Tax Day and the 16th Amendment

Happy Tax Day! The celebratory tone might be a bit out of place, but from a constitutional perspective tax day, and the 16th Amendment which created it, are fascinating examples of politics in action.

The 16th Amendment, which authorized the Federal Government to levy an income tax, was passed on February 3rd, 1913. Prior to the 16th Amendment, the Federal Government was funded almost exclusively through tariff and excise taxes. Direct taxes, stipulated by Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution, had to be apportioned among the states by population, which prevented a singular federal income tax.

In the Supreme Court case, Pollock v. Farmers’ Land & Trust Co. (1894), the Supreme Court held that certain taxes on property passed at the end of the Civil War were indeed unconstitutional. This helped fuel the drive for an official constitutional amendement to permit the federal government to establish an income tax. Different groups were interested in an income tax for different reasons. Some feared that the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few individuals was dangerous to a democracy, while Republicans were eyeing the growing navies of other powers like Britain and Japan and calling for a stronger response. That call was answered when President Taft proposed the 16th Amendment, which upon ratification nullified the Pollock ruling.

It originally called for March 15th to be tax day, but in 1955 the date was moved forward a month to April 15th, to give the IRS more time to process the income tax returns, and, at the time, to let the federal government hold on to your money a little bit longer!

More Resources:

Infographic on the History of Tax Day

Additional Amendments to the Constitution

Pollock v. Farmer’s Land & Trust Co. (1894) – Oyez Project

 

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