Income Taxes: A Progressive Era Phenomenon


April 15 is traditionally the income tax deadline in America (though this year, the IRS gave us a grace period until April 18). There is no task that spells adulting more than doing your taxes. We all hate it. We all grumble about it. We all stress about it. It’s on our minds at this time of year. Even in my peer support group recently, the conversation fell on taxes when we were all supposed to be talking about our issues. 

In fact, I’m betting when tax time comes around, most of us feel like The Beatles in their 1966 song “Mr. Taxman”. Ironically, the Beatles wrote the song when Britain was imposing higher taxes on the wealthy. The Beatles, by this stage in their careers, fell into that category, so they weren’t too happy about this.

Got questions? The cartoon above shows the Secretary of the Treasury, William G. McAdoo, being bombarded with questions about taxes over the phone on his “busy days”. If y’all think taxes are complicated in the 21st century, imagine how confused Americans were in the early days of income taxes!

Photo Credit: Secretary McAdoo’s Busy Days, illustrated cartoon, by Clifford Barryman, from Washington Evening Star, 3 November 1913: Nara & Dvids Public Domain Archive/No known copyright restrictions

We can thank the good-intentioned people of the Progressive Era for income taxes. But the story of income taxes in America actually begins about forty years earlier. The government imposed a tax on personal income in 1861 to help fund the Civil War at that time but stopped this in the 1870s. Then, Congress passed a flat-rate income tax during the Gilded Age, but it was ruled unconstitutional because it didn’t take into account the incomes in different states (think: a farmer living in Kentucky isn’t going to be able to pay the same tax rate as a stockbroker living in New York City because his income is way lower). 

The 16th Amendment, passed in 1909 and ratified in 1913, finally put the income tax into place, though the actual tax deadline (April 15) wasn’t set until the 1950s. When you look at the evolution of early 20th-century society and politics, you can understand why this would be a progressive era phenomenon. At the turn of the 20th century, people in America were trying to fix the damage the Gilded Agers had done, and they wanted the government to help them. The hands-off government of the 19th century wasn’t working anymore. In order for the government to intervene and help, they needed funds. So they had to get those funds from the people. Hence, taxes. 

I know this is tough to remember when you’re slogging through your Form 8829 trying to figure out whether the IRS will come after you for declaring that 30% of your internet bill you used for your work because maybe it was more like 15% (as my CPA says, “don’t poke the bear”). But maybe when you’re trying to scrape together the dollars to pay Mr. Taxman this year, it will help to remember the original intention of the 16th Amendment. 

Although the protagonist of the Adele Gossling Mysteries isn’t dealing with taxes yet (Book 1 takes place in 1903, before the 16th Amendment), she does deal with other Progressive Era political issues. And who knows? Maybe when the series reaches the 1910s, there will be a book about Adele investigating the murder of a local taxman!

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