The Home of the American Citizen After the Tax Bill Has Passed
Joseph J. Thorndike is a contributing editor with Tax Analysts. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Description: Published on July 19, 1862, in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (a New York weekly), this cartoon shows four tax collectors searching the home of an "American citizen." As the agents search under his wife's dress and beneath his children's bed, the taxpayer pleads his case. The caption: "Scroggs says he is ready and willing to pay any amount of tax, but he would like them to leave his wife's crinoline and other domestic trifles alone."
Explanation: This cartoon reflects popular unease about the scope and intrusiveness of federal taxation. On July 1, 1862, Congress passed the Internal Revenue Act of 1862. This wide-ranging measure, designed to help pay for the Union's struggle in the Civil War, had imposed new excise taxes on many goods and services, including liquor, tobacco, playing cards, carriages, yachts, billiard tables, jewelry, patent medicines, and newspaper advertisements. It also created a new federal inheritance tax, a levy on the gross receipts of corporations, banks, and insurance companies, and a tax on dividends or interest that those businesses paid to investors.
The 1862 law also made changes to the federal income tax, introduced only the year before and still very much a work in progress. Lawmakers replaced the flat 3 percent levy of 1861 with a graduated tax: Those making more than $800 annually (about $16,541 in current dollars, according to MeasuringWorth.com) paid a tax of 3 percent, while those making more than $10,000 (or $206,769 in current dollars) paid 5 percent. To collect these -- and other -- federal taxes, Congress also authorized a new Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR). The agency's first commissioner, George Boutwell, proudly described it as "the largest Government department ever organized." His critics, somewhat less proud, called it "an army of officials."
Some members of Congress were unhappy with the BIR as well as the income tax. They had hoped to avoid the creation of a new federal bureaucracy, instead asking state tax officials to collect federal levies. But the sheer number of new federal taxes -- and the uniqueness of some, including the income tax -- made that plan impractical.
Critics of the BIR worried that it would trample the rights of freedom-loving citizens. In particular, they predicted that the new income tax would force tax collectors into private homes, bringing public scrutiny to previously private financial matters. The unhappy and inevitable result? A large and overbearing federal behemoth.
Those complaints were muted during the war, but as this cartoon demonstrates, concerns about the intrusiveness of the income tax -- and the agents collecting it -- were evident from the start. When the war finally ended, BIR critics renewed their attack. As Rep. Dennis McCarthy declared in May 1870:
Those who pay are the exception, those who do not pay are millions; and the whole moral force of the law is a dead letter. The honest man makes a true return; the dishonest hides and covers all he can to avoid this obnoxious tax. It has no moral force. This tax is unequal, perjury-provoking and crime encouraging, because it is at war with the right of a person to keep private and regulate his business affairs and financial matters. Deception, fraud, and falsehood mark its progress everywhere in the process of collection. It creates curiosity, jealousy, and prejudice among the people. It makes the tax gatherer a spy.