Listen to this story on “Retropod”:
It was 1861. Lincoln was in a financial bind. Also, he was in a war. To raise money to fight the Confederacy, Lincoln pushed for and won passage of an income tax and, a year or so later, established the Internal Revenue Bureau to collect what was owed.
Though Lincoln’s tax was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1895 — the 16th Amendment, passed in 1913, created the income tax we endure today — historians and legal scholars credit the 16th president, a moderate Republican, with laying the foundation for progressive taxation enforced by the tax man.
These days, the people who know that wield it as political artillery.
What almost nobody remembers is how the New York Times’ editorial page, derided by President Trump and other modern-day Republicans, supported Lincoln and the income tax, particularly because the rich owed more.
People with incomes of less than $600 paid nothing. People who made more than $600 but less than $10,000 paid a 3 percent tax. Those with incomes above $10,000 paid a 5 percent tax. Luxury taxes were also imposed on tobacco, whiskey, cattle stock and other material and consumption desires of the wealthy. (Proposed taxes on watches, pianos and dogs were eliminated before passage of the income tax law.)
Editorial writers at the Times seemed pleased.
“The income taxes so framed as to place the heaviest burthen upon that portion of the people who have the largest material stake in the county and the nearest interest in the integrity, public faith and lasting stability of the Government; the men of money and of productive stocks and other income paying securities,” the Times wrote on March 4, 1862, using grammar and spelling that no longer make sense.
The Times also noted that an income tax would encourage citizens (at least the male ones) to be less tolerant of government corruption, perhaps laying the foundation for the investigative reporting that sprang up in newspapers after the Civil War.
“When every man in the community — every man in the United States — finds he must put his hands into his pocket and draw out a portion of his hard-earned gold and silver to deliver to a Government agent, he will not be indifferent any longer to how that money goes,” the Times wrote. “If it is stolen by the Collector, or squandered by Congress through lobby legislation, or sequestered by Cabinet officers through nepotism in contracts, the people who have paid will know it, and they will know how to punish.”
The Times was not totally in the tank for taxes, though. For one thing, the editorial page opposed taxes on newspapers. “It is certainly remarkable that republican America should impose a tax upon newspapers, the great educators in modern times,” the paper said in another editorial. That seems fairly self-centered until reading what else the newspaper opposed, such as taxes on locomotion.
“Social intercourse between people composing a nation is essential to domestic harmony,” the editorial said. “To Southern soldiers captured on the battle field, the Northerners are simply monsters. The moment the two mingle, they cannot possibly see what they are fighting for. People living at a distance are always, in imagination, enemies of each other.”
Wishful thinking. Thanks, Abe.
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