Skip to main content

customs and excise

customs and excise. Monarchs and governments have traditionally levied customs and excise duties, but they became more important as the expense of government increased, particularly during the 17th cent. Customs duty or tariff is an impost on goods crossing a frontier, its purpose being either to raise revenue or to protect home industries. Customs duties, however, were sometimes imposed to supplement or make more effective internal excise duties. Excise, Dr Johnson's ‘hateful tax’, has traditionally been levied on a wide variety of home-produced raw materials and manufactures, notably alcoholic drinks, but also including at various times such items as coal, salt, paper, and glass.

Historically, customs and excise duties have both been objects of popular resistance. ship money, for example, was only one of several imposts introduced by Charles I which caused widespread resentment prior to the civil wars. Later, the 1707 Union of England and Scotland, though highly contentious, embodied a customs union with equalization of duty on designated items, including an enhanced malt tax, which caused riots in Scotland. With enhanced duties on wines and spirits, smuggling became widespread during the 18th and early 19th cents., partly because effective policing was impossible and partly because it was socially approved. In 1733 Walpole was nearly brought down by the Excise crisis. In the North American colonies, imposition of customs duties on such items as newspapers and Indian tea, though amounting to less than 1 per cent of average colonial income, contributed to the outbreak of war against the British.

By the late 18th cent. the customs and excise, though still stretched by smuggling and evasion, had become increasingly efficient. Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, was a commissioner of customs in Scotland, while the poet Robert Burns served as an exciseman at Dumfries. In the 19th cent., growing belief in free trade persuaded governments to reduce customs duties where possible, but increasing international competition towards the end of the century produced a call for protective tariffs which, articulated by Joseph Chamberlain, split the Conservative Party in 1903. Protectionist arguments made progress after the First World War, but one of the objects of the European Economic Community, after the Second World War, was to reduce customs duties between member states.

Ian Donnachie

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"customs and excise." The Oxford Companion to British History. . 23 Feb. 2019 <>.

"customs and excise." The Oxford Companion to British History. . (February 23, 2019).

"customs and excise." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved February 23, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.