Quitrents (Colonial Period)

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

As early as 1665, North Carolinians disliked taxes—even if deemed necessary–and they especially loathed abuse of power and mismanagement of revenue.  A chief concern for colonists was the quitrent—basically a land tax.  North Carolinians’ irritation with the quitrent intensified during the early 1700s, when the new provincial government tried collecting back taxes and the Assembly and royal officials debated the proper role of the government and the quitrent.  

During a tumultuous political interregnum in 1650s England, many royalists had helped Charles II secure his throne, so once he returned from France and assumed power in 1660, the king started awarding land grants and other patronage to his political allies.

In 1663 Charles II awarded eight allies land in what is now North Carolina and South Carolina.  The eight Lords Proprietors almost immediately issued a quitrent to help pay for the establishment and maintenance of a Proprietary government–in particular, the governor’s salary.  From the first days of its implementation, the quitrent was a contentious matter, for no matter the location or value of land during the late 1600s or early 1700s, the Lords Proprietors levied a standard rate per acre (varying from a farthing per acre to a half-penny with time).  

In Proprietary North Carolina, the suspension of quitrents attracted colonial settlers, but not as many migrated as the Assembly had hoped; the 1669 Albemarle Assembly, for instance, deferred the quitrent for one year.  Such suspensions failed to draw many newcomers in great part because Virginia officials purposefully disparaged North Carolinians and used tax breaks to keep landowners in their colony.  Meanwhile, the Lords Proprietors frequently pressured governors to raise the quitrent.

During the early 1700s, the quitrent system and the sale of land in the Proprietary caused many problems, including disagreements among Proprietors, governors, the Assembly, and denizens.  The Proprietors, for instance, wanted quitrents paid in sterling, but many Tar Heels could only pay with marketable commodities.  Before 1715, agents seized land for nonpayment of taxes, but in 1715 the Albemarle Assembly disallowed agents from assessing seized property and allowed commodities as payment.  Needless to say, quitrents were no longer profitable for the Proprietary, for the tax went strictly to paying officials.  During the 1720s, the Proprietors lost more and more control over their colony: local officials made money from the cheap sale of land instead and almost 10,000 pounds of quitrents were in arrears.  Except for Lord Carteret, the frustrated Proprietors happily sold their claims to the Crown in 1729.

North Carolinians’ irritation with the quitrent intensified under the administration of the first royal governor, George Burrington, an enemy of the Proprietors and ironically a former friend of liberty.  For one thing, from the sale of North Carolina to the start of Burrington’s administration (from mid-1729 to early 1731), North Carolinians lived outside of governmental rule.  For another thing, from the beginning of Burrington’s administration, the chief concern of the new government was its existence.  If North Carolinians’ back taxes under the Proprietorship were to be cancelled by the royal government, Burrington declared, (the Crown had paid the Lord Proprietors 5,000 pounds for unpaid quitrents) the Albemarle Assembly must provide a list of all registered land holders and all quitrents from thereafter must be paid in coin.  

The chief concern of the 1731 Albemarle Assembly, however, was defending liberty. In a bold act of independence, it told the governor that claiming such a small amount of back quitrents was a petty endeavor and that payment of current quitrents would be done as it had been since 1715.  But perhaps more importantly, the legislative body reminded the new governor that only it possessed the authority to set fees.  Burrington replied that the king’s current instructions trumped traditional practices.  In turn, the Assembly proclaimed their English rights as expressed in the Carolina charter of 1663.  Until the end of Burrington’s term in 1734, the terms of the Assembly and the governor did not change and the debate intensified.

Governor Gabriel Johnston’s administration lasted for almost two decades.  Although some historians consider Johnston a “compromising” governor, less abrasive and more honest than Burrington, others describe him as a master of political machinations. He did compromise somewhat, however.  After obtaining a tax list from the Assembly and securing the executive’s right to set land values, he allowed colonists to pay quitrents in sterling, provincial paper money, or in commodities.  

But land and quitrent disputes marked Johnston’s administration.  Johnston and his officials worked feverishly to collect taxes and determine who possessed legally blank patents (documents with a wax seal and officials’ signatures but with no date, owner’s name, purchase amount and the size and location of the land that some crooked individuals for some unexplained reason had been able to obtain and give themselves land).  As expected, land disputes abounded and colonists ignored demands for quitrents.  Johnston therefore threatened to increase taxes and expedite their recovery.  After hearing reports that government officials seized land, the Assembly tried to arrest Johnston’s agents.  So, Johnston closed the Assembly and essentially denied the people a political voice.  The Crown, however, in 1741 decided in favor of the landowners, who Johnston had argued illegally owned land.  In the end, the lack of quitrent payments weakened the provincial government’s power and many officials supposedly went without pay; Governor Johnston remarked a few days before his death in 1752 that his salary was 13,000 pounds in arrears.

The quitrent problem also contributed greatly to the Regulator movement of the late 1760s.  John Carteret, the Earl of Granville, was the only one of the Lords Proprietors who refused to sell his inherited share to the Crown.  An ambitious man, he kept Granville District so that his family’s wealth might rival that of many European dynasties.  His ambition combined with unscrupulous tax agents created problems for North Carolinians.  With the increased number of squatters in Granville District, lawsuits seemed unavoidable as agents unsuccessfully tried to collect taxes.  In another matter, careless or unethical agents many times did not give farmers receipts for the payment of quitrents.  To secure quitrent payments, Earl Granville frequently called on the government to help enforce quitrent payment.  From the Earl’s death until the American Revolution, North Carolina’s royal governors considered yet never bought the Granville District.  As a result, land speculators continued working with corrupt government agents and sheriffs during the 1760s and thereby angered Piedmont backwoodsmen.