J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Taxation and Representation in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts

As I wrote yesterday in my discussion of Tricking the Tallyman, New Englanders were familiar with population counts before the first federal census of 1790. They had also been paying poll taxes and property taxes for decades, with town officials collecting that money, some for local expenses and some for the province.

The U.S. Constitution was new in how it allocated seats in the House of Representatives according to population. The Massachusetts constitution of 1780 had moved toward that system in a couple of ways, but was still based on older models of fairness. Here’s what constituted “representation” in the eighteenth-century Massachusetts legislature.

Under the pre-Revolutionary charter, every ordinary town in the province could choose two representatives to the lower house of the General Court. Very small towns with fewer than 120 voters could send one man. Boston could choose four. The choosing was done at special town meetings, and voters had to satisfy a somewhat higher property require than in the annual votes for town officials in March.

Boston got the extra representatives because it was three times larger than the next biggest town in Massachusetts (Marblehead). However, since Boston got only twice as many representatives as a town of 200 people, that left the 15,000+ Bostonians proportionally underrepresented.

On the other hand, small towns far away from Boston often chose to send only one man to the General Court, or none at all, because of the expense. As I noted back here, the supposedly unofficial first Provincial Congress of 1774 attracted representatives from more towns than the official General Court earlier that year.

The 1780 constitution tried to even out representation among the towns by making seats in the lower house approximately proportional to town size. That document, drafted by John Adams, said:

And in order to provide for a representation of the citizens of this commonwealth, founded upon the principle of equality, every corporate town containing one hundred and fifty ratable polls [i.e., voters], may elect one representative; every corporate town containing three hundred and seventy-five ratable polls, may elect two representatives; every corporate town containing six hundred ratable polls, may elect three representatives; and proceeding in that manner, making two hundred and twenty-five ratable polls the mean increasing number for every additional representative.
That constitution also created a state senate, reflecting Adams’s insistence on politics as an ongoing competition between the one, the few, and the many. (He liked dividing things into thirds, remember.) Men with an “annual income of three pounds” could vote for representatives, but they needed an estate worth sixty pounds to vote for senator.

Further complicating matters, men didn’t vote for senators but for “senators and councillors.” At the start of each annual session, the legislature chose a Council of nine men to advise the governor. Those men were supposed to come from the pool of elected senators and councilors, though the legislature could on a second ballot choose from the public at large. As a result, the Massachusetts senate as originally conceived could contain anywhere from thirty-one to forty men.

And how were those forty senators and councilors chosen? Not by towns but by districts, which the legislature was expected to draw after starting with Massachusetts’s counties:
the general court, in assigning the numbers to be elected by the respective districts, shall govern themselves by the proportion of the public taxes paid by the said districts
So senators’ numbers reflected the wealth of their districts rather than the population. Further provisions indicated that one district could be wealthy enough to choose six senators while the other twelve had two or three apiece.

Of course, all that’s been revised long ago. Today, for instance, we elect members of the governor’s council directly, though no one’s really sure why. And nowadays we’re so used to legislative districts being drawn on the basis of population, and approximately equal by that measure, that these rules seem odd and unfair. But it wasn’t until the Kennedy administration that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that members of state legislative bodies each had to represent about the same number of people.

(The picture above of the Old State House in 1817 comes courtesy of Salem State University.)

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