A Federal Tax Collector in the Early Republic

It is April 15, “Tax Day,” and in the spirit of tax days past and present, we can look at a group of extraordinary documents relating to the 1798 Direct Federal Tax in the recently reprocessed and expanded Ebenezer Foote Papers (C0430), Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare books and Special Collections.

Ebenezer Foote (1756–1829), born in Connecticut, fought in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He was at the Battle of Bunker Hill, wintered at Valley Forge, and was taken prisoner during the disastrous Battle of Fort Washington.  In December 1777 he escaped from Bridewell Prison in New York City by swimming across the Hudson River to New Jersey.  It is not surprising that his health suffered from this event, but desiring to continue serving his country, he became an inspector of cattle in the Continental  Army’s Commissary Department, moving cattle from the countryside to West Point so that the beef could be distributed to sometimes starving troops.

After the American Revolution, Foote was given land in Delhi, New York, as partial compensation for his military service.  Soon after, Delaware County, in which Delhi was located, was formed and Foote became an influential citizen there, as politician, county clerk, land agent, and judge.  In 1798 he was assigned to be principal assessor of the first assessment district in the eighth division of the state of New York for the 1798 Direct Federal Tax.

The 1798 Direct Federal Tax resulted from the Quasi-War with France and the United States’ need to develop its military.  Thus, Congress placed into effect a two million dollar direct tax for property (and that includes slaves) for the sixteen states in the United States.  Foote and other assessors all across the new nation traveled throughout their districts assessing the dwelling houses, land, and slaves, and recording their information on eleven forms.

Among the most interesting items in the Ebenezer Foote Papers are these eleven forms, in varying degrees of completeness.  These are clearly not the official records submitted to the presidentially appointed Board of Commissioners, but since those records were not systematically collected or preserved, these may be the only such records for Delhi, New York.  In fact, according to the National Archives, only a few of the enormous number of official assessments are located and available for research.

Included among these assessments in the Ebenezer Foote Papers are the “Particular List or Description of each Dwelling-house,” the “Particular List or Description of all Lands, Lots, Buildings, and Wharves, owned, possessed, or occupied,” and the “Particular List of Slaves, owned or superintended.”  The houses are described best, with name of occupant, owner, situation, dimensions, windows, materials, quantity of land, age and state of repair of structure, and valuation of the property.  It is the slave lists, however, that are most disturbing. The names of the slaves are not recorded. We are only told who owned and superintended them, the town in which they were employed, the number of and genders of slaves owned, and, most important, the number of slaves above the age of 12 and under the age of 50 who were subject to taxation.  Slave owners were taxed fifty cents for each slave between the ages of 12 and 50 who was not precluded from working as a result of permanent illness or disability.  The assessments reveal that five of the thirteen slaves within the first assessment district of the eighth division of New Yorkwere subject to taxation.

Along with these tax documents, the Ebenezer Foote Papers is filled with official correspondence and business, legal, and financial records, which shed light on life the Early National Period.  For information about using these or any other collections in research, contact rbsc@princeton.edu.