By Muriel Bristol | August 15, 2019
The United States was created during its revolution as a loose confederacy of independent states, which then were drawn closer together under the constitution of 1789.
The federal government could not tax citizens of states directly. It could impose tariffs on foreign goods and it could vote “direct taxes.” Direct taxes were apportioned to the states by the relative sizes of their populations. Each sovereign state would then determine in what manner it would raise its apportioned share within its own borders.
With the exception of a Federal income tax imposed briefly as a Civil War emergency measure (see Milton’s US Excise Tax of May 1864), high tariffs and direct taxes were how the Federal government financed itself for the 120 years between 1789 to 1909.
Enter the Progressives, both Democrat and Republican.
DEMOCRATS’ TARIFF VIEWS. Want the Income Tax and Reduction on the Necessaries of Life. Washington, April 15. – For more than four hours the Democratic members of the senate conferred in an effort to agree upon a policy toward tariff legislation. At the end of that time it was announced that they had decided to support an income tax amendment and would present a solid front against any Republican opposition to an income tax for raising revenue. The conference also went on record favoring a general reduction on tariff schedules, particularly those relating to the necessaries of life (Portsmouth Herald, April 15, 1909).
Income Tax Amendments. Washington, May 22. – The coalition of Democratic senators and “progressive Republicans” has been broken so far as the income tax question is concerned, and amendments on that subject will be presented by Senators Bailey and Cummins (Portsmouth Herald, May 22, 1909).
But these advocates of a more “positive,” i.e., a more active, more powerful, and more intrusive, federal government managed to smooth over any differences. More positivity required more money, a lot more money, than tariffs and direct taxation could hope to provide.
Passed by Congress – July 12, 1909
The U.S. Congress passed a resolution on July 12, 1909, sending the proposed Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution out to the States for ratification.
Sixteenth Amendment: The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.
Twenty-five States ratified the amendment between August 10, 1909, and March 2, 1911.
New Hampshire Rejects the Sixteenth Amendment – March 2, 1911
New Hampshire’s Progressive Republican Governor, Robert P. Bass of Peterborough, NH, pushed hard for passage of the measure. In so doing, he set aside New Hampshire’s own sovereignty in favor of some vague Progressive formulations about the needs of the federal government and the supposed dangers it faced. He asserted also the income tax’s “equity,” using a variant of the socialist dictum “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
Depression-era bank robber Sutton would use that same reasoning some years later. When asked why he robbed banks, he supposedly answered, “Because that’s where the money was.” That is to say that banks, as repositories of money, were the ones best able to satisfy his “needs.”
URGES INCOME TAX. Gov. Bass Sends Special Message to New Hampshire Legislature Favoring Federal Support. CONCORD, N.H., Jan. 19. – Gov. Robert P. Bass today sent a special message to the New Hampshire legislature favoring the ratification by New Hampshire of the income tax amendment to the national constitution. “Loyalty to our country,” said Gov. Bass, “demands that we give to the national government every power necessary to protect and maintain itself under all circumstances and all dangers. An income tax is the most equitable form of taxation, because it draws upon the citizens directly in proportion to their ability to bear the burden.” The matter was made a special order in the house of representatives for next Wednesday. The special committee appointed to investigate the subject of railroad rates in New Hampshire organized today, and voted to employ as counsel Edmund B. Cook of Concord and Sherman E. Burroughs of Manchester (Boston Globe, [Friday,] January 20, 1911).
The New Hampshire House responded to the Governor’s Special request promptly. After 3 o’clock, on Wednesday afternoon, January 25, 1911, Rep. Ahern of Concord moved for a vote on House Joint Resolution No. 1, i.e., ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment.
On a viva voce vote the joint resolution passed and was sent to the Senate for concurrence (NH General Court, 1911).
A viva voce vote was a voice vote. So, no records of any particular yeas and nays would be kept, which was likely very much the point. (Therefore, there would appear to be no way to determine how Milton’s representative voted).
THE PUBLIC DRINKING CUP. New Hampshire Puts Ban on This Germ Distributor. Concord, N.H., Jan. 25. The knell of the public drinking cup in New Hampshire was sounded today when the lower branch of the Legislature, concurring with the Senate, passed a bill to give the state board of health authority to restrict the use of common drinking cups in public places. The bill is along the line of the one passed in Massachusetts a year ago. The House today also passed a bill providing for the registration of all cases of tuberculosis. This bill must go to the Senate before becoming a law. A resolution, ratifying the proposed income tax amendment to the federal constitution was passed by the House by viva voce vote and was sent to the Senate (Rutland (VT) Daily Herald, January 26, 1911).
[Tuberculosis was a health scourge at this time: a highly communicable, incurable, fatal disease. Withdrawing public drinking vessels made perfect sense. Authorizing at the same time an economically cancerous Federal income tax made much less sense].
THE INCOME TAX AMENDMENT. ONE of the results of the political overturn of last fall is the impetus that has been given to the ratification of the federal income tax amendment. This week the senate of North Carolina ratified the amendment by a vote of 42 to 1, and its passage, as far as that state is concerned, is assured. Ohio, which last year under republican auspices rejected the amendment, this year with democrats in control ratified it by an almost unanimous vote. During the year it is not improbable that 24 more states, the required number, will ratify and make the amendment effective. The roll of states that have adopted the amendment includes Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas, with North Carolina practically assured. Gov. Bass of New Hampshire has urged ratification and the situation in that state is favorable. Vermont, however, has turned down the amendment. In Maine favorable action is expected. In Massachusetts the house is regarded as favorable to it, and the governor is favorable, but the senate is in doubt. The final adoption of the amendment does not put any income tax law in operation. Congress must pass such a law before there will be an income tax. The legislation might not be passed readily. A graduated tax has been proposed, one that would bear lightly on small fortunes, but draw off a little of the swelling in. swollen fortunes (Boston Globe, January 27, 1911).
INCOME TAX IS APPROVED BY 13. Opposed by Virginia and Rhode Island. Senator Brown Sure States Will Adopt the Amendment. Thirty-Five Must Favor Measure to Do It. WASHINGTON, Jan. 31. – Before the adjournment of several state legislatures now in session the number of states that have ratified the amendment to the federal constitution providing for an Income tax will probably be considerably increased. Already 13 states have approved the Income tax proposition. Idaho being the latest to get onto the bandwagon. Others which have previously put their “OK” on the legislation are Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Alabama, South Carolina, Texas, Missouri, Kansas and Ohio. One house of the New Hampshire legislature has passed the ratification resolution and it is now before the other house. Virginia and Rhode Island are the only states that have so far refused approval. The majority, of the Virginia legislature thought that the adoption of the amendment would give the federal government and its officials too much authority to pry into the affairs of private individuals and state corporations. To make the amendment effective the ratification of 35 or 36 states – depending on how soon Arizona and New Mexico are admitted to the union – is required. The approval of 35 of the 46 states now in the union would be a three-fourths vote, enough to adopt the amendment. If the number do not ratify before the two territories now in the process of being made into states are formally admitted into the union, the ratification of one additional state will be necessary – three-fourths of 48 being 36. It has taken a year and a half for 13 states to give their approval. Senator Brown of Nebraska formally presented the income tax amendment to the senate June 17, 1909, during the tariff session of congress. Today Senator Brown expressed the belief that not a single state will ultimately withhold its approval. “I am confident,” he said, “that there will be unanimous verdict in favor of the Income tax amendment among the states. I have written to the proper officer of every state, calling their attention to the proposed amendment and pointing out the reasons for its adoption promptly. I have heard from every one of them, and upon their replies I base my expectations that no one will withhold ratification” (Boston Globe, February 1, 1911).
On Thursday, March 2, 1911, NH State Senator Hosford of Monroe moved that the whole Senate vote on accepting the Senate Judiciary committee’s recommendation on House Joint Resolution No. 1. (The Senate Judiciary committee was composed of Senators Charles H. Hosford of Monroe (R) (2nd District), Robert J. Merrill of Claremont (R) (7th), Alvin B. Cross of Concord (R) (10th), Alvin J. Lucier of Nashua (D) (20th), and John Pender of Portsmouth (R) (24th)). The Judiciary committee majority had voted (3-2) to recommend approval of the Sixteenth Amendment.
Nine NH state senators (39.1%) voted to accept that majority report of the Judiciary committee (i.e., indicating that they favored the Sixteenth Amendment): James O. Gerry of Madison (D) (5th District), Robert J. Merrill of Claremont (R) (7th), John W. Prentiss of Walpole (D) (8th), Arthur J. Boutwell of Hopkinton (R) (9th), Windsor H. Goodnow of Keene (R) (13th), Charles L. Rich of Jaffrey (R) (14th), Daniel W. Hayden of Hollis (R) (15th), Alvin J. Lucier of Nashua (D) (20th), and John Pender of Portsmouth (R) (24th).
Fourteen NH state senators (60.9%) voted instead to accept the minority report of the Judiciary committee (i.e., indicating that they opposed the Sixteenth Amendment): John Cross of Colebrook (R) (1st District), Charles H. Hosford of Monroe (R) (2nd), George S. Rogers of Lebanon (R) (3rd), Jonathan M. Cheney of Ashland (R) (4th), Charles H. Bean of Franklin (R) (6th), Alvin B. Cross of Concord (R) (10th), George H. Guptill of Raymond (D) (11th), Haven Doe of Somersworth (D) (12th), Charles E. Chapman of Manchester (R) (16th), Robert Leggett of Manchester (R) (17th), Michael E. Ahern of Manchester (D) (18th), Reginald C. Stevenson of Exeter (R) (21st), John W. Jewell of Dover (D) (22nd), and Clarence H. Paul of Portsmouth (D) (23rd).
NH Senate President William D. Swart of Nashua (R) (19th District) did not vote.
Milton’s state senator was among those that opposed authorizing a national income tax through ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment.
The viva voce vote on the amendment itself broke along the same lines as the votes on the Judiciary committee’s recommendation. The Senate clerk advised the House that the joint resolution had failed.
MESSAGE FROM THE SENATE. A message from the Honorable Senate by its clerk announced that the Senate refused to concur with the House of Representatives in the passage of the following joint resolution sent up from the House of Representatives: House Joint Resolution No. 1, joint resolution ratifying the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America (NH General Court, 1911).
The Sixteenth Amendment, having failed in the NH Senate, did not “progress” to Governor Bass for his signature.
Income Tax Killed. Concord, N.H., March 3. – The New Hampshire state senate, by a vote of 14 to 9, killed the resolution passed by the house some weeks since ratifying the income tax amendment to the national constitution (Portsmouth Herald, March 3, 1911).
Delaware Gets the “Final Honor” – February 3, 1913
Meanwhile, another ten states approved the amendment between March 16, 1911, and January 31, 1913, for a total of thirty-five of the necessary thirty-six states. At the end there was a bit of a “photo finish” for the “honor” of imposing a national income tax. Progressive President-elect Woodrow Wilson (D) wanted his home state of New Jersey to tip the balance, but New Mexico was also a contender. Unexpectedly, Delaware got in before either of them.
INCOME TAX IS NOW CERTAINTY. Amendment of Constitution Is Voted by States. Delaware Gets Final Honor. Washington, Feb. 4. The action of the legislature of Delaware in ratifying the income tax amendment to the constitution makes it part of the federal organic law. There was a lively race for the honor of being the pivotal state in the ratification of the amendment. To make it effective, the approval of three-quarters of the states was required. Up to yesterday morning thirty-five states had acted favorably and it was expected New Mexico would have the honor of “clinching’ the amendment, as its legislature was expected to take affirmative action yesterday. New Jersey was a close rival, and President-elect Wilson was very desirous that his state should swing first into line, but the fact that the New Jersey legislature did not reassemble until last evening put it at a disadvantage. In the meantime Delaware, which had not been in the limelight, got busy and ratified the amendment, heating out both New Mexico and New Jersey. Shortly after the news of Delaware’s ratification was received a Cheyenne dispatch announced that the Wyoming legislature had also ratified the amendment. The income tax issue was submitted to the states by unanimous vote of the senate and a 317 to 14 majority of the house on July 31, 1909. The amendment submitted was as follows: “That congress shall have power to levy and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states and without regard to any census or enumeration.” Alabama led off the procession or ratifying states on Aug. 19, 1909, and by the end of 1910 the amendment had been approved by eight states. In 1911 the number was increased to thirty. In 1913, Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana and Minnesota fell into line, making the total thirty-four, ratification by two more states being necessary to adopt the amendment. The states that have rejected the amendment are Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Utah. Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Virginia have taken no action on the amendment. Congress will enact a law to levy the tax, probably during the extra-ordinary session to be called by President-elect Wilson in March. The tax itself, its provisions and its limitations, are all left to congress. The new law probably would supersede the corporation tax and provide for a tax on all incomes above $5000, although there has been some sentiment in favor of making the limit as low as $4000. Congressional leaders who have been preparing for the final ratification by the states estimate an income tax would bring in about $100,000,000 a year to the government. Now that the tax is provided by the constitution, the proposed excise tax, framed by Democratic leaders in 1912 to meet the supreme court’s decision, which held a former income tax un-constitutional will be dropped, and some of its provisions may be included In the new law (Fitchburg Sentinel, February 4, 1911).
New Hampshire Gets Onto the Bandwagon – February-March 1913
For some reason, Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire felt some need to vote superfluous affirmations after Delaware had already tipped the scale. The bandwagon effect, one supposes.
A newly-elected (November 1912) New Hampshire House passed another viva voce, or voice vote, in favor of passage, on February 18, 1913; and a newly-elected New Hampshire Senate voted – this time giving its approval – 20 in favor, to 2 opposed, on February 19, 1913.
Samuel D. Felker of Rochester (D) was the new governor. He had failed to win election outright and had instead been selected by the legislature. (He was the newly-selected Governor). His signature completed New Hampshire’s after-the-fact ratification process on March 7, 1913.
Enabling Legislation – March 1913
Three states had rejected the amendment outright: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Utah. In Florida, it passed in just one branch of its legislature. Pennsylvania and Virginia took no action at all.
The Federal congress, being now authorized to impose national income taxes, set forth to do so immediately. In arguing for ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment, its Progressive proponents had claimed originally that it would not affect anyone making less than $10,000 per year. The goal posts moved to $5,000 per year by 1911. After passage, that figure reached down to include those making $3,500 per year.
INCOME TAX DOWN TO $3500. With indications that the proposed Income tax “bill would levy tribute upon all incomes above $3500, Representative Hull has begun the task of forming that measure. There has been a tentative understanding among members of the Ways and Mean Committee that the income tax bill would apply to all incomes above $5000. As the estimates of the revenues under the new tariff law are being made, however, it is suggested that the $5000 exemption will be too high and that an income tax upon incomes to the excess of $3500 will be necessary to supply the deficiency. The new income tax law will absorb the existing corporation tax law which now produces nearly $30,000,000 annually in revenues. In the absence of definite figures by experts of the Ways and Means Committee as to the inroads upon the treasury will be inevitable under the Underwood tariff bill, it is now estimated that the income tax must produce between $125,000,000 and $150,000,000 annually. Originally, Mr. Hull, who is the income tax expert of the House, favored a one per cent tax on all incomes above $5000 designated as earned incomes. On unearned incomes Mr. Hull suggested a 1 1-2 per cent tax, and graduated higher rate (Portsmouth Herald, March 22, 1913).
Those Progressives pushing the Sixteenth Amendment promised a better world for which only the rich would pay. (Aren’t we being told that even now?) In 1913, the somehow villainous ultra-rich were being defined as those making above $3,500 per year ($90,000 in 2018 dollars).
Frédéric Bastiat warned against governmental systems “by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.” Margaret Thatcher warned that “eventually, you run out of other people’s money.”
But the Progressives were right, weren’t they? Only the rich have been taxed and Heaven was established here on earth. Well, no, it was Bastiat and Thatcher that were proved right. Income taxation’s definition of the rich “progressed” downwards to include nearly everyone and Heaven still awaits us.
Current Federal income tax schedules – after recent “tax cuts” – reach down to “touch” those making as little as $13,000. (That would have been those who were making as little as $507 per year in 1913).
The second of the ten planks in Karl Marx’s 1848 Communist Manifesto demanded “A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.”
Mr. S.D. Plissken contributed to this article.
Buenker, John D. (1981, May). The Ratification of the Federal Income Tax Amendment. Retrieved from object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/serials/files/cato-journal/1981/5/cj1n1-10.pdf
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