What Senator Schumer Can Learn from George Washington

Calling Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s renunciation of American citizenship an “outrage,” that allows him to “duck up to $67 million in taxes,” Senator Charles Schumer wants to create a special tax on Americans who renounce their citizenship. One can understand his frustration–America welcomed Saverin’s family when they needed a place of refuge, and now he is turning his back on us, for no other reason, it seems, than to reduce his tax bill. Perhaps no one at Harvard taught him that patriotism is a virtue.

Yet Schumer’s attack is fundamentally misguided, and reveals a disturbing attitude toward private property. Should it impose such a tax, the American government would be saying that property is no longer truly private. It would be saying that the American government has a presumptive claim on any and all property “owned” by an American citizen.

That is a far cry from the ideas that made America great. Consider the American revolution. In January, 1777, when times were grim, and the fate of the Union rested on his shoulders, General Washington issued his “Proclamation Concerning Loyalists.” Washington lamented that there might be some who “prefer the interest and protection of Great-Britain to the freedom and happiness of their country.” Leading a revolution built upon the presumptive right of men to choose not to belong to the King, he realized that the same principle applied to those who continued to choose British subjecthood over American citizenship. Hence he declared that such people had “full liberty . . . to withdraw themselves and families within the enemy’s lines.”

General Washington did not demand that such enemies of their native country, as he thought them, should pay an exit tax. The Americans were fighting to protect their property from arbitrary taxation. Loyalists were free to choose loyalty, and they were free to take their personal property with them. If there was, on principle, no exit tax demanded in the darkest days of the American revolution, it is hard to see how one could be justified now.

There is a deeper lesson here. General Washington presumed that people owned their property free and clear. Coins, bonds, and certificates were personal possessions, no less than one’s coat, or one’s skills and talents. In other words, private property was understood to be part of a more general realm of privacy–that people owned free and clear, and which government had no right to tax without consent. Washington understood the right to leave to be fundamental. In a democratic republic, the side that loses a vote is must submit peacefully. Hence the right to leave, the only way to both refuse to submit to the majority, and not make war on them, was an essential means to protect minority rights.

By contrast, Senator Schumer seems to think that personal property belongs, in part, to the government. He allows that a citizen may renounce his citizenship, but he may not take his property with him, until after he has reached a settlement with the American government. Senator Schumer is hinting at returning to an older idea of property–one that, of old, had more to do with real than personal property. In England at the time of the American revolution many people did not actually own the land on which they lived. On the contrary, they owned the right to use the land. But the King, or perhaps a Lord (or perhaps some combination thereof) held the actual title. Often residents had to pay a regular fee to the owner of the underlying deed.

Senator Schumer, like the Lords of old, seems to think that we Americans have only a usufruct to our personal property, and we may only leave the country after the King extracts his ransom. Washington’s approach to the problem of loyalists was more principled, and more gregarious than Schumer’s mean-spirted and petty approach. If Senator Schumer is worried about Americans renouncing their citizenship, then perhaps he should think harder about why people are doing so, and see what he might be able to do, as a Senator, to help ensure that the United States remains a place where bright young entrepreneurs like Saverin wish to live, and where our schools teach that patriotism is a virtue.

Richard A. Samuelson is Associate Professor of History at California State University, San Bernardino. He has held fellowships or teaching appointments at Princeton University, Claremont McKenna College, the University of Paris VIII, the National University of Ireland, Galway. Although he has published on a range of subjects, his principal works focus on the political and constitutional ideas of the American founding era. Dr. Samuelson is currently completing a book on John Adams’ political thought, "John Adams and the Republic of Laws". He received his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Virginia

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Comments

  1. greg bishop says

    perhaps Schumer would like to build a Berlin Wall around the USA ( and it’s financial system) to keep people from seeking freedom.

  2. PD Quig says

    Look, it’s futile to attempt to get inside the head of a liberal. The pathological cognitive dissonance, the insane inability to learn from experience–however painful and obvious the lesson, the arrogance born of willful ignorance of human nature…it is all too impossible to untangle. Senator Schumer is just another corrupt, venal pol and is evincing no principles or true outrage in demanding more money for the state to squander. He just wants his cut.

    Time for tar and feathers instead.

  3. betty says

    Who is John Galt?

    Schumer is the perfect example of the kind of politician that will drive our country to the ground

  4. Mike V says

    Great article in comparing how our founders thought versus how our leaders of today think and interpret our Constitution, our freedom and our liberty. I do want to point out, though, that a number of loyalists, though allowed to take their personal items as they left the country, did have their land confiscated by certain state governments and redistributed among patriots. We had some of that here in the NYC area, though it does seem to have mostly affected those who were loyalist “Lords of the Manor” who rented their vast land holdings to tenant farmers and then lost their land rights when they left.

  5. says

    Excellent observation! I sincerely hope the younger generations understand concepts like these on which the United States was founded, so that future leadership may be occupied by more principled and idealistic men and women that prefer liberty.

  6. Jacob says

    I disagree, respectfully, with your assessment completely.

    First, this is not an accurate depiction of the “Proclamation Concerning Loyalists.” The Letter said that everyone residing in the nascent US must pick a side. You could pledge loyalty or you could leave, but everyone left was either with the US or “deemed adherents to the King of Great-Britain, and treated as common enemies of the American States.” Loyalists were by and large forced either by force of arms or necessity to abandon nearly all of their property when fleeing. The Jay Treaty was necessary largely because states under the Articles of Confederation seized the property and estates of Loyalists with no compensation and the British wanted remuneration. To claim Loyalists were allowed to retain their property by simply leaving during the Revolution is an inaccurate reading of history.

    Furthermore,the philosophy that the Revolution was born upon specifically contradicts the claims regarding the current conditions. The most important political philosopher to the Founding Fathers was John Locke (the originator of “life, liberty and estate/the pursuit of happiness” and many of the ideas that we now associate as the political religion of the US). He wrote in his seminal work, The Second Treatise of Civil Government

    “120. To understand this the better, it is fit to consider, that every man, when he at first incorporates himself into any commonwealth, he, by his uniting himself thereunto, annexed also, and submits to the community, those possessions, which he has, or shall acquire, that do not already belong to any other government: for it would be a direct contradiction, for any one to enter into society with others for the securing and regulating of property; and yet to suppose his land, whose property is to be regulated by the laws of the society, should be exempt from the jurisdiction of that government, to which he himself, the proprietor of the land, is a subject. By the same act therefore, whereby any one unites his person, which was before free, to any common-wealth, by the same he unites his possessions, which were before free, to it also; and they become, both of them, person and possession, subject to the government and dominion of that common-wealth, as long as it hath a being. Whoever therefore, from thenceforth, by inheritance, purchase, permission, or otherways, enjoys any part of the land, so annexed to, and under the government of that common-wealth, must take it with the condition it is under; that is, of submitting to the government of the common-wealth, under whose jurisdiction it is, as far forth as any subject of it.

    121. But since the government has a direct jurisdiction only over the land, and reaches the possessor of it, (before he has actually incorporated himself in the society) only as he dwells upon, and enjoys that; the obligation any one is under, by virtue of such enjoyment, to submit to the government, begins and ends with the enjoyment; so that whenever the owner, who has given nothing but such a tacit consent to the government, will, by donation, sale, or otherwise, quit the said possession, he is at liberty to go and incorporate himself into any other common-wealth; or to agree with others to begin a new one, in vacuis locis, in any part of the world, they can find free and unpossessed: whereas he, that has once, by actual agreement, and any express declaration, given his consent to be of any commonwealth, is perpetually and indispensably obliged to be, and remain unalterably a subject to it, and can never be again in the liberty of the state of nature; unless, by any calamity, the government he was under comes to be dissolved; or else by some public act cuts him off from being any longer a member of it.
    ….
    190. Every man is born with a double right: first, a right of freedom to his person, which no other man has a power over, but the free disposal of it lies in himself. Secondly, a right, before any other man, to inherit with his brethren his father’s goods.

    “191. By the first of these, a man is naturally free from subjection to any government, tho’ he be born in a place under its jurisdiction; but if he disclaim the lawful government of the country he was born in, he must also quit the right that belonged to him by the laws of it, and the possessions there descending to him from his ancestors, if it were a government made by their consent.”


    In other words, being a citizen means your property is subject and the benefits you receive as a citizen mean you are not free to simply walk away until you can divest yourself of those benefits you received. Taxing those who enrich themselves while enjoying the benefits of being an American and try to leave with their spoils is exactly in line with the Founding Father’s philosophy.

  7. Chuck Hudson says

    An excellent article however I believe your analogy is flawed. When the Loyalists withdrew within enemy lines, very few were able to take most of their possessions with them and their real property (houses and land) were confiscated by the US government and, in most cases auctioned off at fire-sale prices to help pay for the war against England. In many cases the loyalists were allowed to take little more than the clothes on their backs when they withdrew.

    It would seem to me that, if anything, this sets a precedent for government seizure of the private property of those choosing not to support the country and could certainly be construed as a sort of “tax” imposed by the Congress to allow these people to leave.

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