The history of taxation in American has a long and infamous history. Since the imposition of the very first tax --- The Navigation Tax of 1651 --- taxes have been wildly unpopular in America. When the Constitution was written and ratified, the only taxes allowed were to pay the debt and provide for the common defense and general welfare. At times, taxation was implemented during wars to fund the government and the war effort, with no intention of becoming permanent. However, since 1913, the United States of America has adhered to a communist plank second only to the abolition of all private property: a progressive or graduated income tax.
What purpose does an income tax serve? In our four-part series on taxes, we'll explore its history in America and how a tax once promised to never climb above seven percent has, at times, ballooned to 77 percent at the hands of an out-of-control government.
Part I: How Income Tax Began
When the Constitution was written and ratified, the only taxes allowed by America's founding document were to pay the debt and provide for the common defense and general welfare. "Welfare" meant the general well-being of the people, not government handouts to people who didn't work for a living.
During the War of 1812, Congress imposed America's first sales tax. But even then, just on gold, silverware and jewelry. Amazingly, in 1817, several years after the war of 1812 had been won, Congress ended all internal taxation on Americans, including sales tax, relying solely on tariffs on imported goods to fund the government.
It wasn't until the Civil War of 1862, in order to pay for the increasingly high cost of the war that the United States Congress adopted America's first income tax --- three percent for wage earners between $600 and $10,000, and higher for those making over $10,000. Sales and excise taxes were imposed, as well as the nation's first inheritance tax. The Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Office was created and granted the power to levy and collect taxes, a power the Constitution had given solely to the United States Congress. In 1872, with the Civil War long over, Congress eliminated the income tax.
Then came the era of progressivism.
After progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected president in 1912, the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution made the income tax permanent in 1913. The amendment gave Congress the legal authority to tax income --- of both individuals and corporations. Advocates promised the highest tax rate would never climb above seven percent, but just two years later, it was already at 15 percent.
With the onslaught of World War I, the federal government made the case that tax rates must be raised to finance the war effort. In 1916, the top rate leapt from 15 to 67 percent, and the next year to 77 percent. Two constitutional presidents --- Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge --- fought and succeeded in cutting spending by 50 percent and lowering income tax rates. By 1925, the tax rate had been slashed from 77 percent to 25 percent.
Throughout our nation's history, the wealthy have been punished with egregious taxes, but nothing could compare to the unbelievable burden placed on the most successful Americans in 1944, when the federal government raised the top tax rate to 94 percent of every dollar earned over $200,000. It's difficult to believe that any American would find it right and moral for a government to confiscate all but six to 10 percent of a person's income.
The highest rate fell from 70 to 50 percent in 1981 and then to 28 percent in 1986.
It should be noticed that the second plank of the Communist Manifesto, right after the abolition of all private property, is a progressive or graduated income tax. The United States of America has adhered to that communist plank since 1913. The nation that first instituted communism --- Russia --- abandoned the progressive or graduated income tax in 1998 for a flat tax of 13 percent, growing the country's revenue by 28 percent.
Listen to the Full Series on Taxes