I recently had someone make the claim that several of the Framers of the U.S. Constitution would have likely agreed with an estate or inheritance tax. This theory was backed up by a few quotes from Jefferson, (who was generally very anti-tax) Madison and Washington. This theory contradicts much of what these men wrote on the general subject of taxation.

The following is a quote that Jefferson liked to cite, to justify this theory:

A power to dispose of estates for ever is manifestly absurd. The earth and the fulness of it belongs to every generation, and the preceding one can have no right to bind it up from posterity. Such extension of property is quite unnatural.

— Adam Smith

Adam Smith: Lectures on Justice, Police, Revenue and Arms (1763)

In Jefferson's own words -

I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self evident, "that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living": that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by an individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society.

Jefferson to Madison, Sept 6, 1789

My question is:
What evidence exists that the Founders may have supported or rejected the idea of an inheritance or estate tax? From a Classical Liberal stance based on Natural Rights, would this form of taxation be considered "moral" or "just"?

Answers can include writings, quotes, speeches etc., by the Founders listed above as well as, from others such as Samuel Adams, George Mason, John Jay or others. Any of the signers of the Declaration of Independence or any of the Framers of the Constitution as well as any of the philosophers who influenced them will be considered legitimate sources for making the case.

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    Inheritance taxes weren't possible until the Sixteenth Amendment, although property taxes certainly were assessed on inherited properties. – Ben Voigt Feb 21 at 4:36
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    I don't get the "Founding Fathers" argument. If anything, they supported democracy. That means the living get to vote, not the dead. And the Founding Fathers are now all dead. – MSalters Feb 21 at 12:08
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    This looks very relevant. – Brian Z Feb 21 at 16:57
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    @Aporter I'm pretty sure that they never warned about climate change, loss of species, copyrights lasting 100+ years, nuclear waste disposal, space junk, LGBT rights, or opioids. And while they had some ideas about racial tensions, they were pretty far from really understanding how the slavery they wrote into the Constitution was going to affect multiple generations' wealth, education, and social standing. – David Rice Feb 22 at 15:42
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    @JamesK - that is Smith (Lectures on Jurisprudence at 468). – PoloHoleSet Feb 26 at 0:06

The following articles1 2 state that founding fathers who supported estate taxes include Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Adam Smith, and Thomas Paine (as Aporter points out, de Tocqueville and Smith are not precisely founding fathers. Tocqueville was an early 1800's American thinker who was not alive during the signing of the Constitution, and Adam Smith was a Scot whose writings were highly influential for the founding fathers).

And Thomas Jefferson, who described "The Wealth of Nations" as "the best book extant" on political economy, famously wondered at about the same time whether all hereditary privileges should be abolished since "the earth belongs in usufruct to the living." He could have been quoting Smith with those words: It is "the most absurd of all suppositions," said Smith, "that every successive generation of men have not an equal right to the earth."
Similarly, Alexis de Tocqueville identified the breaking-up of estates as one of the cornerstones of the young country’s success. “What is most important for democracy is not that great fortunes should not exist,” he wrote, “but that great fortunes should not remain in the same hands. In that way there are rich men, but they do not form a class.”
Among those who attended Smith's lectures was the historian and jurist John Millar, who supported a change in the inheritance laws such that wills would be enforced only for a limited part of a person's property. Millar saw this as entirely compatible with a respect for property rights. He was joined in this, as in his enthusiasm for Smith, by Tom Paine.

The following Politifact article adds John Adams and Benjamin Franklin as founding fathers who felt that regulation of estate passing should be the public's concern

Basic property necessary for man to live should be left alone, Franklin wrote. But he continued that "all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other Laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition." We thought one sentence has particular relevant here: "Hence the Public has the Right of Regulating Descents, and all other Conveyances of Property, and even of limiting the Quantity and the Uses of it."
In the book "Wealth and Our Commonwealth," William H. Gates Sr. and Chuck Collins write: "The nation’s founders and populace viewed excessive concentrations of wealth as incompatible with the ideals of the new nation. Revolutionary era visitors to Europe, including Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Adams, and Ben Franklin, were aghast at the wide disparities of wealth and poverty they observed. They surmised that these great European inequalities were the result of an aristocratic system of land transfers, hereditary political power, and monopoly."

Noah Webster -- founder of Webster's dictionary and an editor of The Federalist Papers, believed that extreme wealth inequality spells the downfall of nations...

The causes which destroyed the ancient republics were numerous; but in Rome, one principal cause was the vast inequality of fortunes.

This PBS article stated or paraphrased the views of James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington on estate taxes and/or socialized ownership of wealth, land, and stocks.

James Madison warned that inequality in property ownership would subvert liberty, either through opposition to wealth (a war of labor against capital) or “by an oligarchy founded on corruption” through which the wealthy dominate political decision-making (a war of capital against labor). John Adams favored distribution of public lands to the landless to create broad-based ownership of property, then the critical component of business capital in the largely agricultural U.S. Current levels and trends in inequality would almost certainly have terrified the founders, who believed that broad-based property ownership was essential to the sustenance of a republic.
Other be-wigged early presidents of the U.S. and half the crew on Mt. Rushmore — George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — believed that U.S. democracy would work best if citizens had a broad-based ownership stake in the economy. They too feared that extreme property inequality would prevent America from fulfilling its promise.
Even Alexander Hamilton, favorite of the moneyed interests, argued that few people wanted to be wage laborers only, and he believed, like Henry Ford centuries later, that a strong middle class was needed to become energetic customers of businesses in the entire economy.

Although quotes from founding fathers directly addressing an estate tax are scarce, it is commonly argued in related articles that they did not want a privileged aristocracy; and that they believed individuals should achieve wealth through merit and hard work, not inheritance. The founding fathers were rebelling against empires that had large concentrations of power, generational wealth, and class status that was earned through birth rather than labor.

  • I am going to accept this answer because overall it's pretty good, and quite thorough, despite the fact that the first lines make the assumption that Alexis de Tocqueville(French writer/philosopher born in 1805 after the Founding) & Adam Smith (Scottish philosopher/writer) were Founding Fathers. Smith's writings did influence many of the Framer's philosophy. The Politi-Fiction article as always is pretty suspect – Aporter Feb 24 at 6:00

Jefferson most likely didn't. He did have some scattering criticism of the banking system in general:

I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies... If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around (these banks) will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.

He also probably wouldn't be cool with 3 American billionaires having the same amount of wealth as half the U.S population combined.

You don't have to be a socialist or democrat to understand how messed up and wrong this is.

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    This doesn't seem to address the question of "inheritance tax" at all. You start with "he didn't" (support inheritance tax, I assume). But then go on to claim "he wouldn't be cool with ...billionaires" - Yet taxing rich people after they die is one way of reducing inequality. – James K Feb 21 at 20:58

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