Early American lawmakers taxed themselves -- unlike today's wealthy legislators
The founders weren’t exactly free traders. John Trumbull

The earliest American lawmakers were some of the richest men in the new republic, but they still taxed themselves to ensure economic opportunity for others.


Author Tom Shachtman published a column in The Daily Beast excerpting his new book, "The Founding Fortunes: How the Wealthy Paid For and Profited From America’s Revolution," that shows how those early U.S. lawmakers advanced economic opportunity in the years after the revolution.

"In the first Congress convened under the Constitution, in 1789, the legislators, still a relatively wealthy bunch, proved themselves just as committed as their predecessors were to three important fairness principles," Shachtman wrote. "First, that they represented their poor neighbors as well as their rich ones; second, that they must look out for the well-being of the poor; and third — in accordance with the first two — that all taxation must be progressive, falling more heavily on the wealthy than on the poor."

The first Congress debated a proposed tariff that Alexander Hamilton wanted to fund government operations, and the delegates placed the highest import fees on items used exclusively by the wealthy -- such as carriages -- and the least on items such as salt and sugar.

"Congress also approved, at Hamilton’s request, subsidies and rewards to immigrant skilled workers," Shachtman wrote. "A steady stream of 10 to 20 thousand from the British Isles, mostly from the lower classes, risked imprisonment in Great Britain for illegally crossing to America; they did so because they believed that in America it would be possible to one day fulfill their dreams and open their own workshops or stores or small manufactories, which the laws and traditions back home would never permit them to do."

Legislators also taxed themselves in 1798 to help pay for an army to counter a possible invasion by France.

"America’s wealthy legislators passed a highly progressive tax, one that exempted all property valued at under $100 — the majority of dwellings in the country — and levied steadily higher fees on properties that had many windows and on plantations that had many slaves," Shachtman wrote, "which meant that the legislators themselves would be paying the highest tabs."