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Hate Paying Income Tax? Blame William H. Taft

March 31, 2020 in History

By Patrick J. Kiger

Republican president William Taft successfully advocated for a permanent, national income tax.

Every year, millions of Americans have to amass their financial records and fill out forms—or pay professionals to do it for them—in order to file their federal tax returns. It’s an annual ritual that traditionally takes place in the spring, though in 2020, the Internal Revenue Service delayed the April 15 filing deadline by three months, due to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 virus outbreak.

For those who grumble over having to contemplate those numbered boxes on the IRS Form 1040, they have William Howard Taft to thank. The nation’s 27th President, who served just a single term from 1909 to 1913, is probably best known for being the heaviest president in U.S. history as well as the first to ride in an official presidential limousine, and for his obsession with golf. But Taft also established the federal income tax as a permanent part of Americans’ lives.

READ MORE: Why We Pay Taxes

Abraham Lincoln First Imposed an Income Tax

Taft didn’t actually invent the idea of a federal income tax. That would be Abraham Lincoln, who in 1861 convinced Congress to pass the Revenue Act and impose a temporary 3 percent tax on incomes over $800, as an emergency measure to help finance the massive military expenditures required by the Civil War. That measure was allowed to expire in 1872.

Investors panicking in the New York Stock Exchange in 1893.

The idea of a federal income tax resurfaced after the Panic of 1893, an economic downturn so severe that it caused a quarter of the nation’s labor force to lose their jobs. As Jeffrey Rosen notes in his 2018 biography of Taft, populist Democrats argued that the tariffs and excise taxes that the government depended upon for revenue put a disproportionate burden upon struggling farmers and workers, and argued for a tax that would capture more of affluent Americans’ income.

In 1894, they joined forces with progressive Republicans to pass legislation that created a 2 percent tax on incomes over $4,000, along with reduced tariffs. But that tax didn’t last long. In an 1895 case, Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Company, the Supreme Court found that directly taxing Americans’ income was unconstitutional.

Even so, progressives’ desire to pass an income tax and cut back on taxing imports …read more


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