Spanish-American War: Death, Taxes, and Incompetence

By Folsom, Burton | Freeman, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Spanish-American War: Death, Taxes, and Incompetence


Folsom, Burton, Freeman


Remember the Maine!" was the battle cry that led America into the SpanishAmerican War in 1898. The mysterious explosion of the US.S. Maine in Havana harbor killed 260 Americans and triggered hostility toward Spain, the suspected culprit. Spain was no threat to U.S. interests, but some Americans wanted to help the Cubans, who were struggling under Spanish rule, and others had visions of creating an American empire.

Exactly one hundred years ago, on December 10, 1898, the United States signed the peace treaty ending its short and victorious war with Spain. What is not widely known is, first, how inept the U.S. government was in organizing the war, and second, how the tax code changed as a result of the war. Those changes-higher taxes-became part of American life ever after.

The war was expensive, and taxpayers were squeezed. Congress hiked taxes on tobacco and alcohol, and also passed the first inheritance tax in American history. Those higher taxes remained in place after the war (except for a brief repeal of the inheritance tax). Internal revenue collections never exceeded $162 million in any year from the Civil War era to 1897. After the Spanish-American War, annual internal revenue collections never fell below $230 million. During the conflict, the United States also recorded its largest deficit since the Civil War years.

Government Ineptitude

The man in charge of organizing an army to fight Spain was the secretary of war, Russell Alger-a Detroit lumber baron and former governor of Michigan. Most historians of the Spanish-American War say that Alger did a dismal job. At one level, he was weak and unprepared. On March 9, 1898, six weeks before the U.S. declared war on Spain, Congress allocated $50 million "for national defense and for each and every purpose connected therewith." But Alger never insisted that any of it be used to prepare an army to fight.

In April, when the war began, Alger desperately struggled to equip the Army for battles in Cuba. Disaster followed disaster. For example, the soldiers were issued wool uniforms for a summer war in a tropical climate. The mess pans were leftovers from the Civil War. Few soldiers received modern rifles; most ended up with outdated Springfields, and some, like Michigan's 32nd regiment, had no rifles at all and never made it overseas. Those who did make it to Cuba ate food so sickening that soldiers called it "embalmed beef," and a special war commission later investigated what was in it.

Alger, of course, blamed the slow-moving bureaucracy, including the legions of political appointees in the War Department, for his problems. Alger himself, however, had to take full responsibility for appointing William R. …

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