For many Americans, Feb. 25, 1913, is a date that will live in infamy. For it was on that cussed day that Secretary of State Phillander C. Knox declared that the 16th Amendment to the Constitution had been ratified by the requisite number of states.
The 16th Amendment, you may be reminded every April 15, legalized the federal income tax.
Prior to 1913, the federal government obtained revenues through the sale of lands and the imposition of tariffs and excise taxes on whiskey and tobacco. Often the biggest worry in Washington was how to dispose of the surplus derived from such revenues.
When the Civil War broke out, the fear of an unbalanced budget rushed through the Capitol's corridors and an income tax was passed. A Bureau of Internal Revenue was established, and its collectors went out into the land with forms, questions and the first federal entitlements: the collectors got a percentage of what they took in.
Fortunately, most Yankees did not make enough money to qualify for the tax, and the legislation was repealed in 1872. However, this first experience with the income tax made clear that the Feds could flex their muscles. When a citizen of Springfield, Ill., unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of the act, the federal government imposed penalties and seized several pieces of property, including a house and bar.
The interest in income taxes was rekindled in the 1890s. Not that the federal government was down and out at the time, although, to be sure, there was a major depression. The main instigator appeared to be growing regionalism, specifically West and South versus the East. The rise of industrialization in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, coupled with an identifiable number of business millionaires, was to be contrasted with major economic woes confronting America's farmers, especially in the Great Plains and Cotton Belt where overproduction, falling prices and indebtedness were widespread. Additionally, a farmer's main asset was land, which appreciated and served as the basis of local taxation. Business people in the East had major investments in other kinds of property (mostly tax-free) and through the tariff appeared to be granted protection from foreign competition.
And so Congress fiddled with the tariff and income tax in 1894, lowering the former and re-introducing the latter. But this time the Supreme Court held that the tax was invalid on grounds that the Constitution required such a direct tax to be apportioned among the states according to population. The only alternative was a constitutional amendment, which was submitted to the states by Congress on July 9, 1909.
In the same year Congress--under the guise of an excise levy--placed a 1 percent tax on net corporate income above $5,000 for the privilege of doing business. Much to the chagrin of corporate officials, the tax was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1910. hen the 16th Amendment was finally ratified in 1913, Congress again lowered the tariff and implemented the income tax. With the exception of corporations and well-heeled individuals, the first taxes in the 20th century affected only a tiny fraction of the population, less than 1 percent. Most citizens never knew what a 1040 was until World War II, when the tax was democratized and a withholding system was introduced.
Well, who's to blame for all this? Certainly not Connecticut, Rhode Island, Florida and Utah--all of which voted against the 16th Amendment. Not Pennsylania or Virginia--they took no action at all on the amendment.
Maybe Wyoming, which provided the 36th vote necessary to approve the amendment in February, 1913. And an appropriate state at that--one whose name the IRS might adapt as its motto: Why owe me?