The origins of the property tax aren’t American at all. It, instead, has roots that date back to Europe’s feudal system. First instituted in England by William the Conqueror in 1066, the early tax system worked this way: A king (or conqueror) took over all the land in a given territory. He would then divide it among his lieutenants and supporters, who would pay him (with money or services) in order to keep that land. In return, landholders enjoyed the king’s protection and were able to rent the property out to others—who would live and work the land—for a fee. The punishment for nonpayment was forfeiture of the land, which could result in a considerable loss of money and status. At the time, this system was called “free and common socage,” according to John Joseph Wallis, an economic historian at the University of Maryland. The person who held the land was called a socman, his taxes, socage. The arrangement created a way for people to own land while still having to remain loyal to the crown, which also had rights to the land.
After expansion across the Atlantic started, King James made sure that this system traveled overseas with the first settlers at Jamestown, so that he could partake in the profits of exploration of the new land. The charter of the Virginia Company held that—as in feudal times—the king would protect the lands in Jamestown, and in return, the people living on the land would pay him a share of their profits there. All land of the colony would be held in “free and common socage,” according to the Virginia Company charter. This meant that land could be bought and sold in the colonies, as long as the new holder of land continue to pay the king.
It’s a peculiar note of history that the founding fathers, who spoke often of abolishing the feudal system, kept this remnant of the Old World. But the rationale is very simple: They needed the money. In fact, the federal government levied a national property tax in 1798, 1814, 1815, 1816, and 1861. The tax in 1798, for example, charged households for their slaves (50 cents), houses, and land. It raised $2 million, according to Wallis. These taxes usually outraged residents, who would often revolt, but the system of collecting property tax remained. That’s because property taxes were locally spent and collected in the beginning, and often paid for things like roads and canals that property owners would be able to see, and that increased the value of their property.
If indeed property taxes are the most hated tax for Americans, I wonder if residents would prefer the alternatives. One advantage of the property tax is that the monies are often spent closer to home, usually on local school districts and municipal services. Eliminate the property tax and taxes may be collected by governmental groups further way that have fewer responsibilities to local residents. Americans may not like property taxes but they do like local control.