The Historical Origins of the Estate Tax

By December 5, 2009General, Taxation

The House of Representatives last week passed H.R. 4154, making the estate tax permanent. By chance, the book we started reading the next day provides historical context about Congress’ action.

From “THE OFFSHORE ISLANDERS: Rutland’s People from Roman Occupation to the Present” by Paul Johnson, the chapter, “This Realm is an Empire,” dealing with 11th-13th century England:

When the medieval State was strong, foreigners were safe; the moment the Crown relaxed its grip, their lives and property were at risk. Alien trading communities had always to be placed under the personal safeguard of the King.

The Jews were a case in point. They were, in a legal sense, the property of the Crown, which systematically ‘farmed’ them. They alone, in theory at least, were allowed to lend money at interest (at rates usually around 50 per cent, but sometimes up to 66f). The King could tallage them at will, and at death their property reverted to the Crown, or could be possessed by the heirs only on payment of a heavy percentage fine.

Our emphasis. And, really, we’re not too serious about those historical roots. Everyone knows it was Caligula who really perfected the death tax a millennium earlier. (Suetonius, “The Lives of the 12 Caesars.”)

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