Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> The North Carolina Experience >> Document Menu >> Summary

Wake County Workingmen's Association
Resolutions and Address of the Wake County Working-Men's Association
[Raleigh?]: [The Association?], [1859?].


The proposed adoption of an ad valorem tax, a tax assessed on the total value of every person's property, was, according to historian Donald Butts, "the primary issue" in the North Carolina gubernatorial election of 1860, and in North Carolina politics generally in the years 1859 and 1860 (p. 47). Since the revision of the North Carolina Constitution in 1835, wealthy citizens who owned large numbers of slaves had received a significant tax break compared to the seventy percent of the population who owned no slaves and the additional 28 percent who owned fewer than fifty (Butts, pp. 44-45). Only slaves between the ages of twelve and fifty were taxed, and they were taxed at a per-capita rate much lower than the rates applied to land, labor, and investment income. The issue remained a minor concern in state politics until the 1850s, when increasing debt from railroad and canal projects meant that taxes rose from very low to what North Carolinians in the 1850s considered very high. North Carolinians in favor of an ad valorem tax, who "represented a coalition of nonslaveholders, small slaveholders, artisans, and progressive eastern planters, captured the remains of the Whig and Know-Nothing organization, renamed it the Opposition party, and . . . demand[ed] that the system of taxation be changed" (Butts, p. 46). The Opposition party nominated former Whig John Pool for governor. Despite some debate within their party, Democrats rejected the ad valorem tax and re-nominated the anti-ad valorem incumbent, John Willis Ellis (Butts, p. 47).

The Raleigh Working-Men's Association was an independent organization formed by mechanics, merchants, and artisans in 1859 to protest the current tax system and advocate for an ad valorem tax. While its goals followed the Opposition Party platform, the organization claimed to be nonpartisan, and in fact one of its major spokesmen, Raleigh newspaperman and printer Frank I. Wilson, was a Democrat (Powell). In a set of resolutions adopted in the Raleigh courthouse on October 10, 1859, the members declare that "the Revenue Laws of this State are not framed in accordance with the principles of justice and equality" and that "whilst we are ready and willing . . . to meet at defray, at all times, our due proportion of the public charge and expenditure . . . we do respectfully insist, that these laws shall be so altered as to tax every citizen according to what he is worth" (p. 1). The resolutions and an accompanying address were published after the meeting under the title Resolutions and Address of the Wake County Working-Men's Association. In the address, the Association stresses that its intention is not to create antagonism between labor and capital, nor to "depreciate by anything we do, the value of any particular kind of property" or encourage "discrimination . . . for or against any species of property" (p. 2). Opponents of the organization suggested that its unfriendliness to the existing tax breaks for slaveholders were meant to weaken the system of slavery in North Carolina; much of the Association's publicity attempts to counter these "groundless fears indulged in by some as to the ultimate objects of our association" (p. 2).

A long section of the address consists of a history of the revenue system in North Carolina, containing detailed breakdowns of the sums paid in taxes on various products. Taxes on citizens of Wake County, the address says, increased "over 1,000 per cent. since 1835, and over 700 per cent. since 1847," going from "literally nominal" to an amount requiring "serious attention and earnest solicitude" (p. 4). While the tax on $1,000 worth of land was $1.50, the address explains, the tax on "$1,000 worth of slave property" was only fifty cents (p. 4). A chart included in the printed pamphlet adds that $1,000 in "labor and industry" was taxed at a rate of ten dollars: the tax on income from labor for citizens earning over $500 a year was one percent. Not only were slaves taxed at what the Association considered an unfairly low rate compared to the tax on income from labor, but income from investments—another concern of the wealthy—was "with few exceptions" not taxed at all, according to the address (p. 5). After its presentation of the Association's reason for forming and its arguments for updating the tax system, the address closes by turning the issue over to "the sober judgment of the people of our State" (p. 6).

On February 6, 1860, Frank Wilson delivered an address to the Association at the Raleigh courthouse. It was later printed by the office of the North Carolina Standard in Raleigh as a pamphlet titled Address Delivered Before the Wake County Workingmen's Association. Prior to Wilson's address, the Association had come under increasingly harsh criticism from slaveholders and other wealthy North Carolinians. Wilson thus begins his address by stressing that the meeting is public, and that the members are "not afraid to show our faces" (p. 3). A Washington, D.C., abolitionist publication called The Era had claimed that the Working-Men's Association supported the abolitionist cause, and according to Wilson, five North Carolina newspapers had reprinted the article from The Era, a "tacit approval of [its] sentiments" (p. 7). Wilson makes it clear that the Association does not support the abolition of slavery, saying, "I know of no insult greater than the charge of Abolitionism upon Southern me[n]" (p. 8). He rallies the members of the Association to fight back against such statements by opponents, which he calls accusations of "treason" (p. 19).

In response to other criticism in the press, Wilson stresses, as had the October 1859 address, that the members "have not complained that we paid too much taxes—we are willing to pay even more; but it is the unjust and unequal mode of taxation to which we object" (p. 9). The organization had additionally been accused of being the instruments of "designing demagogues" and "office hunters" as the 1860 elections neared (pp. 4-5). Wilson stresses again that the Working-Men's Association is not a political organization (p. 9). He gives examples of the "strife" and "agitation" that the Association is supposed to have stirred up, but he lays the cause on the Association's opponents, who have "made nearly all the din" (p. 16). "We seek peace, and prefer it," says Wilson, "but if our opponents choose war, so be it" (p. 20).

Works Consulted: Butts, Donald C., "The 'Irrepressible Conflict': Slave Taxation and North Carolina's Gubernatorial Election of 1860," The North Carolina Historical Review (1981) 58: 44-66; Powell, William S., "Frank I. Wilson," Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, ed. William S. Powell, available from Documenting the American South (accessed 22 Nov. 2010).

Erin Bartels

Document menu