Today, April 15, is Tax Day, a tradition less than a century old. During our nation’s infancy the United States government raised revenue easily; it taxed whiskey and tobacco. Since we’ve always been a consumer-driven society, they collected a whole lot. For many years the sin tax money covered most of the government’s expenses.
But when time came to finance the Revolutionary War, government ledger-keepers concluded war was expensive and the fledgling United States struggled to raise enough funds from the thirteen states to pay for it. After the war, each state was assigned a $15 million quota for 1779, with $6 million a year to be paid each of the next eighteen years. Funny how war remains expensive, isn’t it?
But these assessments were state taxes and citizens danced until the Civil War, when an income tax was collected for a decade, 1862-1872. Two decades later, in 1894, the feds revisited this personal tax concept during Grover Cleveland’s presidency, following a move enacted by Congress.
Aggravated citizens pushed back and one year later the Supreme Court ruled the income tax unconstitutional. Income tax advocates dove headlong into the long and cumbersome process of amending the Constitution. Nearly twenty years later (in 1913), with Woodrow Wilson president, the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified and Congress was given the power “to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census of enumeration.”
Homer S. Cummings, chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the Wilson administration, counted the income tax among his party’s most notable accomplishments because it was designed to help the poor.
Wilson was our 28th president, a brilliant intellect of the Progressive Era. President of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910, and Governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913, when Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft divided the Republican Party in 1912, Wilson was elected President.
He proved to be a busy and decisive leader. During his first term Wilson persuaded Congress to pass the Federal Reserve Act, created the Federal Trade Commission to protect consumers, crafted the Clayton Antitrust Act and Federal Farm Loan Act. He also oversaw the creation of America’s first-ever federal progressive income tax in the Revenue Act of 1913.
Narrowly re-elected in 1916, Wilson’s second term was consumed by World War I. Our nation’s neutrality was challenged in early 1917 when the German government proposed a Mexican military alliance in a war against us and began unrestricted submarine warfare, sinking every one of our merchant ships its fleet could find. In April 1917 Wilson asked Congress to declare war.
Wilson focused on diplomacy and finance, leaving the war’s battles to the Army. World War I required our first military draft since the Civil War but the billions raised from the sale of Liberty war bonds aided the cause. For good measure he also promoted labor union growth, supervised agriculture and food production, nationalized the railroads, enacted our first federal drug prohibition, and suppressed anti-war movements. National women’s suffrage was also achieved under Wilson’s presidency, an achievement sometimes lost in the portfolio of big decisions made in serious and troubling times.
Wilson was a very involved leader. During the war’s latter stages, he took personal control of negotiations with Germany, including the armistice. He also went to Paris to create the League of Nations and help shape the Treaty of Versailles, with special attention on creating new nations out of defunct empires. Largely for his efforts to form the League, Woodrow Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Tragically, later in 1919, during a bitter fight with the Republican-controlled Senate over whether or not the U.S. should join the League of Nations he advocated, Wilson collapsed with a debilitating stroke. Despite it, he refused to compromise, which pretty much squashed its chance of ratification. The League of Nations was established, but the United States never joined.
And so, for the 97th straight year since its inception, today we pay our taxes. In my travels I have seen the world, and a stamp in the passport always serves as a friendly, appreciative reminder of what we get for our money. While each of us has our own likes and dislikes about how our money spent, all of us should be proud of what it buys.
Today isn’t just another calendar day, or a day to whine or complain. It’s a day to be grateful for what a century’s worth of collaborative contributions have built. If you have to write a check, pay up and proudly kiss the envelope with gratitude when you drop it off at the post office.
Ours remains a great country with a system admired around the world. All of us should be very proud to be (and own) a part of that. Today is far more than just April 15, Tax Day. It’s an ideal day to be appreciative.
Leave a Reply