Date of Award

Spring 2009

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Lucy Salyer


Taxes and the citizens' tax burden have always been at the hub of American politics. This dissertation opens up consideration of taxpayers as political and legal actors, who saw paying taxes as a source of political legitimacy and empowerment. It examines the powerful connection between organized taxpayer activity, political reform, and the law.

Organized taxpayers have relied heavily on the law in general, and on taxpayers' lawsuits in particular, to promote their interests and political reform. During the last half of the nineteenth century courts, and legislatures throughout the nation came to recognize the right of taxpayers to bring suit to restrain unlawful acts by local government officials and to force them to perform their duties. Between 1908 and 1930, the Citizens Union, a political reform organization in New York City, employed this taxpayers' tactic in a concerted and successful taxpayers' litigation program to combat corruption and promote reform in municipal government.

Organized taxpayer activity became institutionalized with the formation of taxpayers' associations in the 1850s, but for the next seventy-five years the creation and activities of such organizations were sporadic. The Great Depression was a watershed in the history of taxpayers' associations in the United States. That economic crisis precipitated the widespread proliferation of taxpayers' associations, and by 1935 the taxpayers' association had developed into a permanent and influential institution in the United States through which Americans engaged in political and legal activism. Since 1930, taxpayers' organizations have played a critical role in refashioning the institutions and the operations of state and local government.

Although taxpayers associations are often associated with conservative politics in contemporary America, the history of organized taxpayer activity demonstrates that the taxpayer could be mobilized for a broad range of political endeavors, even joining forces with groups that some deemed radical. Organized taxpayer activity is significant because it sheds light on key features of American society and because for 250 years it has frequently been a sphere of activity in which the dynamics of citizenship, political reform, pocketbook politics and law intersect.