Happy anniversary US Income Tax!

What would modern news-blog coverage of the American Civil War have been like?

I have been following the Civil War Daily Gazette, a site which is chronicling day by day the events of the American Civil War 150 years after the fact.  If you are interested in history, add this great blog to your RSS feed reader, make yourself a WDTPRS mug of piping hot Mystic Monk Coffee, and check each morning.

Yesterday we read about the anniversary of the institution of … wait for it… personal income tax!   I missed it yesterday because I have been having some intermittent internet problems.

Monday, August 5, 1861

In the hallowed halls of the Federal Congress, Washington DC legislators established the nation’s first personal income tax. Any United States citizen with an income of more than $800 a year was required to tithe 3% to the Federal Government. An income tax had been attempted before, during the War of 1812, but the war ended before the tax act could go into effect.

The Revenue Act of 1861 mostly concerned itself with customs duties. It also levied a direct tax of $20,000,000 upon the states. Each state had to come up with a certain amount to be paid to the Federal Government. Pennsylvania, for example, was required to pay $1,946,719.33, while Oregon was to muster $35,140.66. Even states that had seceded were taxed. As the Union Army advanced, the tax would be collected. Most loyal states simply absorbed the tax into their budget.

The Act was to go into effect on January 1, 1862 and was expected to net $90,000,000 total, or roughly $4 per head from the loyal states.

Today there was a fascinating article which concerned Abraham Lincoln going to the Senate chambers to sign Senator Lyman Trumbull’s Confiscation Act, which dealt with the issue of whether slaves in service of the Confederacy who were captured were still property or contraband, or … what?  What to do with them?  Lincoln’s signing this bill is thought by some as as the first step in freeing the slaves.

Only 150 years ago.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. RichardT says:

    You are lucky to have avoided it for so long; we had already introduced income tax three times (and abolished it twice) before then.

    The last time income tax was abolished in Britain was in 1816, by Nicholas Vansittart, who was also a supporter of Catholic Emancipation.

  2. cgvnau says:

    Just think, at one point income taxes were actually unconstitutional. The Constitution specifically forbade any taxes based on a citizen’s income. The first time President Lincoln tried to establish an income tax it was struck down by the Supreme Court.

  3. BobP says:

    Couldn’t they get China to finance the war?

  4. We’re supposed to pay an income tax? Huh, learn something new every day.

  5. albinus1 says:

    What would modern news-blog coverage of the American Civil War have been like?

    It probably would have focused to the exclusion of all else on the bloodshed, violence, and suffering, and would have been accompanied by calls to for “someone” to do “something” to find a “peaceful” resoluation “soon”. And so there would have been pressure for a quick resolution that recognized Confederate independence and left slavery in existence.

    Similarly, if WWII had been covered in the modern fashion, there would have been a lot of attention paid to the sufferings not only of enemy civilians but of our own troops, and, again, there would have been a lot of cries for “someone” to do “something” to bring things to a “peaceful” resolution “soon”. Again, there would have been a lot of pressure for a quick, negotiated settlement, one that left the Nazis in power in Europe and the militarists in power in Japan.

    Some wars need to be fought, and the civilians at home don’t need to be told everything at the time about how the fighting is going.

    Whenever someone asserts the old canard that “war never solves” anything, I ask him whether he would have been willing to end WWII by a negotiated settlement that left the Nazis in power. He usually sputters and says, “That’s not the point!” But is *is* the point. Wars *do* change things, and they *do* solve some problems. Granted, they often create other problems, sometimes massive ones; but that’s true of every human action.

    What ever else one might say about the Civil War, chattel slavery as a legal institution hasn’t existed in this country since 1865.

  6. Simon_GNR says:

    Mention of income tax in relation to the American Civil War reminds me that in Great Britain income tax was introduced in 1799 to fund the Napoleonic War. Such was the mistrust of the government by parliament that income tax has only ever been a temporary measure applicable for only one fiscal year – the power of the government to levy it has to be renewed by annual act of parliament. As mentioned above by RichardT, British income tax was discontinued and then reintroduced twice in the nineteenth century (and helped to fund our side of the War of 1812!), but it was reintroduced in 1842 by Robert Peel to help deal with a budget deficit and has been with us ever since!

    In connection with the American Civil War, I heard a remarkable story (from an authoritative source on matters of UK taxation, as it happens) about how a Union army veteran’s pension (I can’t remember if it was tax-free) kept being paid until about 1996 – about 130 years after the war finished. He was about 16 years old when he served in the Union army, and when he was about 85 (in the 1930’s) he married a 16 year old girl; this girl lived to a ripe old age in the 1990’s and was receiving the veteran’s widow’s pension for over 60 years. Presumably, the U.S. Government had not envisaged, nor budgeted for, paying out on such a pension for that length of time!

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