How Pennsylvania Counties Paid Their Taxes to Congress

The War Years (1775-1783)

April 13, 2023
by Dennis Ness Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

After the outbreak of hostilities Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Congress met at Philadelphia to address issues of the new war. Initially the decisions made were not made for independence, but to compel the British Parliament to change its policy toward America. Congress took legislative and executive authority into its hands and was an assembly unlimited by legal restraints. Nevertheless, Congress was dependent upon support from the people of the colonies.

The number one issue was financing the defense of the colonies. Congress had engaged in a trade boycott with Britain and hard money became scarce in the colonies. Arms, gunpowder, and other materiel were required to sustain the armies around Boston. Congress appointed a committee of five members to provide an estimate of the amount money that needed to be raised, and how to raise it. In June of that first year of the conflict, the committee recommended Congress issue bills of credit to finance the expenses incurred for the army, including their pay. On July 29, 1775, Congress appointed Michael Hillegas and George Clymer joint treasurers of the United Colonies.[1]

The July 29 Resolve included several requirements. Congress required the provincial assemblies or conventions to choose a treasurer for their colony and take sufficient security for the performance of the trust. The colony was to provide ways and means to sink its proportion of the bills ordered emitted by Congress. The resolve included the requirement of an equal mode of levying taxes in each colony so that the proportion or quota of each colony could be determined according to the number of inhabitants, including enslaved Blacks and mulattoes. Congress could not determine the number of inhabitants and assigned 372,208 1/2 to Pennsylvania as an amount to use in calculations until a list of each colony’s inhabitants was obtained.

Congress dictated this policy to the colonies, assuming the resolve would be followed and not having any legal means to compel the colonies to fulfill the request. Congress began the idea of taxing inhabitants in the colonies to finance the war against Great Britain. They requested a list or number of inhabitants from each colony to tax so that each colony would provide a quota of money to finance the war. Congress expected the colonies to pay their quota in four equal payments over four years starting in 1779. The total estimated number of inhabitants in the colonies was about three million. Congress adopted these measures even though they had no legal means to tax inhabitants in the colonies.

In the succeeding months and years, more bills of credit by Congress were emitted for public debts. Emitting bills of credit was not a new idea, several states had used the procedure in the 1700s to procure money to help with their economies. Bills of credit in Pennsylvania were allowed by the Assembly and set by law. Usually a total amount of currency was determined and the number of paper bills were printed in various denominations and signed by trustees of the government. These bills of different amounts were then given to county commissioners to be lent out for mortgages and other necessary credit uses. The counties had to oversee these “loans” and make sure there was no default. In my opinion, bills of credit were a form of state sanctioned banking. A good example of the bills of credit on loan law is in the Pennsylvania statutes at large, CH672.[2]

Congress used bills of credit as a temporary means to finance their debt. As we all know, the bills of credit, known as Continental money, became virtually worthless by the end of the struggle. During the course of the war, Congress used several means to finance the debt: bills of credit, bills of exchange, specie or hard cash money, loans from individuals, and loans from other friendly countries.

Research into the records of Congress and the state of Pennsylvania provided some clarity on how this financial system was to work. Generally Congress, through debate and committee work, planned to pay debts and keep the war machine running, but the lack of institutional knowledge of financing and the less than enthusiastic support of the states provided resistance Congress could not foresee.

Congress led the way in financing the struggle. They began emitting bills of credit for Spanish milled dollars early in the fight. A Spanish milled dollar was a silver coin that was circulating throughout the colonies at that time. Perhaps Congress believed the struggle would only last a short period of time and the debt would be easily repaid, and Spanish dollars were an abundant form of coinage.

After the British landed in New York City and drove the rebels out in late 1776, Congress began to see this was not going to be a short engagement. In early 1777, Congress passed a resolve, recommending to the states that continental money should become legal tender for public and private debt payable in sterling money.[3] Congress set the rate of continental money at 4 shillings 6 pence sterling per dollar. Congress emitted most if not all currency in dollars; and Pennsylvania at the same time utilized the £, s, d (pound, shilling, pence) of state currency in tax collection and payment to the Congress treasury. Money calculation during the revolutionary war is extremely difficult for a modern reader to follow.

The Pennsylvania Assembly followed the lead of the Congress, passing tax laws in the form of statutes that copied the Congress concept of taxing the inhabitants. The Assembly, through the tax law, pushed the problem of taxing to the county level authorities. The county commissioners transferred the tax problem to the townships who then taxed the inhabitants. The tax in York County was delivered to the inhabitants by the assessor in each of its twenty-seven townships and in the county’s largest town, Yorktown.

The first tax levied by the state was a tax on non-associators, that is, eligible males who did not take an oath to support Congress after Congress approved the of Articles of Association. If a person did not take the oath, that person was taxed.[4]  The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission holds images of the ledger books kept by the comptroller general.[5] These records show that the tax generated £3210, 12s, 6d. The tax in 1777 was raised to £3, 10s per non-associator.[6] The ledger shows £3596, 12s, 6d was raised that year and sent to the state.[7] The state ledgers do not break down to the individual person. The amounts were reported by townships and the town of Yorktown to the state.

In 1777, several different things happened that changed the finances in the state. Prior to the struggle, in 1773, Pennsylvania issued bills of credit in the amount of £150,000 and they were circulating in the colony in 1777. In 1777, the Assembly passed a law emitting an additional £200,000 for the defense of the colony. This act required a tax on the people to raise the necessary funding. During 1777, there were several statutes written until it was completely approved. I will use only one reference for brevity.[8] The ledger shows the total amount collected for the state, £11,535, 16s, 9d in the form of township and Yorktown assessments and payments.[9]

In September 1777, Congress relocated to Yorktown, York County, bringing the treasury and the printing press with them. While at Yorktown in 1778, Congress passed another resolve requiring all the states to provide their quota for $5 million annually to Congress. Pennsylvania’s quota was $620,000. In response, the Assembly passed another tax requiring the counties to tax the inhabitants.[10] York County’s 1778 quota by law was £18,327, 1s, 8d; the county sent £19,643, 11s, 5d to the state.[11]

During the time at Yorktown, Congress made two additional decisions that influenced the path of the war. Congress received the treaty with France and proceeded to ratify it.[12] The treaty with France enabled the colonies to eventually defeat the British. Shortly before returning to Philadelphia, Congress completed a copy of the Articles of Confederation for ratification by the states. The Articles of Confederation contained articles voted on by Congress requiring taxation by the states for revenue.[13]

The vote on public expense was included as an article in the Articles of Confederation, an item very few people take interest in. Congress wanted the land, buildings, and improvements value owned by any person, in each state, to be estimated according to such mode as Congress would direct. Congress wanted each landowner to be taxed by the state and the money be given to Congress. There was a vote taken on this issue in the form of a resolve; it passed five to four. Eleven states voted; Georgia and Delaware were not represented. Two states, New York and Pennsylvania, had divided votes, meaning no vote was accounted. New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina voted for the measure; the states voting against were New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. The northern states did not want to tax land, the southern states were content to do so.

The year 1779 saw a change in the finances of the colonies and in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Archives holds an entire volume concerning the taxes of York County.[14] The York County volume includes tax lists from 1779 to 1783, the end of hostilities. The lists were established because of the previously described Congressional resolve and inclusion in the Articles of Confederation, even though the Articles would not be ratified until March 1, 1781. The state Assembly passed a law to “ascertain the number of taxable inhabitants in the county” in March 1779.[15] A few days later, another tax was levied.[16]

The tax of April 3, 1779, the Supply Tax, was for the Congress to use to prosecute the war. Congress needed a money supply to fund the war and they wrote a resolve for the states. Pennsylvania then passed the law just described. This is not the end of the story. The law and succeeding laws as written differ from the Pennsylvania Archives reports. Instead of just taxing the inhabitant and the land as reported in the archives, the Assembly expanded the list of articles to be taxed. The law allowed taxing of trades, personal property, land, mills, rents, plate, horses, cattle, and anything that would sell for ready money. They also had a separate list of all freemen over the age of twenty-one to tax. Everyone had to get from the assessor a certificate to prove they were assessed. If the inhabitant did not provide the certificate, they could be taken in front of a justice and be sent to jail.

The year 1779 is unique in that a second tax law was passed later in the year by Pennsylvania. This was a result of Congress passing three resolves requiring money, on January 5, May 21, and October 4. The Pennsylvania Assembly passed a law for additional tax money on October 10.[17]

The first tax, on April 3, 1779 required York county to pay £119,126, 10d. The second tax amount was £169,754, 12s, 2d. Taxing inhabitants twice in a year was very oppressive. The Pennsylvania Archives has records of these payments by inhabitants twice in the year 1779 for all townships and Yorktown, so it appears that the tax was paid.

Whenever a landowner was in the militia, starting in 1777, he was required to pay a fee when there was a parade day. If any man did not show up for militia training, he was fined various amounts money until the end of hostilities.

In 1780 Congress passed a resolve approving the emitting of new bills and Pennsylvania passed a new statute providing the procedure involving the new bills.[18] The bills, emitted by Congress for the various colonies, were certificates that paid interest. These new bills were to replace old bills in circulation and the later interest payment was to entice the people to replace the currency they knew was nearly worthless. The Assembly passed a new law with the yearly proportion required to be paid by York County for 1780.[19] York County was assessed £7,428, for the county. The amount was lower than the 1779 tax, reflecting a change in currency value.

The ledger books for 1780, 1781 and 1782 are similar in their recording of the taxes paid. The difference with the 1779 ledger versus the later ledgers, is the inclusion of a ratio provided by the assessors for each township. At each township’s beginning list, the ratio numbers, between two and ten, are listed for the property and the property is assessed and the number is used to determine the final tax. All three years have these numbers. One of the statutes includes the explanation: “set as rate or rates to get amount of sum of money quoted.” Instead of a flat tax, the assessors changed the ratio to make the tax equal across the county; a poor township had a different number than a more wealthy, highly populated township.

The 1781 statute required the county to pay £15,862, 18s.[20] In 1782, the amount was raised to £33,335, 14s.[21] The different amounts reflect the inflationary nature of the emitted currency.

In 1783 tax lists were just a return of the inhabitants of York County; the state ledgers do not list any taxes paid. I can only assume the taxing authorities gave the inhabitants a tax holiday. The Pennsylvania Archives has a list of ten categories that were assessed for taxing in 1783. The return lists York County as having 27,007 male and female persons and 2,618 female persons. I assume they counted the single men with the married men and their wives, and single females separately. In an interesting development, the Assembly passed an additional statute in March of that year.[22] The statute was named “Settlement of the Public Accounts of the United States of America,” but what public accounts they settled has not been determined.

Congress gave away mounds of money to people with the demand of “to be held accountable,” with no legal ability to pursue accountability. Most of the Pennsylvania state statutes contain a penalty when someone did something listed in the law as illegal. The problem was, in most cases, there was no enforcement to repay the moneys or bills of credit emitted by both governments; also, the British were trying at all times to counterfeit the bills of credit. The Constitutional Convention in 1787, in Article 1, Section 10, 1st clause, confiscated the states’ right to emit bills of credit. Congress emitted $240M during this period; $80 for every inhabitant in America.

I was amazed York County stepped up and paid the taxes they were required to pay by Congress and the Assembly. I also found there were tax lists for Philadelphia City and County, Chester, Bucks, Lancaster, Berks, Northampton, Northumberland, Cumberland, Bedford, Westmoreland and Fayette counties. These lists contradict the general opinion the states did not support Congress during the revolutionary war. The records show how nearly everyone contributed during this period of duress.


[1]Journal of the American Congress from 1774 to 1788 (Washington, DC: Way and Gideon, 1823), 1:130.

[2]Act of February 26, 1773 (8ST., L284, CH672). Statutes of the State of Pennsylvania can be found at the Legislative Reference Bureau of Pennsylvania website,

[3]Journal of the American Congress: from 1774 to 1788, 2:12.

[4]Act of September 14, 1776, (9ST., L22, CH735).

[5]Roll 7244, Comptroller General Tax and Exoneration Lists, Image 169. The tax rolls can be found at RG – 4, Records of the Office of the Comptroller General, Tax and Exoneration Lists, 1762 – 1801, Series #4.61. The rolls can be accessed at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission website

[6]Act of February 14, 1777, (9ST, L49, CH742).

[7]Roll 7244, Comptroller General Tax and Exoneration Lists, Image 165.

[8]Act of March 20, 1777, (9ST, L97, CH752).

[9]Roll 7244, Comptroller General Tax and Exoneration Lists, Image 167.

[10]Act of March 27, 1778, (9ST, L23, CH 794).

[11]Roll 7244, Comptroller General Tax and Exoneration Lists, Image 168.

[12]Journal of the American Congress: from 1774 to 1788, 2:537.

[13]Ibid., 288.

[14]Pennsylvania Archives, Series 3, Volume XXI.

[15]Act of March 29, 1779, (9ST, L326, CH831).

[16]Act of April 3, 1779 (9ST, L360, CH840).

[17]Act of October 10, 1779 (9ST, L443, CH866).

[18]Act of June 1, 1780 (10ST, L205, CH912).

[19]Act of December 19, 1780 (10ST, L238, CH921).

[20]Act of June 21, 1781 (10ST, L326, CH944).

[21]Act of March 27,1782 (10ST, L385, CH961).

[22]Act of March 20, 1783 (11ST, L71, CH1020).


  • I have questions about how the 1779 tax return for Frankstown Township, Bedford County relates to this article. Is it possible to communicate with the author by email?

    1. If you send an email to the editors address given in the About > Contact page (see the menu bar at the very top of this page), it will be forwarded to the author.

    1. Hello Kathy,
      The simple answer is yes. There were people printing fake paper money including the British.
      They knew the British paper was fake as it was better than what the Congress printed.
      There were those who counterfeited coinage, not as many as it was more difficult.

  • To Karen,
    I did a little research about Frankstown Township in Bedford County. There are records in the Pennsylvania Archives in 3rd Series, Volume XXII. The PA Assembly passed the law I have in my article, Act 840 (4/3/79) and Act 866 (10/10/79) which included Bedford County. Bedford county’s part to pay was 82K pounds. At this time, the frontier was under siege from the British and the Indians. The problem was so bad, the PA assembly passed a statute (Act 891) for 4 counties on 3/20/80 for “relief of suffering”. This act “exonerated and discharged” 4 counties from paying the Supply Act taxes. The 4 counties would have paid 470K pounds in supply taxes to the state, instead they did not pay until the end of the conflict. The other counties were Northampton, Northumberland and Westmoreland. This generous help from the PA Assembly put a large hole in the Congressional budget.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *