It’s like Franklin said, ‘Nothing is certain but death, taxes’

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 13, 2013

“In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Ben Franklin’s words come to mind, especially when it’s time to pay the Internal Revenue Service.

One of his most famous quotes, this statement sounds like Franklin’s wit and wisdom from his Poor Richard’s Almanac, but it’s actually from a letter Ben Franklin wrote to a French physicist and writer in 1789.

During the Revolutionary War, Franklin served as U.S. Ambassador to France and developed a friendship with Jean Baptise Leroy. They corresponded with each other, possibly because both men were pioneers in the study of electricity.

The complete sentence quoted from Franklin’s letter reads, “Our Constitution is in actual operation. Everything appears to promise that it will last; but nothing in this world is certain but death and taxes.”

The Constitution of the United States of America had been adopted by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia two years earlier on Sept. 17, 1787.  Congress was given taxation powers in Article 1, Section 8. The first tax passed was an excise tax on whiskey in 1792. Income taxes were levied during the Civil War, abolished in 1872, and passed again in 1894.  The 16th Amendment passed in 1913 gave Congress authority to tax personal income.

Franklin was 83 when he wrote this letter. He must have thought his death was near. In the last paragraph of the letter, he said, “My health continues much as it has been for some time, except that I grow thinner and weaker, so that I cannot expect to hold out much longer.” Five months later, Ben Franklin died and was buried in Philadelphia.

I researched the meaning of the phrase, “nothing is certain but death and taxes” in several online dictionaries.  One source said Franklin used the “inevitability of death to highlight the difficulty in avoiding the burden of taxes.”  Another stated, “Everything in life is unpredictable, except that you can be sure you will die and you will have to pay taxes.”  And, even after one dies, there can be estate taxes to pay.

There’s something else after death that is certain.  Hebrews 9:27 says all of us will die and after this comes the judgment and “every one of us shall give an account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:12).  How do we prepare?  “You must be born again…The characteristic of new birth is that I yield myself so completely to God that Christ is formed in me,” states Oswald Chambers.

In a letter to George Whitfield in 1764, Ben Franklin wrote, “That Being, who gave me existence, and through almost threescore years has been continually showering his favors upon me, whose very chastisements have been blessings to me; can I doubt that he loves me? And, if he loves me, can I doubt that he will go on to take care of me, not only here but hereafter?”

When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees whether taxes should be paid (Matthew 22), He held up a coin and asked what image was imprinted on it.  They replied, “Caesar,” the ruler of their government.  Jesus told them to give Caesar what he is due, and we who are made in the image of God should give God what He is due – ourselves.


Jan White is an award-winning religion columnist.  Her email address is