Charles B. Fillebrown
[Reprinted from the book, Natural Taxation,
Part I / The Authorities / Chapter 4]
In 1859 and 1860 Edwin Burgess published in the Racine Advocate of
Racine, Wisconsin, a series of letters on taxation in which he
advocated a single tax on land. The Mr. Burgess who was born in
London, settled at Racine during the forties and established a
successful business as merchant tailor. By those who knew him he is
described as "a man of liberal ideas in politics and religion,"
kindly and moderate, and "thoughtful in all things." He
revisited England in 1864 taking with him an edition of his letters.
Sometimes after his death, which occurred in 1869, his wife returned
to England and printed them in pamphlet form for distribution among
friends. Subsequently the letters seem to have been lost sight of,
until in 1908 they were reprinted at Auckland, New Zealand, in the
Liberator the well-known single-tax organ. In 1912, William S. Buffham
and Hyland Raymond, old friends of Mr. Burgess, again reprinted the
pamphlet in Racine where the letters were originally published.
The first letter described as follows the evils of attempting to tax
1st. Taxing people for their personal property -- on
their oath, is a premium on perjury, because those who lie the most
pay the least taxes, and children born under such influences will be
famous for lying -- if there is any connection between cause and
effect in the condition of parent and offspring.
2nd. The means of valuing or assessing are very expensive, thus
increasing the cost of government, as well as the cost of
3rd. Taxing personal property prevents production, because the tax,
being added to the article for sale, increases its price in
proportion to the means of buying. Hence, less is sold and less is
made, and the makers are less employed; and having, consequently,
less with which to buy, the makers of other things will be less
employed also -- and suffer much misery inconsequence....
4th. Taxing personal property is not only costly, corruptive, and
pauper-making, and promotive of misery and crime, but inquisitorial,
burdensome, and aggressive against our right to labor and enjoy the
fruit of our toil unmolested; as long as we injure no one, we should
be protected against aggression, instead of suffering aggression.
Are we not now taxed for the aggression instead of the protection
5th. Taxing people in proportion to their industry prevents
industry; because land and industrious person labors twelve hours
per day, successfully, he must pay twelve times as much taxes,
because he has made twelve times as much property to be taxed, as if
he had worked only one hour per day....
The second letter enlarges on the evils of taxing personal property;
the third, fourth, and fifth call attention to various anomalies in
the laws relating to that subject or in the administration of them.
The third letter concludes as follows:
We exempt railroad property from local taxes, and gas
property, and schools, churches, and banks; now, if it is good in
one case, I challenged anyone to show that it is not good in all.
Then away with your paltry special privilege legislating, and let us
have, instead, laws which, if universally applied, would cause the
most permanent prosperity for all; and though we can never do good
to the taxpayer by taxing him, let us be sure that we do him the
least possible injury; and that, I contend, the "ad valorem"
land tax will do, and no other forced tax whatsoever, for it is less
costly in valuation and collection, less corruptive and unequal, and
causes less pauperism, misery, and crime than any other tax; in
fact, is the only Free Trade Tax, and sets up no board of
inquisition on the industry of any man or woman..
The sixth letter considers federal taxation, and maintains that
neither customs duties nor "any tax on any product of industry"
can bring about an equal distribution of burdens. The seventh contains
the following significant paragraphs:
To illustrate the relative merits of the tariff and the
land tax, let us suppose, for example, that Racine exempted all
merchants and manufacturers' goods from taxes, and all grain, farm
produce, etc., and all people from poll tax and all improvements
from taxes, and put all the taxes on the land; and at the same time
Milwaukee and Kenosha exempted all land from taxes, and put all the
taxes on the farm produce and merchants' and manufacturers' goods
and improvements and poll tax, in fact, on all articles which are
exempt from taxes in Racine; where would the mechanics, merchants,
and manufacturers settle? If all other advantages were equal,
evidently where the goods were untaxed, because it would cost less
to commence and carry on manufactories, and they could sell goods
better also where no special tax raised the price of the article.
Where would the farmers go to sell their produce and by their goods?
Doubtless where neither was taxed, because they would obtain the
most money for their produce, and the most goods for their money.
Would not Racine grow rapidly while Milwaukee and Kenosha dwindled?
And will not this be true of any city, town, county, state, or
But where will the land speculators go? Will it not be where the
land is untaxed? Because there it will sell for the highest price,
while it cost nothing to keep the land idle and the man idle; there
the land monopolist might flourish -- but there it would be more
difficult to commence farming, because the land will be higher and
manufacturing also, not only because the land for the factory will
cost much more, but because of the higher special tax on the raw
material, and every implement for manufacturing it. And where the
land is untaxed, the land being higher, the rents will be higher
also, and it will be doubly difficult for the landless mechanic to
buy a lot for his house, and his rent will be high in proportion as
the land is high; and the high price and highly rents, instead of
defraying the expenses of government (as the land tax would do), go
to enrich the land monopolist at the cost of every landless
consumer; and by making and keeping people landless and dependent on
the monopolist for employment, and thus making the means of living
in the most uncertain, promote misery, pauperism, and crime, and
thus vastly increase the cost of government by increasing the taxes
for the prevention of crime and the support of paupers, criminals,
and their officers.
The land tax, unlike the tariff, would require no extra officers
for assessing and collecting revenue for the general government, as
the expenses would be defrayed by a percentage on the assessment for
State purposes, which would be transmitted to the general government
in the best manner.
The eighth and ninth letters show the advantages of placing "all
the taxes on the land alone, irrespective of all improvements."
Mr. Burgess says:
Now, I think I can show a much clearer case with the
land tax for revenue than any ream you there it to or protective
tariff whatsoever; for, while all the taxes are on the land, not
only does the land tax defray all the cost of the government, and
diminish the cost of government, but the land sells for the lowest
price also, instead of the highest, thus keeping the land within the
means of all, or at least the great majority of the people; so that
we have the greatest number of land-owning producers of food, who
having no rents to pay, can supply us with cheaper food minus the
rents, or divide what was hitherto paid in rents between the
producer and the consumer. And with the land at the lowest price,
rents would be the lowest also, and ultimately cease, so that the
rent hitherto paid by mechanics, laborers, merchants, and
manufacturers, would then be divided between the maker, the seller,
and the consumer.
For, with all the taxes on the land, it would not pay to keep it
idle; therefore speculation in land with soon cease and be
transferred to untaxed manufacturers or labor, which would increase
the demand and raise the wages of labor and reduce the profits of
capital and speculation; and at the same time we should create and
sustain the most permanent and profitable home market for produce
and manufactures, and settle forever that oft-mooted question of
political economists, how to realize the utmost economy in the
production and distribution of wealth; and in this way it could be
done with the least possible cost of government, and with the
protection of free commerce and free land instead of the violation
Then, when food becomes cheap in the country, from cheap land and
no tax on improvements, mechanics, manufacturers, and merchants can
go where food is cheapest whenever it will pay better than having
the food transported to them, as they will then have the increased
means, which were hitherto paid in rents, with which to travel. And
when farmers desire to settle near factories for the benefit of
market and exchange, they may be sure the land will never be high,
nor manufactures either; because the tax is on the land and not on
Edwin Burgess' pamphlet, likes so many other fugitive publications of
merit, seems to have produced no effects at the time, and probably was
soon forgotten by all except a few of the author's friends. Despite
faults of style and occasional vagaries of opinion, the pamphlet
exhibits in most strongest light the evils that result from the
taxation of products of human labor, and anticipates the main
proposals of the modern single tax philosophy.