The Progressive Income Tax in U.S. History

By Folsom, Burton, Jr. | Ideas on Liberty, May 2003 | Go to article overview

The Progressive Income Tax in U.S. History


Folsom, Burton, Jr., Ideas on Liberty


America's founders rejected the income tax entirely, but when they spoke of taxes they recognized the need for uniformity and equal protection to all citizens. "[A]ll duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States," reads the U.S. Constitution. And 80 years later, in the same spirit, the Fourteenth Amendment promised "equal protection of the laws" to all citizens.

In other words, the principle behind the progressive income tax-the more you earn, the larger the percentage of tax you must pay-would have been appalling to the founders. They recognized that, in James Madison's words, "the spirit of party and faction" would prevail if Congress could tax one group of citizens and confer the benefits on another group.

In Federalist No. 10, Madison asked, "[W]hat are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine?" He went on to say, "The apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of property is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality; yet there is, perhaps, no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party to trample on the rules of justice."

During the 1800s economic thinking in the United States usually conformed to the founders' guiding principles of uniformity and equal protection. One exception was during the Civil War, when a progressive income tax was first enacted. Interestingly, the tax had a maximum rate of 10 percent, and it was repealed in 1872. As Representative Justin Morrill of Vermont observed, "in this country we neither create nor tolerate any distinction of rank, race, or color, and should not tolerate anything else than entire equality in our taxes."

When Congress passed another income tax in 1894-one that only hit the top 2 percent of wealth holders-the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. Stephen Field, a veteran of 30 years on the Court, was outraged that Congress would pass a bill to tax a small voting bloc and exempt the larger group of voters. At age 77, Field not only repudiated Congress's actions, he also penned a prophecy. A small progressive tax, he predicted, "will be but the stepping stone to others, larger and more sweeping, till our political contests will become a war of the poor against the rich."

In 1913, almost 20 years later, the ideas of uniform taxation and equal protection of the law for all citizens were overturned when a constitutional amendment permitting a progressive income tax was ratified. Congress first set the top rate at a mere 7 percent-and married couples were only taxed on income over $4,000 (equivalent to $80,000 today). During the tax debate, William Shelton, a Georgian, supported the income tax "because none of us here have $4,000 incomes, and somebody else will have to pay the tax." As Madison and Field had feared, the seeds of class warfare were sown in the strategy of different rates for different incomes.

It took the politicians less than one generation to hike the tax rates and fulfill Field's prophecy. Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, using the excuses of depression and war, permanently enlarged the income tax. Under Hoover, the top rate was hiked from 24 to 63 percent. Under Roosevelt, the top rate was again raised-first to 79 percent and later to 90 percent. In 1941, in fact, Roosevelt proposed a 99. …

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