What proportion of US government revenue (federal,state,local) came from taxes on slaves between 1790 and 1846?

I chose 1846 as the breakpoint because of the Walker Tariff; feel free to critique that choice.


Based on this paper (h/t to Brian Z), taxes on slaves did not seem to be important for the federal government during this period (unless they were subject to excise?).

This paper discusses "disputes about the taxation of slaves" and seems to imply that they were often taxed as property in southern states. It does not discuss relative magnitudes, but it is what motivated the question.

1 Answer 1


For its first seven decades the federal government was supported almost entirely by customs revenue, not taxes on slaves.

Slavery's most direct connection to taxation occurred at the state/local level via property taxation. Einhorn's work on this topic is very good. Additional sources on antebellum politics, slavery, and property taxation can be found in the bibliography of The Rise and Fall of Wealth Taxation -- a general work on US property taxation that includes some coverage of the connections between slavery and property taxation (it builds on Einhorn's work in that respect).

  • 2
    This answer seems to leave open the question of if the federal government received customs revenue on the import of slaves.
    – Dave
    Commented May 12, 2021 at 12:22
  • 3
    The US banned the import of slaves in 1807, so that rules out any customs revenue on slaves after 1808.
    – justCal
    Commented May 12, 2021 at 13:43
  • @Dave In addition to the ban on slave imports, there is the conceptual matter. My sense is that 19th century Americans would not have placed slaves in the bucket of things appropriate to tax via tariff. In terms of the economic magnitude, slaves were wealth and the appropriate fiscal mechanism was property taxation. I have not investigated the narrow question directly (it's possible that somewhere in colonial or early republic, a small bit of customs revenue from slave imports existed), but it's just not a significant thing one sees in the literature on the history of US taxation.
    – FMc
    Commented May 12, 2021 at 16:00
  • @FMc I don't think you are correct on that score. Slaves were taxed via customs duties and probably made up a non-trivial share of that (since only imports and not exports were taxable and mostly the early U.S. was a net exporter of ordinary goods per the triangular trade).
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 13, 2021 at 7:01
  • 1
    Thanks @FMc, I will mark this as the answer in a few days just to let the question "breathe."
    – capet
    Commented May 13, 2021 at 14:49

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