By Sam Brunson
A year ago, the National Parks surprised me with a tax name-check. I mean, realistically, there shouldn’t have been anything surprising about encountering a picture of Al Capone at Alcatraz, but I didn’t think I’d see taxes there.
So consider this the second year in a row where the National Parks have surprised me with tax. My family was at Grand Portage National National Monument (which is incredibly cool, btw) learning about the Ojibwe and the North West Company and the thriving fur trade. In one room, there was a display about hatmaking. And, on the wall, was this cartoon:
(If you want a better picture of the cartoon than what I could get with my iPhone, the British Museum has you covered.)
The cartoon is by J. Gillray, who was, among other things, a political cartoonist. This particular cartoon was drawn in 1797.
It’s titled “Le Bonnet-Rouge;-or-John Bull evading the hat tax.” John Bull, stands in the middle of the frame smiling with a red felt hat on his head and his normal brown hat in his hand. His clothes seem a little tattered, with holes in his coat and boots that aren’t staying up. John says, “”Wounds, when Master Billy sees I in a Red-Cap, how he will stare! – egad; I thinks I shall cook em at last. – well if I could but once get a Cockade to my Red Cap, & a bit of a Gun – why, I thinks I should make a good stockey Soldier!”
Behind John is the shop of Billy Black-Soul, Hatter and Sword-Cutler, a shop “Licensed to deal in Hats and Swords.” Next to the shop is the Stamp Office, and on the ground in front of John, next to sleeping (dead?) cats is a paper that reads, “List of Cats Killed for making skin caps 20000 Red 5000 Tabb…”
So What’s the Cartoon About?
I’ve only done a little research on it, but here’s what I can get:
First, John Bull is a popular personification of England. Second, while I’m not sure the particular hat tax Gillray’s referring to, the hat tax was one stamp tax imposed by the British government. Basically, hats had to have an official stamp on the lining (which Grand Portage was kind enough to reproduce for visitors).
Now, the easiest way to evade a stamp tax on hats is to quit buying and wearing them. That’s not what John Bull did, though; instead, he substituted his normal hat for a bonnet-rouge. And I initially couldn’t figure that out.
It turns out, though (and maybe you already knew this), that the bonnet-rouge (surprise!) came from France. It derived from an anti-tax, anti-nobility uprising in France in 1675, and the (often) red Phrygian caps became a symbol of the French Revolution. In fact, the bonnet-rouge appears to have been a common theme in Gillray’s cartoons. (It’s also possible, according to this source, that the tax on hats wouldn’t affect the bonnet-rouge, which was a cap instead. I honestly don’t know enough either about classification for stamp taxes or the difference between caps and hats.)
It seems to me, then, the Gillray is intimating that the hat tax could drive the British public to revolt against the government, adopting the symbols (and, presumably, the techniques) of the French Revolution.
And what about the dead cats? I really don’t know. I kind of assume it implies that Billy Black-Soul and other hatters are substituting cats for beavers in making their hats; perhaps he’s arguing that the government doesn’t care whether the hats are counterfeit, as long as it gets its revenue?
In any event, though, running into tax cartoons at a National Monument made an already-cool trip that much better.