of Cheshire and Durham.

14th century

The Hilary Parliament, held between January and March 1377, levied a poll tax in 1377 to finance the war against France at the request of John of Gaunt who, since King Edward III was mortally sick, was the de facto head of government at the time. This tax covered almost 60% of the population, far more than lay subsidies had earlier. It was levied two more times after 1377, in 1379 and 1381. Each time the taxation basis was slightly different. In 1377, every lay person over the age of 14 years who was not a beggar had to pay a groat (4d) to the Crown. By 1379 that had been graded by social class, with the lower age limit changed to 16, and to 15 two years later. The levy of 1381 operated under a combination of both flat rate and graduated assessments. The minimum amount payable was set at 4d, however tax collectors had to account for a 12d a head mean assessment. Payments were therefore variable; the poorest in theory would pay the lowest rate with the deficit being met by a higher payment from those able to afford it. The 1381 tax has been credited as one of the main reasons behind the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, due in part to attempts to restore feudal conditions in rural areas.

17th century

The poll tax was resurrected during the 17th century, usually related to a military emergency. It was imposed by Charles I in 1641 to finance the raising of the army against the Scottish and Irish uprisings. With the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the Convention Parliament of 1660 instituted a poll tax to finance the disbanding of the New Model Army (pay arrears, etc.) (12 Charles II c.9).[2] The poll tax was assessed according to "rank", e.g. dukes paid £100, earls £60, knights £20, esquires £10. Eldest sons paid 2/3rds of their father's rank, widows paid a third of their late husband's rank. The members of the livery companies paid according to company's rank (e.g. masters of first-tier guilds like the Mercers paid £10, whereas masters of fifth-tier guilds, like the Clerks, paid 5 shillings). Professionals also paid differing rates, e.g. physicians (£10), judges (£20), advocates (£5), attorneys (£3), and so on. Anyone with property (land, etc.) paid 40 shillings per £100 earned, anyone over the age of 16 and unmarried paid 12-pence and everyone else over 16 paid 6-pence.

The poll tax was imposed again by William and Mary in 1689 (1 Will. & Mar. c.13), reassessed in 1690 adjusting rank for fortune, and then again in 1691 back to rank irrespective of fortune. The poll tax was imposed again in 1692, and one final time in 1698 (the last poll tax in England until the 20th century). A poll tax was imposed on Scotland between 1694 and 1699.

As the greater weight of the 17th century poll taxes fell primarily upon the wealthy and powerful, it was not too unpopular. There were grumblings within the taxed ranks about lack of differentiation by income within ranks. Ultimately, it was the inefficiency of their collection - what they brought in routinely fell far short of expected revenues - that prompted the government to abandon the poll tax after 1698.

Far more controversial was the hearth tax introduced in 1662 (13 & 14 Charles II c.10), which imposed a hefty two shillings on every hearth in a family dwelling (which was easier to count than persons). Heavier, more permanent and more regressive than the poll tax proper, the intrusive entry of tax inspectors into private homes to count hearths was a very sore point, and it was promptly repealed with the Glorious Revolution in 1689. It was replaced with a "window tax" in 1695 (inspectors could count windows from outside homes).

United Kingdom

The poll tax, officially known as the "Community Charge", was a tax to fund local government in the United Kingdom, instituted in 1989 by the government of Margaret Thatcher. It replaced the rates that were based on the notional rental value of a house. The abolition of rates was in the manifesto of Thatcher's Conservative Party in the 1979 general election, and the replacement was proposed in the Green Paper of 1986, Paying for Local Government based on ideas developed by Dr Madsen Pirie and Douglas Mason of the Adam Smith Institute. It was a fixed tax per adult resident, but there was a reduction for those with lower household income. Each person was to pay for the services provided in their community. This proposal was contained in the Conservative Manifesto for the 1987 General Election. The new tax replaced the rates in Scotland from the start of the 1989/90 financial year, and in England and Wales from the start of the 1990/91 financial year.

The system was unpopular. Many thought it shifted the tax burden from the rich to the poor, as it was based on the number of people living in a house rather than on the house's estimated price. Many tax rates set by local councils proved to be much higher than earlier predictions; this lead to resentment, even among some who had supported it. The tax in different boroughs differed because local taxes paid by businesses varied and grants by central government to local authorities sometimes varied capriciously.

Mass protests were called by the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation, with which the vast majority of local Anti Poll Tax Unions (APTUs) were affiliated. In Scotland the APTUs called for mass non-payment and these calls rapidly gathered widespread support which spread to England and Wales, even though non-payment meant that people could be prosecuted. In some areas, 30 percent of former ratepayers defaulted. While owner-occupiers were easy to tax, those who regularly changed accommodation were almost impossible to pursue if they chose not to pay. The cost of collecting the tax rose steeply while the returns from it fell. Unrest grew and resulted in a number of Poll Tax Riots. The most serious was in a protest at Trafalgar Square, London, on 31 March 1990, of more than 200,000 protesters. A Labour MP, Terry Fields, was jailed for 60 days for refusing to pay his poll tax.

This unrest led, in part, to the end of Thatcher's premiership. Her successor, John Major, replaced the poll tax with the Council Tax, similar to the rating system that preceded the Poll Tax. The main differences were that it was levied on capital value rather than notional rental value of a property, and that it had a 25 percent discount for single-occupancy dwellings.


In France, a poll tax, the capitation, was first imposed by King Louis XIV in 1695 as a temporary measure to finance the War of the League of Augsburg, and thus repealed in 1699. It was resumed during the War of Spanish Succession and in 1704 set on a permanent basis, remaining until the end of the Ancien regime.

Like the English poll tax, the French capitation tax was assessed on rank – for taxation persons, French society was divided in twenty-two "classes", with the Dauphin (a class by himself) paying 2,000 livres, princes of the blood paying 1500 livres, and so on down to the lowest class, composed of day laborers and servants, who paid 1 livre each. The bulk of the common population was covered by four classes, paying 40, 30, 10 and 3 livres respectively. Unlike most other direct French taxes, nobles and clergy were not exempted from capitation taxes. It did, however, exempt the mendicant orders and the poor who contributed less than 40 sous.

The French clergy managed to temporarily escape capitation assessment by promising to pay a total sum of 4 million livres per annum in 1695, and then obtained permanent exemption in 1709 with a lump sum payment of 24 million livres. The Pays d'états (Brittany, Burgundy, etc.) and many towns also escaped assessment by promising annual fixed payments. The nobles did not escape assessment, but they obtained the right to appoint their own capitation tax assessors, which allowed them to escape most of the burden (in one calculation, they escaped ⅞ of it).

Compounding the burden, the assessment on the capitation did not remain stable. The pays de taille personelle (basically, Pays d'élection, the bulk of France and Aquitaine) secured the ability to assess the capitation tax proportionally to the taille - which effectively meant adjusting the burden heavily against the lower classes. According to the estimates of Jacques Necker in 1788, the capitation tax was so riddled in practice, that the privileged classes (nobles and clergy and towns) were largely exempt, while the lower classes were heavily crushed: the lowest peasant class, originally assessed to pay 3 livres, were now paying 24, the second lowest, assessed at 10 livres, were now paying 60 and the third-lowest assessed at 30 were paying 180. The total collection from the capitation, according to Necker in 1788, was 41 million livres, well short of the 54 million estimate, and it was projected that the revenues could have doubled if the exemptions were revoked and the original 1695 assessment properly restored.

The old capitation tax was repealed with the French Revolution and replaced, in November 23, 1790, with a new poll tax as part of the contribution personnelle mobilière, which lasted well into the late 19th century. It was fixed for every individual at "three days's labor" (assessed locally, but by statute, no less than 1 franc 50 centimes and no more than 4 francs 50 centimes, depending on the area). A dwelling tax (impôt sur les portes et fenêtres, similar to the English window-tax) was imposed in 1791.


Russia imposed a poll tax in 1718.[3]

United States

Receipt for payment of poll tax, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, 1917 (the $1 tax would be equal to $18.41 today)

In U.S. practice, payment of the poll tax was used as a pre-condition of the exercise of the ability to vote. After the ability to vote was extended to all races by the enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment, many Southern states enacted poll tax laws as a means of restricting eligible voters; such laws often included a grandfather clause, which allowed any adult male whose father or grandfather had voted in a specific year prior to the abolition of slavery to vote without paying the tax. These laws, along with unfairly implemented literacy tests and extra-legal intimidation,[4] achieved the desired effect of disenfranchising African-American, as well as poor whites. Often in US discussions, "poll tax," is used to mean a tax that must be paid in order to vote, rather than a capitation tax simply.

Capitation and federal taxation

The capitation clause of Article I of the United States Constitution, reads: "No capitation, or other direct, tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the census or enumeration herein before directed to be taken." Capitation here means a tax of a uniform, fixed amount per taxpayer.[5] Direct tax means a tax levied directly by the United States federal government on taxpayers, as opposed to a tax on events or transactions.[6] The United States government levied direct taxes from time to time during the 18th and early 19th centuries. It levied direct taxes on the owners of houses, land, slaves and estates in the late 1790s but cancelled the taxes in 1802.

An income tax is neither a poll tax nor a capitation, as the amount of tax will vary from person to person, depending on each person's income. Until a United States Supreme Court decision in 1895, all income taxes were deemed to be excises (i.e., indirect taxes). The Revenue Act of 1861 established the first income tax in the United States, to pay for the cost of the American Civil War. This income tax was abolished after the war, in 1872. Another income tax statute in 1894 was overturned in Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co. in 1895, where the Supreme Court held that income taxes on income from property, such as rent income, interest income, and dividend income (but not income taxes on income from wages, employment, etc.) were to be treated as direct taxes. Because the statute in question had not apportioned income taxes on income from property by population, the statute was ruled unconstitutional. Finally, ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1913 made possible modern income taxes, by placing the income tax firmly in the class of indirect excises - thus needing no apportionment,[7] [8] a practice that would remain unchanged into the 21st century.

In an editorial published by the Wall Street Journal in 2012, historian and author Dr. Paul Moreno argued that the requirement of all Americans to purchase health insurance or face a penalty could be construed as a direct tax that must be apportioned and thus unconstitutional. Chief Justice John Roberts rejected this reasoning and this rationale was not cited in any dissenting Justice's opinions.[9]

New Zealand

The numbers of the Chinese immigration went from 20,000 a year to 8 people after the government-imposed "head tax". New Zealand imposed a poll tax on Chinese immigrants during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The poll tax was effectively lifted in the 1930s following the invasion of China by Japan, and was finally repealed in 1944. Prime Minister Helen Clark offered New Zealand's Chinese community an official apology for the poll tax on 12 February 2002.[10]

See also


  1. ^ Mannan Islamic Economics: Theory and Practice, p.247
  2. ^ Statutes of the Realm, vol. v, p.207-225
  3. ^ Vidal-Naquet, Pierre (1987). The Collins Atlas of World History. Great Britain: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd. p. 178.  
  4. ^
  5. ^  
  6. ^  
  7. ^ "BRUSHABER v. UNION PACIFIC R. CO., 240 U.S. 1 (1916)". FindLaw : Supreme Court. FindLaw. 
  8. ^ "STANTON v. BALTIC MINING CO, 240 U.S. 103 (1916)". FindLaw : Supreme Court. FindLaw. 
  9. ^ "PAUL MORENO: A SHORT HISTORY OF CONGRESS'S POWER TO TAX - THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (07/06/2012)". The Wall STreet Journal (7/6/2012). Dow Jones & Company. 
  10. ^  

External links

  • Middle Ages Poll Tax
  • Pictures by Paul Ross, who witnessed the riots
  • The battle that brought down Thatcher - a perspective by the Trotskyist Militant tendency
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