The phrase sounds absurd. We have become accustomed to being taxed at almost every level of government: federal, most states, and some cities. Add property taxes, school taxes, sales taxes, gasoline taxes, and various stealth taxes in the form of fines.
We can hardly imagine otherwise anymore. We've agreed with Benjamin Franklin's witticism that nothing is certain except death and taxes. (But the great man was mistaken: death is an illusion.)
Yet only a century ago, Americans paid no income tax. But hold on. That was just before we got the Federal Reserve, Woodrow Wilson's progressive vapors, and an income tax.
Back in our colonial days, taxlessness was almost normal. In his A History of the American People, Paul Johnson says that America was "the closest the world has ever come to a no-tax society."
... the American mainland colonies were the least taxed territories on earth. Indeed, it is probably true to say that colonial America was the least taxed country in recorded history. Government was extremely small, limited in its powers, and cheap. Often it could be paid for by court fines, revenue from loan offices, or sale of lands.
New Jersey and Pennsylvania governments collected no statutory taxes at all for several decades. One reason why American living standards were so high was that people could dispose of virtually all their income. Money was raised by fees, in some cases by primitive forms of poll-tax, by export duties, paid by merchants, or import duties, reflected in the comparatively high price of some imported goods. But these were fleabites.
Even so, there was resentment. The men of the frontier claimed that they should pay no tax at all, since they bore the burden of defense on behalf of everyone. But this argument was a self-righteous justification of the fact that it was hard if not impossible to get them to pay any tax at all. Until the 1760s at any rate, most mainland colonists were rarely, if ever, conscious of a tax-burden. It is the closest the world has ever come to a no-tax society.
This was a tremendous benefit which America carried with it into Independence and helps to explain why the United States remained a low-tax society until the second half of the twentieth century.
The taxes the British government eventually did try to impose -- the Stamp Tax, the Tea Tax, &c. -- strike us today as minuscule; it's hard to understand why they were anything to get fussed about. Revisionist historians like to claim that the colonists' claimed resistance to "taxation without representation" was no more than rhetoric and that they just didn't like paying taxes, full stop.
There is probably some truth to that, but it doesn't necessarily mean that 18th century Americans were only greedy. They or their ancestors had emigrated from Europe where taxation often was a form of tyranny and control. They understood from experience Chief Justice John Marshall's famous later dictum, "The power to tax is the power to destroy."
In the past century, the relation between the central government of the United States and its people has changed drastically. The Constitution had as one central idea that the federal government was only responsible for things that individuals or smaller government units couldn't effectively do, such as waging war or "to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States ... ." The 10th amendment, passed as part of the Bill of Rights shortly after the adoption of the original Constitution, explicitly states: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
If the first citizens of the United States could see how the 10th amendment has been virtually obliterated in practice, they would be astounded and very likely appalled. We've gone from a federal government that provides for "the common defence," &c. to one that hectors you about how much salt is in your diet.
The inspiring anti-slavery slogan, "Am I not a man and a brother?" has been turned upside down: "Are you not my keeper?"
To keep 300 million Americans requires a hell of a lot of tax revenue. And as we are constantly told, it still isn't enough to keep us out of debt, $13 trillion and counting, or untold trillions more if you include all the entitlements our vote-buying politicos have lavished on us.
Some taxes are a necessary evil. But we can appreciate why early Americans had such a deep distrust, verging on loathing, of them. Despite the past century, that distrust hasn't been bred out of us yet. We have been anesthetized to taxation through artificial prosperity and socialist propaganda, but the anesthetic is wearing off and no more is left. Only the pain, and another chance perhaps to stop the cause of it.