A Brief History of Taxes in the U.S. & Why They are Due on April 15th

Ian K. asks: Why are taxes due on April 15th?

1040As Ben Franklin wrote in a 1789 letter to Baptiste Leroy, “… in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Depending on your belief in vampires, this is most certainly true. But did you know that income taxes in the United States didn’t exist until 1861? In fact, it wasn’t until 1913 when the income tax became the official law of the land.

The first document that governed the United States was not the Constitution, but rather the Articles of Confederation. The AOC asked each state to “enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare.” What it didn’t do was give Congress, or the federal government, the power to tax. The framers of the AOC feared any centralized government, a direct result of being subjects of the British empire and forced to pay taxes with little to no say nor representation in Britain’s government. After all, “no taxation without representation” become a rallying cry used by many, including George Washington when he protested the policy in 1769 by bringing a series of resolutions before the Virginia House of Burgesses. Needless to say, the newly formed country was pretty sensitive to taxation in general.

The AOC left the states’ to determine their own taxes. In turn, this left the new government without money coming in and, essentially, broke. Not a good way to start out. Even the citizens of the new country seemed to agree that this was a poor course of action.

In May 1787, the Philadelphia Convention was assembled “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”

The new Constitution, officially adopted , laid out Congress’s role in collecting taxes in article I, section 8:

The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.

In section 9, it reads:

No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in Proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken.

Congress now had the ability to tax items, but, for all intents and purposes, could not issue a direct tax. While an improvement on the Articles of Confederation, it still left a considerable gap in the government’s ability to levy and collect taxes.

Additionally, what items Congress taxed didn’t always sit well with the populace. In 1794, Pennsylvania farmers, angered by tariffs put upon whisky, came after tax collectors. They tarred, feathered, and burned down their houses. This became known as the Whisky Rebellion.

Property taxes, excise taxes, and stiffer duties were all enacted in America at the turn of the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the Civil War when the income tax entered into the public lexicon. In order to help finance a war that turned out to be, at that time, the most expensive in the nation’s history, the Revenue Act of 1861 was enacted. Signed into law by President Lincoln, it imposed a tax of three percent on individual incomes over eight hundred dollars annually, thus becoming the nation’s first flat tax.

Immediately, there were problems. First off, there was no enforcement mechanism, as in if individuals didn’t pay, what was going to happen? According to the law, nothing. Second of all, only three percent of the country’s population earned that much in a year. So, basically the act called for three percent from three percent of the population, which amounted to not nearly enough to support the war effort.

In 1862, the act was repealed and replaced with the Revenue Act of 1862, which established the Commission for Internal Revenue (the precursor to the IRS) and a progressive tax, that hiked the tax rate on those who made more. This got closer to the intended goals of the original act and actually did help fund the Civil War, though the Revenue Act of 1864 further raised the needed funds. In 1872, in the post-war environment, all the tax acts were repealed.

Direct taxes or a flat tax didn’t crop up as a major issue again until 1894 with the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act. Wilson-Gorman, named after the senators who introduced it, called for a two percent flat tax on income over four grand, which accounted for less than ten percent of the US population. A year later, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. It wouldn’t be until 1913 and the 16th amendment when this issue was brought up again in a public forum.

The 16th amendment reads, “Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” And thus, the modern tax system was born. Much like the previous incarnations, it at first only imposed taxes on the ultra-rich, those making over three thousand dollars annually.

As for the tax due date, since the 16th amendment was ratified on February 3, 1913, they gave the affected a year to get their finances in order. Well, a year and a month. The first official tax day was March 1, 1914.

Four years later, income taxes were raised to expand the base of people paying (from one percent of the population to five percent) and raise the amount due. They also moved the due date to March 15th to partially accommodate the extra work load on those processing the taxes.

By 1945, over 45 million Americans were paying incomes taxes. And the due date was still March 15th. 1955 brought a few relatively minor tax codes, but a major change to tax day. It was moved to a month later, April 15th, where it still sits today, over a half century later.

While the IRS‘s official reason to why they made the change was to spread out the workload for it’s employees and give them more time to process the returns, some conspiracy theorists have a different idea as to the reason. Said “tax guru” Ed McCaffery to Fortune Magazine, “Pushing the deadline back gives the government more time to hold on to the money.”  For what purpose precisely, that wasn’t elaborated on. But either way, whether right or wrong, we can only imagine the original framers of the Articles of Confederation would have been quite nervous if they knew about direct income taxation from a powerful centralized government.

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Bonus Facts:

  • As many know, in the 1920s and 30s, it wasn’t an assassin’s bullet or violent crimes that brought down many notorious mobsters, most infamously Al Capone. Rather, it was the ever-watchful eye of the IRS with charges of tax evasion. The 1916 Revenue Act, a revision of the 16th amendment, changed the wording in it from all “lawful income” must be taxed to simply “income.” This was to clarify that no matter how you made your money, legally or otherwise, you must pay taxes on it. And this is exactly how the IRS played a huge part in finally capturing Al Capone.
  • Even a nuclear war won’t get you out of paying your taxes or keep the Internal Revenue Service from coming after you. Since the 1960s, the U.S. Treasury Department has had an Internal Revenue Manual guiding IRS employees on how to function in the event of wars, natural disasters, pandemic influenza, terrorist attacks and yes, nuclear explosions. According to the manual, the agency would expect to resume assessing and collecting taxes within 30 days of the attack/emergency.  Several proposals of guidelines are in place, depending on the situation, that include cash grants to survivors, the government paying off outstanding bank loans and mortgages, the government buying assets destroyed in the attack and abandoning the existing tax policies for new ones that will fund the rebuilding process.
  • Normally the federal government is quite strict about deadlines, but the date of tax day has actually moved several times on a year to year basis over the last fifty years. In 2011, Emancipation Day, which is celebrated in DC on April 16th, happened to fall on a Saturday. So, they celebrated it on Friday, April 15th, or Tax Day. To accommodate this, the federal government moved the due date for taxes to Monday, April 18th. If there is one thing the government likes more than regularity, it’s federal holidays.
  • Ben Franklin wasn’t the first to note the certainty of death and taxes; in 1726, Daniel Defoe noted in his The Political History of the Devil, “Things as certain as Death and Taxes, can be more firmly believ’d.”
  • How do we know vampires don’t exist?  If each vampire ate just one meal per day, starting with just one vampire with each victim then turning into a vampire, it would take about one month for the entire human population to become vampires.
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  • Other interesting things
    15th of March so happens to be the Ides of March. As I previously said there were only 10 months in the Roman calendar. The month of January and February were subsequently added. There is now also the interesting movie The Ides of March.
    The financial accounting calender can differ in different countries. Some countries use 31 December as year end while some use 30 June
    Some accounting systems work on a 12 month reporting period being 52 weeks while some people use 4 weeks being 4 x 13 = 52 weeks
    As noted above death and taxes are the only 2 things certain in life. In some countries tax has to be paid on a dead persons estate. In some countries this law applies and then when a different Government comes into power the tax is scrapped and then another Government reinstates this law
    Law to me is very confusing because the Magistrates Court can make a ruling and when this ruling is appealed in the Supreme Court the decision can be overturned. Then if the matter is taken further to the High Court you can have a different outcome depending on who are the Judges in the High Court.
    This can happen in the case of The Taxation Department making a ruling and sends the company a tax bill. The company can lodge an objection. If the objection is over ruled the the company has the option to go through the legal system as noted above

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Michael Gill: Great comments. Thanks for sharing 🙂

      • I would like to add that in some countries you are forced to do Jury duty. This can have a major impact if you work in a small to medium sized company. I for one am totally against this law because not only would I find it hard to judge someone but I would find it very hard to concentrate 100% all the time during that trial. This is more applicable if the law in the country is the death sentence as opposed to life sentence.

    • “As I previously said there were only 10 months in the Roman calendar. The month of January and February were subsequently added.”
      Actually, the months added were July (for Julius Caesar) and August (for Augustus Caesar). That’s why October is called Octo (8) ber. October was the eighth month of the year before July and August were added.

  • The line:

    …some conspiracy theorists have a different idea as to the reason. Said “tax guru” Ed McCaffery to Fortune Magazine, “Pushing the deadline back gives the government more time to hold on to the money.”…

    isn’t so much of a conspiracy theory as a basic fact of cash management. The longer the money is in the hands of the treasury, the more interest it earns the government. Entire bureaus and divisions of agencies and departments in our government that are responsible for paying the bills wait until the last minute before the bill is due in order to maximize that interest. For you or I, that isn’t much money (pennies, at most), but in the sums the government processes, it “saves” billions a year.

  • “How do we know vampires don’t exist? If each vampire ate just one meal per day, starting with just one vampire with each victim then turning into a vampire, it would take about one month for the entire human population to become vampires.”

    That’s not how vampires work. The bite itself doesn’t turn humans into vampires. That’s werewolves. And usually a vampire’s meal involves consuming all the blood in a human body resulting in their death. Also, that’s such a bizarre thing to tack onto the end there. Even if vampires never killed their prey and their bites functioned like werewolf bites resulting in all humans becoming vampires in one month, people would notice. And then starve to death because vampires don’t feed on each other.