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Times are difficult for Innocents Abroad. In two recent visits to Britain, I have listened to American expatriates express their acute anxiety over positions taken by H.M. Inland Revenue. They are, it seems, being taxed oppressively. Her Majesty’s revenue agents are going after their global income, with potentially crippling effect, and in the coming months new, still more extortionate proposals from the Exchequer will make things even worse. It occurred to me from a recent foray into the Harper’s archives that I had heard much the same lament articulated more than a century earlier by the magazine’s then preeminent writer. So here it is, taken from the December 1887 issue:
A Petition to the Queen of England
Hartford, Nov. 6, 1887
MADAM: You will remember that last May, Mr. Edward Bright, the clerk of the Inland Revenue Office, wrote me about a tax which he said was due from me to the Government on books of mine published in London — that is to say, an income tax on the royalties. I do not know Mr. Bright, and it is embarrassing to me to correspond with strangers; for I was raised in the country and have always lived there, the early part in Marion county Missouri before the war, and this part in Hartford county, Connecticut, near Bloomfield and about 8 miles this side of Farmington, though some call it 9, which it is impossible to be, for I have walked it many and many a time in considerably under three hours, and General Hawley says he has done it in two and a quarter, which is not likely; so it has seemed best that I write your Majesty. It is true that I do not know your Majesty personally, but I have met the Lord Mayor, and if the rest of the family are like him, it is but just that it should be named royal; and likewise plain that in a family matter like this, I cannot better forward my case than to frankly carry it to the head of the family itself. I have also met the Prince of Wales once in the fall of 1873, but it was not in any familiar way, but in a quite informal way, being casual, and was of course a surprise to us both. It was in Oxford street, just where you come out of Oxford into Regent Circus, and just as he turned up one side of the circle at the head of a procession, I went down the other side on the top of an omnibus. He will remember me on account of a gray coat with flap pockets that I wore, as I was the only person on the omnibus that had on that kind of a coat; I remember him of course as easy as I would a comet. He looked quite proud and satisfied, but that is not to be wondered at, he has a good situation. And once I called on your Majesty, but you were out.
But that is no matter, it happens with everybody. However, I have wandered a little, away from what I started about. It was this way. Young Bright wrote my London publishers Chatto and Windus — their place is the one on the left as you come down Piccadilly, about a block and a half above where the minstrel show is — he wrote them that he wanted them to pay income tax on the royalties of some foreign authors, namely, “Miss De La Rame (Ouida), Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mr. Francis Bret Harte, and Mr. Mark Twain.” Well, Mr. Chatto diverted him from the others, and tried to divert him from me, but in this case he failed. So then, young Bright wrote me. And not only that, but he sent me a printed document the size of a newspaper, for me to sign, all over in different places. Well, it was that kind of a document that the more you study it the more it undermines you and makes everything seem uncertain to you; and so, while in that condition, and really not responsible for my acts, I wrote Mr. Chatto to pay the tax and charge to me. Of course my idea was, that it was for only one year, and that the tax would be only about one per cent or along there somewhere, but last night I met Professor Sloane of Princeton — you may not know him, but you have probably seen him every now and then, for he goes to England a good deal, a large man and very handsome and absorbed in thought, and if you have noticed such a man on platforms after the train is gone, that is the one, he generally gets left, like all those specialists and other scholars who know everything but how to apply it-and he said it was a back tax for three years, and no one per cent, but two and a half!
That gave what had seemed a little matter, a new aspect. I then began to study the printed document again, to see if I could find anything in it that might modify my case, and I had what seems to be a quite promising success. For instance, it opens thus — polite and courteous, the way those English government documents always are — I do not say that to hear myself talk, it is just the fact, and it is a credit:
“To MR. MARK TWAIN: IN PURSUANCE of the Acts of Parliament for granting to Her Majesty Duties and Profits,” etc.
I had not noticed that before. My idea had been that it was for the Government, and so I wrote to the Government; but now I saw that it was a private matter, a family matter, and that the proceeds went to yourself, not the Government. I would always rather treat with principals, and I am glad I noticed that clause. With a principal, one can always get at a fair and right understanding, whether it is about potatoes, or continents, or any of those things, or something entirely different; for the size or nature of the thing does not affect the fact; whereas, as a rule, a subordinate is more or less troublesome to satisfy. And yet this is not against them, but the other way. They have their duties to do, and must be harnessed to rules, and not allowed any discretion. Why if your Majesty should equip young Bright with discretion-I mean his own discretion-it is an even guess that he would discretion you out of house and home in 2 or 3 years. He would not mean to get the family into straits, but that would be the upshot, just the same. Now then, with Bright out of the way, this is not going to be an Irish question; it is going to be settled pleasantly and satisfactorily for all of us, and when it is finished your Majesty is going to stand with the American people just as you have stood for fifty years, and surely no monarch can require better than that of an alien nation. They do not all pay a British income tax, but the most of them will in time, for we have shoals of new authors coming along every year; and of the population of your Canada, upwards of four-fifths are wealthy Americans, and more going there all the time.
Well, another thing which I noticed in the Document, was an item about “Deductions.” I will come to that presently, your Majesty. And another thing was this: that Authors are not mentioned in the Document at all. No, we have “Quarries, Mines, Iron Works, Salt Springs, Alum Mines, Water Works, Canals, Docks, Drains, Levels, Fishings, Fairs, Tolls, Bridges, Ferries,” and so-forth and so-forth and so-on-well, as much as a yard or a yard and a half of them, I should think-anyway a very large quantity or number. I read along — down, and down, and down the list, further, and further, and further, and as I approached the bottom my hopes began to rise higher and higher, because I saw that everything in England, that far, was taxed by name and in detail, except perhaps the family, and maybe Parliament, and yet still no mention of Authors. Apparently they were going to be overlooked. And sure enough, they were! My heart gave a great bound. But I was too soon. There was a footnote, in Mr. Bright’s hand, which said: “You are taxed under Schedule D, section 14.” I turned to that place, and found these three things: “Trades, Offices, Gas Works.”
Of course, after a moment’s reflection, hope came up again, and then certainty: Mr. Bright was in error, and clear off the track; for Authorship is not a Trade, it is an inspiration; Authorship does not keep an Office, its habitation is all out under the sky, and everywhere where the winds are blowing and the sun is shining and the creatures of God are free. Now then, since I have no Trade and keep no Office, I am not taxable under Schedule D, section 14. Your Majesty sees that; so I will go on to that other thing that I spoke of, the “deductions” — deductions from my tax which I may get allowed, under conditions. Mr. Bright says all deductions to be claimed by me must be restricted to the provisions made in paragraph No.8, entitled “Wear and Tear of Machinery, or Plant.” This is curious, and shows how far he has gotten away on his wrong course after once he has got started wrong: for Offices and Trades do not have Plant, they do not have Machinery, such a thing was never heard of; and moreover they do not wear and tear. You see that, your Majesty, and that it is true. Here is the Paragraph No.8:
Amount claimed as a deduction for diminished value by reason of Wear and Tear, where the Machinery or Plant belongs to the Person or Company carrying on the Concern, or is let to such Person or Company – that the lessee is bound to maintain and deliver over the same in good condition:–
There it is–the very words.
I could answer Mr. Bright thus:
It is my pride to say that my Brain is my Plant; and I do not claim any deduction for diminished value by reason of Wear and Tear, for the reason that it does not wear and tear, but stays sound and whole all the time. Yes, I could say to him, my Brain is my Plant, my Skull is my Workshop, my Hand is my Machinery, and I am the Person carrying on the Concern; it is not leased to anybody, and so there is no Lessee bound to maintain and deliver over the same in good condition. There. I do not wish to any way overrate this argument and answer, dashed off just so, and not a word of it altered from the way I first wrote it, your Majesty, but indeed it does seem to pulverize that young fellow, you can see that yourself. But that is all I say; I stop there; I never pursue a person after I have got him down.
Having thus shown your Majesty that I am not taxable, but am the victim of the error of a clerk who mistakes the nature of my commerce, it only remains for me to beg that you will of your justice annul my letter that I spoke of, so that my publisher can keep back that tax-money which, in the confusion and aberration caused by the Document, I ordered him to pay. You will not miss the sum, but this is a hard year for authors; and as for lectures, I do not suppose your Majesty ever saw such a dull season.
With always great, and ever increasing respect, I beg to sign myself your Majesty’s servant to command,
HER MAJESTY THE QUEEN, LONDON
The Harper’s archives do not disclose the Queen’s response.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”