Abstract: Gilded-Age Tax Reform and Boston's Politics of Property, 1865-1885

Noam Maggor


Building on the recent re-discovery of the diversity of business strategies that underpinned American industrialization, this paper explores how managerial and proprietary forms of capitalism clashed in the sphere of public policy, primarily in debates over municipal expenditure and taxation. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, fiscal reform efforts in American cities focused on exempting commercial property from taxation and restraining government expenditure. In Boston, these campaigns pitted reformers from the city's financial elite against a coalition of small-scale entrepreneurs and other "men of moderate means." As elites mobilized to make the city more hospitable to large-scale capital investment and to long-haul railroad traffic, lower-middle-class Bostonians instead pushed for the expansion of social services and public infrastructure, which supported the proliferation of urban proprietary businesses. More than a conflict over the details of the tax code, this struggle mirrored a broader contest between competing visions of political economy, touching on fundamental questions such as the role of democratic politics in a modern economy, the limits to sovereignty in a free society, the origins of private property, and the relationship between the state and the economy.