100 Years of the Federal Income Tax

U.S. Senator Norris Brown of Nebraska. NSHS RG2411-668-b

As April 15 approaches, American taxpayers may note that this year marks the100th anniversary of the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution empowering Congress to impose a federal income tax. Proposed by Republican Senator Norris Brown of Nebraska, the amendment was passed by Congress on July 2, 1909, and was ratified by the required thirty-six states on February 3, 1913. Nebraska ratified the amendment on February 9, 1911, the nineteenth state to do so.  

The Omaha Daily Bee reported on February 5, 1913: “When Senator Brown late this afternoon rose to inform the senate that thirty-six states, through their legislatures had ratified the income tax amendment, . . . the senior senator reflected the pride he felt in being the author of the resolution that made the amendment possible.” The Bee noted: “It is no small honor to have one’s name attached to an amendment to the constitution, but such honor belongs to Senator Brown, and he very naturally showed his gratification that the requisite number of states had finally ratified the amendment, which now becomes number sixteen of the constitution, the first to be adopted since civil war times.”

March 15 was the filing deadline when this poster was printed by the U.S. Treasury Department in 1944. NSHS 13000-2562

The history of the federal income tax goes back to the Civil War when Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1861 that included a tax on personal incomes to help pay war expenses. The tax was repealed ten years later. In 1894 Congress enacted a flat-rate federal income tax, which was ruled unconstitutional the following year by the U.S. Supreme Court because it was a direct tax not apportioned according to the population of each state. The Sixteenth Amendment, ratified in 1913, removed this objection by allowing the federal government to tax the income of individuals without regard to the population of each state.  

April 15 has not always been the filing deadline. March 1 was the date specified by Congress in 1913, after the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment. In 1918 Congress pushed the date forward to March 15, where it remained until the tax overhaul of 1954, when the date was again moved ahead to April 15. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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