The American Tax Tradition

Originial Form 1040Although T.S. Eliot wasn’t thinking about the federal tax deadline when he described April as “the cruelest month,” his words have a special resonance for those of us who will spend the next few nights chained to our desks with a calculator in one hand and a Form 1040 in the other. This is indeed a cruel time of year for the American taxpayer—complicated forms, audits, long lines at the post office; how did we get to this point? The first federal income tax in American history was enacted on August 5, 1861. At that time, the Lincoln administration needed to pay for an expensive war and to reassure nervous northern financiers that it could cover the interest on the government bonds it was floating. A modest three percent tax was imposed on those earning more than $800 a year (a sizeable income in those days). Ten years later, the tax was repealed. In the 1890s, Congress attempted to enact a flat income tax, but it was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. In order to bypass the court, progressives added the 16th amendment to the constitution, which grants Congress the “power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived.” Not long afterwards, President Wilson signed into law an income tax designed to limit the power and privileges of the country’s wealthiest citizens. But by the time World War II rolled around, the federal income tax code had become more democratic. Between 1939 and 1945, 39 million new taxpayers were added to the government’s “accounts receivable” list. Since then, taxes have been cut and raised by politicians anxious to win votes, balance the federal budget, or manage the economy. As you struggle to file before this year’s April 17 deadline, take comfort in knowing that you’re carrying on an American tradition. Yeah, right. Pass the calculator.

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