The conditions under which the fiscal systems of the American colonies developed possess a number of distinctive features. Land was never held under a feudal regime, but could always be bought and sold, so the fiscal systems were not modified by a transition to private ownership. Some payments of the officials in earlier Colonial history resembled, somewhat, the older feudal payments. Such were a part of the products of the soil which were occasionally collected.
Another situation peculiar to the colonies was that they were not free to shape a fiscal system which did not conform to the ideas of the Mother country. The lack of uniformity in industrial pursuits, moreover, made a uniform development of tax measures a circumstance not to be expected. Consequently, the early fiscal development corresponds, somewhat, to the economic characteristics which distinguish one section of the colonies from the others.
Northern Colonies. - Where definite forms of property developed, this was taken as an indication of ability to pay taxes, and some form of a property tax was found. In some cases specific articles were stipulated as the base upon which taxes were to be levied, as land, horses, or cattle; in others, all forms of property were taken as the base. The latter condition gradually became prevalent as more and more objects were added to the taxable list in those localities where only specific forms of property had been taxed.
The above method of securing revenue is best illustrated in the Northern colonies, although it was not entirely con-. fined to them. Even there it was frequently supplemented with other sources of revenue. In the use of property as a base, the attempt was made to arrive at the taxpaying ability of the citizens, and a number of the early laws state that the measure was adopted in order to meet the ability to bear taxes. It was on this ground that the extension of the list of taxable property was justified, as well as the inclusion of professional classes, such as lawyers, doctors, and others whose incomes were of such a nature as to enable a tax burden to be met. Some use was also made of different forms of indirect taxes, but it was of little importance when compared with the taxes on property. Frequently, also, poll taxes were found.
Middle and Southern Colonies. - Economic conditions of the Middle and Southern colonies differed from those of the Northern group. Commerce developed much earlier, and continued to be more active. The small farm of the North gave way to the large plantation of the South. It was the difference between a general ownership of land and a small property-holding class. This class, as might be expected, was not in favor of land bearing the tax burdens, and other measures were sought. The poll tax received early consideration and was extensively used. A uniform levy was at first adopted, but the injustice soon became so glaring that the kind and amount of property owned was considered in making the levy. The poll tax was also considered as a lien against property. The system was so unsatisfactory, however, that indirect taxes were used extensively. These took the form of export duties as well as import duties.
In the middle group of colonies trade developed almost at the beginning, and was the logical source of obtaining revenue. Consumption duties were levied as well as import and export duties. These did not take care of all the needs, and resort had to be made to other sources of revenue. Under the Dutch rule of Peter Stuyvesant in New York, for example, an "honest and fair tax" was placed upon "land, houses, or lots, and milch cows or draft oxen." Property taxes gradually increased in importance in this group of colonies, and at the time of the Revolution they were firmly embedded as a fundamental part of the fiscal system of all the colonies. These taxes centered around land, and the importance of its ownership was intensified in some colonies by making the full rights of citizenship dependent upon the possession of a certain quantity of land.