Napoleon and Taxes

Income tax is a fact of life these days for nearly everyone, but it was not practiced everywhere until quite recently. In Roman times, there was a standard 1% tax on property and wealth, which sometimes increased due to war. Later, taxes were demanded to help pay for the crusades, the most principal example being the Saladin Tithe raised by Henry II to help finance the Second Crusader in 1188. You can see a pattern emerging, where nations need to raise taxes in order to finance their military endeavours. Here we see the first 'modern' example, in 1799.

British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger needed to raise money to fight the Napoleonic Wars, so in his budget of 1799 he tabled the first income tax, set at 2 old pence in the pound on incomes over £60, increasing to two shillings for incomes over £200. This tax was badly needed, as the British government was saddled with debt from its many wars and failed commercial ventures, such as debt from the bailout of the South Sea Company, which the British government only recently announced that it planned to pay off.

British cartoon from the time of William Pitt's original income tax. James Gilray, 1799 

This tax was not on the books for long though, being removed at the Peace of Amiens; only to be reinstated a year later, in 1803. Following the Battle of Waterloo, it was removed again, with the plan being only to reinstate it in times of war. Of course this didn't work and income tax was reinstated by Sir Robert Peel in 1841, and has remained a facet of daily life ever since.

Remember though that this tax was originally instated because of the exploits of a certain Corsican artillery officer, so next time you think of Napoleon, remember that he is at least partly responsible for your tax bill.