Panama Papers: A History of Tax Evasion from Ancient Rome to the French Revolution to 19th-Century New Jersey

Apr 7, 2016 9:05 am ET

The “Panama Papers” didn’t come out of nowhere. Ever since ancient Rome imposed tax burdens on the wealthy, the wealthy have been trying to squirrel assets away from the reach of local law.

The more than 11 million emails, corporate records and financial spreadsheets leaked this week are a reminder that prominent politicians, executives and celebrities regularly hide their wealth in tax havens scattered around the world from the British Virgin Islands to Luxembourg and the Seychelles.

By some estimates, at least $20 trillion in financial assets — not counting art, real estate, precious metals and other physical wealth — is invested in the dozens of countries that offer secrecy and tax avoidance to anyone with a bank account.

Around the time of Bastille Day in 1789, Swiss banks were already offering confidentiality — for a fee — to

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