Taxation history of the United States

Taxation history of the United States

The history of taxation in the United States began when it was composed of colonies ruled by the British Empire, French Empire, and Spanish Empire. After independence from Europe the United States collected poll taxes, tariffs, and excise taxes. The United States imposed income taxes intermittently until 1895 when unapportioned taxes on interest, dividends and rents were ruled unconstitutional. The advent of the 16th Amendment to the United States Constitution modified the apportionment requirement in 1913, and since then the income tax has become one of the means of funding the Federal Government.

Colonial taxation

:"Political background: Colonial America"


ugar Act

The Sugar Act (citation 4 Geo. III c. 15), passed on April 5, 1764, was a revenue-raising Act passed by the Parliament of Great Britain. It revised the earlier Sugar and Molasses Act, which had imposed a tax of six cents per gallon upon imported molasses in order to make English products cheaper than those from the French West Indies.

tamp Act

The Stamp Act of 1765 was the fourth Stamp Act to be passed by the Parliament of Great Britain and required all legal documents, permits, commercial contracts, newspapers, wills, pamphlets, and playing cards in the American colonies to carry a tax stamp. The exact date the Act was enacted was on November 1, 1765. The Act was enacted in order to defray the cost of maintaining the military presence protecting the colonies.

Townshend Revenue Act

The Townshend Revenue Act refers to two Acts of the Parliament of Great Britain passed in 1767, which were proposed by Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, just before his death. These laws placed a tax on common products imported into the American Colonies, such as lead, paper, paint, glass, and tea (though they did not place a tax on silk). In contrast to the Stamp Act of 1765, the laws were not a direct tax, but a tax on imports. The Townshend Acts also created three new admiralty courts to try Americans who ignored the laws.

Boston Tea Party

The Boston Tea Party was an act of protest by the American colonists against Great Britain for the Tea Act in which they destroyed many crates of tea bricks on ships in Boston Harbor. The incident, which took place on Thursday, December 16, 1773, has been seen as helping to spark the American Revolution.



Capitation tax

:"Main Articles: Poll Tax, Shays' Rebellion"


Income for federal government

Tariffs have played different roles in trade policy and the economic history of the United States. Tariffs were the largest source of federal revenue from the 1790s to the eve of World War I, until it was surpassed by income taxes. Since the revenue from the tariff was considered essential and easy to collect at the major ports, it was agreed the nation should have a tariff for revenue purposes. [Hamilton Tariff]


Another role the tariff played was in the protection of local industry; it was the political dimension of the tariff. From the 1790s to the 2000s, the tariff (and closely related issues such as import quotas and trade treaties) generated enormous political stresses whether during the 19th century with the Nullification crisis or the WTO.

Origins of protectionism

When Alexander Hamilton was the United States Secretary of the Treasury he issued the Report on Manufactures, which reasoned that applying tariffs in moderation would, in addition to raising revenue to fund the federal government, would also encourage domestic manufacturing and growth of the economy by applying the funds raised in part towards subsidies (called bounties in his time) to manufacturers. The main purposes sought by Hamilton through the tariff were to: (1) protect American infant industry for a short term until it could compete; (2) raise revenue to pay the expenses of government; (3) raise revenue to directly support manufacturing through bounties (subsidies). [Report on Manufactures] This resulted in the passage of three tariffs by Congress, the Tariff of 1789, the Tariff of 1790, and the Tariff of 1792 which progressively increased tariffs.


Tariffs contributed to sectionalism between the North and the South. The Tariff of 1824 increased tariffs in order to protect American industry in the face of cheaper imported commodities such as iron products, wool and cotton textiles, and agricultural goods from England. This tariff was the first in which the sectional interests of the North and the South truly came into conflict because the South advocated lower tariffs in order to take advantage of tariff reciprocity from England and other countries that purchased raw agricultural materials from the South. [Tariff of 1824]

The Tariff of 1828, also known as the Tariff of Abominations, and the Tariff of 1832 accelerated sectionalism between the North and the South. For a brief moment in 1832, South Carolina made vague threats to leave the Union over the tariff issue. [Tariff of 1832] In 1833, to ease North-South relations, Congress lowered the tariffs. [Tariff of 1832] In the 1850s, the South gained greater influence over tariff policy and made subsequent reductions. [Tariff of 1857]

In 1861, just prior to the Civil War, Congress enacted the Morrill Tariff, which applied high rates and inaugurated a period of relatively continuous trade protection in the United States that lasted until the Underwood Tariff of 1913. The schedule of the Morrill Tariff and its two successor bills were retained long after the end of the Civil War. [Frank Taussig]

Early 20th century protectionism

In 1921, Congress sought to protect local agriculture as opposed to industry by passing the Emergency Tariff, which increased rates on wheat, sugar, meat, wool and other agricultural products brought into the United States from foreign nations, which provided protection for domestic producers of those items.

However, one year later Congress passed another tariff, the Fordney-McCumber Tariff, whch applied the scientific tariff and the American Selling Price. The purpose of the scientific tariff was to equalize production costs among countries so that no country could undercut the prices charged by American companies. [Fordney-McCumber Tariff] The difference of production costs was calculated by the Tariff Commission. A second novelty was the American Selling Price. This allowed the president to calculate the duty based on the price of the American price of a good, not the imported good. [Fordney-McCumber Tariff]

During the outbreak of the Great Depression in 1930, Congress raised tariffs on over 20,000 imported goods to record levels, and, in the opinion of most economists, worsened the Great Depression by causing other countries to reciprocate thereby plunging American imports and exports by more than half. [Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act]

Era of GATT and WTO

In 1948, the US signed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which reduced tariff barriers and other quantitative restrictions and subsidies on trade through a series of agreements.

In 1993 the GATT was updated ("GATT 1994") to include new obligations upon its signatories. One of the most significant changes was the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Whereas GATT was a set of rules agreed upon by nations, the WTO is an institutional body. The WTO expanded its scope from traded goods to trade within the service sector and intellectual property rights. Although it was designed to serve multilateral agreements, during several rounds of GATT negotiations (particularly the Tokyo Round) plurilateral agreements created selective trading and caused fragmentation among members. WTO arrangements are generally a multilateral agreement settlement mechanism of GATT. [ [ What is the WTO? (Official WTO site)] ]

Excise tax

:"Main articles: Excise tax in the United States, Whisky Rebellion"

Federal excise taxes are applied to specific items such as motor fuels, tires, telephone usage, tobacco products, and alcoholic beverages. Excise taxes are often, but not always, allocated to special funds related to the object or activity taxed.

Income tax

The history of income taxation in the United States began in the 19th century with the imposition of income taxes to fund war efforts. However, the constitutionality of income taxation was widely held in doubt until 1913 with the ratification of the 16th Amendment.

Legal foundations

Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 of the United States Constitution assigns Congress the power to impose "Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises," but Article I, Section 8 requires that, "Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States." [ [ US] ]

In addition, the Constitution specifically limited Congress' ability to impose direct taxes, by requiring it to distribute direct taxes in proportion to each state's census population. It was thought that head taxes and property taxes (slaves could be taxed as either or both) were likely to be abused, and that they bore no relation to the activities in which the federal government had a legitimate interest. The fourth clause of section 9 therefore specifies that, "No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in Proportion to the Census or enumeration herein before directed to be taken."

Taxation was also the subject of Federalist No. 33 penned secretly by the Federalist Alexander Hamilton under the pseudonym Publius. In it, he explains that the wording of the "Necessary and Proper" clause should serve as guidelines for the legislation of laws regarding taxation. The legislative branch is to be the judge, but any abuse of those powers of judging can be overturned by the people, whether as states or as a larger group.

The courts have generally held that direct taxes are limited to taxes on people (variously called "capitation", "poll tax" or "head tax") and property ["Penn Mutual Indemnity Co. v. C.I.R.," 227 F.2d 16, 19-20 (3rd Cir. 1960)] . All other taxes are commonly referred to as "indirect taxes," because they tax an event, rather than a person or property "per se." ["Steward Machine Co. v. Davis", ussc|301|548|1937, 581-582] What seemed to be a straightforward limitation on the power of the legislature based on the subject of the tax proved inexact and unclear when applied to an income tax, which can be arguably viewed either as a direct or an indirect tax.

Pre-16th Amendment

In order to help pay for its war effort in the American Civil War, the United States government imposed its first personal income tax, on August 5, 1861, as part of the Revenue Act of 1861 (3% of all incomes over US $800; rescinded in 1872). Congress also enacted the Revenue Act of 1862, which levied a 3% tax on incomes above $600, rising to 5% for incomes above $10,000. Rates were raised in 1864. This income tax was repealed in 1872, but a new income tax statute was enacted as part of the 1894 Tariff Act. [Tariff Act, Ch. 349, 28 Stat. 509 (Aug. 15, 1894).]

At that time, the United States Constitution specified that Congress could impose a "direct" tax only if the law apportioned that tax among the states according to each state's census population. [Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 (as modified by Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment) and Article I, Section 9, Clause 4.]

In 1895, the United States Supreme Court ruled, in "Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co.," that taxes on rents from real estate, on interest income from personal property and other income from personal property (which includes dividend income) were direct taxes on property and therefore had to be apportioned. Since apportionment of income taxes is impractical, the "Pollock" rulings had the effect of prohibiting a federal tax on income from property. Due to the political difficulties of taxing individual wages without taxing income from property, a federal income tax was impractical from the time of the "Pollock" decision until the time of ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment (below).

16th Amendment

In response to the Supreme Court decision in the "Pollock" case, Congress proposed the Sixteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1913, [According to the United States Government Printing Office, a total of 42 states have ratified the Amendment. See [ Amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America] .] and which states:

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.

The Supreme Court in "Brushaber v. Union Pacific Railroad," ussc|240|1|1916, indicated that the Sixteenth Amendment did not expand the federal government's existing power to tax income (meaning profit or gain from any source) but rather removed the possibility of classifying an income tax as a direct tax on the basis of the source of the income. The Amendment removed the need for the income tax on interest, dividends and rents to be apportioned among the states on the basis of population. Income taxes are required, however, to abide by the law of geographical uniformity.

Congress enacted an income tax in October 1913 as part of the Revenue Act of 1913, levying a 1% tax on net personal incomes above $3,000, with a 6% surtax on incomes above $500,000. By 1918, the top rate of the income tax was increased to 77% (on income over $1,000,000) to finance World War I. The top marginal tax rate was reduced to 58% in 1922, to 25% in 1925 and finally to 24% in 1929. In 1932 the top marginal tax rate was increased to 63% during the Great Depression and steadily increased, reaching 94% (on all income over $200,000) in 1945. Top marginal tax rates stayed near or above 90% until 1964 when the top marginal tax rate was lowered to 70%. The top marginal tax rate was lowered to 50% in 1982 and eventually to 28% in 1988. During World War II, Congress introduced payroll withholding and quarterly tax payments.

Development of the modern income tax

At first the income tax was incrementally expanded by the Congress of the United States. Inflation automatically raised many persons into tax brackets formerly reserved for the wealthy until Congress began adjusting the income tax brackets for inflation. Income tax now applies to almost ⅔ of the population [] . The lowest earning workers, especially those with dependents, pay no income taxes as a group and actually get a small subsidy from the federal government because of child credits and the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The federal government is now financed primarily by personal and corporate income taxes. While the government was originally funded via tariffs upon imported goods, tariffs now represent only a minor portion of federal revenues. Non-tax fees are generated to recompense agencies for services or to fill specific trust funds such as the fee placed upon airline tickets for airport expansion and air traffic control. Often the receipts intended to be placed in "trust" funds are used for other purposes, with the government posting an IOU ('I owe you') in the form of a federal bond or other accounting instrument, then spending the money on unrelated current expenditures.

Net long-term capital gains as well as certain types of qualified dividend income are taxed preferentially. The federal government collects several specific taxes in addition to the general income tax. Social Security and Medicare are large social support programs which are funded by taxes on personal earned income (see below).

Treatment of "income"

Tax statutes passed after the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913 are sometimes referred to as the "modern" tax statutes. Hundreds of Congressional acts have been passed since 1913, as well as several codifications (i.e., topical reorganizations) of the statutes (see Codification).

The modern interpretation of the Sixteenth Amendment taxation power can be found in "Commissioner v. Glenshaw Glass Co." ussc|348|426|1955. In that case, a taxpayer had received an award of punitive damages from a competitor, and sought to avoid paying taxes on that award. The Court observed that Congress, in imposing the income tax, had defined income to include:

gains, profits, and income derived from salaries, wages, or compensation for personal service . . . of whatever kind and in whatever form paid, or from professions, vocations, trades, businesses, commerce, or sales, or dealings in property, whether real or personal, growing out of the ownership or use of or interest in such property; also from interest, rent, dividends, securities, or the transaction of any business carried on for gain or profit, or gains or profits and income derived from any source whatever. [348 U.S. at 429]

The Court held that "this language was used by Congress to exert in this field the full measure of its taxing power", id., and that "the Court has given a liberal construction to this broad phraseology in recognition of the intention of Congress to tax all gains except those specifically exempted." [Id. at 430.]

The Court then enunciated what is now understood by Congress and the Courts to be the definition of taxable income, "instances of undeniable accessions to wealth, clearly realized, and over which the taxpayers have complete dominion." Id. at 431. The defendant in that case suggested that a 1954 rewording of the tax code had limited the income that could be taxed, a position which the Court rejected, stating:

The definition of gross income has been simplified, but no effect upon its present broad scope was intended. Certainly punitive damages cannot reasonably be classified as gifts, nor do they come under any other exemption provision in the Code. We would do violence to the plain meaning of the statute and restrict a clear legislative attempt to bring the taxing power to bear upon all receipts constitutionally taxable were we to say that the payments in question here are not gross income. [Id. at 432-33.]

In "Conner v. United States" [303 F. Supp. 1187 (S.D. Tex. 1969), "aff’d in part and rev’d in part", 439 F.2d 974 (5th Cir. 1971).] , a couple had lost their home to a fire, and had received compensation for their loss from the insurance company, partly in the form of hotel costs reimbursed. The court acknowledged the authority of the IRS to assess taxes on all forms of payment, but did not permit taxation on the compensation provided by the insurance company, because unlike a wage or a sale of goods at a profit, this was not a gain. As the court noted, "Congress has taxed income, not compensation". [Id.] By contrast, at least two other Federal courts have indicated that Congress may constitutionally tax an item as "income," regardless of whether that item is in fact income. See "Penn Mutual Indemnity Co. v. Commissioner" [277 F.2d 16, 60-1 U.S. Tax Cas. (CCH) paragr. 9389 (3d Cir. 1960).] and "Murphy v. Internal Revenue Serv." [2007-2 U.S. Tax Cas. (CCH) paragr. 50,531 (D.C. Cir. 2007).]

Estate & Gift Tax

:"Main articles: Estate tax in the United States", "Gift tax in the United States"

The origins of the estate and gift tax occurred during the rise of the state inheritance tax in the late 19th century and the progressive era.

In the 1880s and 1890s many states passed inheritance taxes, which taxed the donees on the receipt of their inheritance. While many objected to the application of an inheritance tax, some including Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller supported increases in the taxation of inheritance. [Carnegie, The Gospel of Wealth, Harvard Press 1962, 14, 21-22.]

At the beginning of the 20th century President Theodore Roosevelt advocated the application of a progressive inheritance tax on the federal level. [Works of Theodore Roosevelt, Scribner's 1925, 17.]

In 1916, Congress adopted the present federal estate tax, which instead of taxing the wealth that a donee inherited as occurred in the state inheritance taxes it taxed the wealth of a donor's estate upon transfer.

Later, Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1924, which imposed the gift tax, a tax on gifts given by the donor.

In 1948 Congress allowed marital deductions for the estate and the gift tax. Congress later expanded this deduction in 1981 to an unlimited amount for gifts between spouses.

Today, the estate tax is a tax imposed on the transfer of the "taxable estate" of a deceased person, whether such property is transferred via a will or according to the state laws of intestacy. The estate tax is one part of the "Unified Gift and Estate Tax" system in the United States. The other part of the system, the gift tax, imposes a tax on transfers of property during a person's life; the gift tax prevents avoidance of the estate tax should a person want to give away his/her estate just before dying.

In addition to the federal government, many states also impose an estate tax, with the state version called either an estate tax or an inheritance tax. Since the 1990s, the term "death tax" has been widely used by those who want to eliminate the estate tax, because the terminology used in discussing a political issue affects popular opinion. [ [ 60 Plus Association /// The Death Tax ] ]

If an asset is left to a spouse or a charitable organization, the tax usually does not apply. The tax is imposed on other transfers of property made as an incident of the death of the owner, such as a transfer of property from an intestate estate or trust, or the payment of certain life insurance benefits or financial account sums to beneficiaries.

Payroll tax

Prior to the Great Depression, the following economic problems were considered great hazards to working-class Americans:

* The U.S. had no federal-government-mandated retirement savings; consequently, for many workers (who chose not to save for retirement throughout their working lives), the end of their work careers was the end of all income.
* Similarly, the U.S. had no federal-government-mandated disability income insurance to provide for citizens disabled by injuries (of any kind—work-related or non-work-related); consequently, for most people, a disabling injury meant no more income if they had not saved enough money to prepare for such an event (since most people have little to no income except earned income from work).
* In addition, there was no federal-government-mandated disability income insurance to provide for people unable to ever work during their lives, such as anyone born with severe mental retardation.
* Finally, the U.S. had no federal-government-mandated health insurance for the elderly; consequently, for many workers (those who chose not to save for retirement throughout their lives), the end of their work careers was the end of their ability to pay for medical care.


In the 1930s, the New Deal introduced Social Security to rectify the first three problems (retirement, injury-induced disability, or congenital disability). It introduced the FICA tax as the means to pay for Social Security.

In the 1960s, Medicare was introduced to rectify the fourth problem (health care for the elderly). The FICA tax was increased in order to pay for this expense.


President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the Social Security (FICA) Program. FICA began with voluntary participation, participants would have to pay 1% of the first $1,400 of their annual incomes into the Program, the money the participants elected to put into the Program would be deductible from their income for tax purposes each year, the money the participants put into the independent "Trust Fund" rather than into the General operating fund, and therefore, would only be used to fund the Social Security Retirement Program, and no other Government program, and, the annuity payments to the retirees would never be taxed as income.Fact|date=October 2007

During the Lyndon B. Johnson administration Social Security moved from the trust fund to the general fund.Fact|date=October 2007 Participants may not have an income tax deduction for Social Security withholding.Fact|date=October 2007 Immigrants became eligible for Social Security benefits during the Carter administration.Fact|date=October 2007 During the Clinton administration Social Security annuities became taxable.Fact|date=October 2007

Some lower income individuals pay a proportionately higher share of payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare than do some higher income individuals in terms of the "effective tax rate". All income earned up to a point, adjusted annually for inflation ($94,200 for the year 2006 and $97,500 for the year 2007) is taxed at 7.65% (consisting of the 6.2% Social Security tax and the 1.45% Medicare tax) on the employee with an addition 7.65% in tax incurred by the employer. The annual limitation amount is sometimes called the "Social Security tax wage base amount" or "Contribution and Benefit Base." Above the annual limit amount, only the 1.45% Medicare tax is imposed. In terms of the effective rate, this means that a worker earning $20,000 for 2006 pays at a 7.65% effective rate ($1,530) while a worker earning $200,000 pays at an effective rate of about 4.37% ($8,740).

Self employed people pay the entire 15.3%, but are allowed to deduct one-half of this amount in computing taxable income for Federal income tax purposes. [See usc|26|164(f).] Thes taxes fund the Social Security Trust Fund and Medicare Trust Funds.

Alternative minimum tax

The alternative minimum tax was introduced by the Tax Reform Act of 1969, [Pub. L. No. 91-172, 83 Stat. 487 (Dec. 30, 1969).] and became operative in 1970. It was intended to target 155 high-income households that had been eligible for so many tax benefits that they owed little or no income tax under the tax code of the time. [ [ Falling Into Alternative Minimum Trouble ( ] ]

In recent years, the AMT has been under increased attention. With the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the AMT was broadened and refocused on home owners in high tax states. Because the AMT is not indexed to inflation and recent tax cuts, [ [ TPC Tax Topics Archive: The Individual Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT): 11 Key Facts and Projections ] ] [ [ Falling Into Alternative Minimum Trouble ( ] ] an increasing number of middle-income taxpayers have been finding themselves subject to this tax.

In 2006, the IRS's National Taxpayer Advocate's report highlighted the AMT as the single most serious problem with the tax code. The advocate noted that the AMT punishes taxpayers for having children or living in a high-tax state, and that the complexity of the AMT leads to most taxpayers who owe AMT not realizing it until preparing their returns or being notified by the IRS. []

Capital gains tax

The origins of the income tax on gains from capital assets did not distinguish capital gains from ordinary income. From 1913 to 1921, income from capital gains were taxed at ordinary rates, initially up to a maximum rate of 7 percent.cite web |author=Joseph J. Cordes, Robert D. Ebel, and Jane G. Gravelle (ed)|url= |title= Capital Gains Taxation entry from The Encyclopedia of Taxation and Tax PolicyProject|accessdate=2007-10-03]

Congress began to distinguish the taxation of capital gains from the taxation of ordinary income according to the holding period of the asset with the Revenue Act of 1921, allowed a tax rate of 12.5 percent gain for assets held at least two years.

In addition to different tax rates depending on holding period, Congress began excluding certain percentages of capital gains depending on holding period. From 1934 to 1941, taxpayers could exclude percentages of gains that varied with the holding period: 20, 40, 60, and 70 percent of gains were excluded on assets held 1, 2, 5, and 10 years, respectively. Beginning in 1942, taxpayers could exclude 50 percent of capital gains from income on assets held at least six months or elect a 25 percent alternative tax rate if their ordinary tax rate exceeded 50 percent.

Capital gains tax rates were significantly increased in the 1969 and 1976 Tax Reform Acts.

The 1970s and 80s saw a period of oscillating capital gains tax rates. In 1978, Congress reduced capital gains tax rates by eliminating the minimum tax on excluded gains and increasing the exclusion to 60 percent, thereby reducing the maximum rate to 28 percent. The 1981 tax rate reductions further reduced capital gains rates to a maximum of 20 percent.

Later in the 1980s Congress began increasing the capital gains tax rate and repealing the exclusion of capital gains. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 repealed the exclusion from income that provided for tax-exemption of long term capital gains, raising the maximum rate to 28 percent (33 percent for taxpayers subject to phaseouts). When the top ordinary tax rates were increased by the 1990 and 1993 budget acts, an alternative tax rate of 28 percent was provided. Effective tax rates exceeded 28 percent for many high-income taxpayers, however, because of interactions with other tax provisions.

The end of the 1990s and the beginning of the present century heralded major reductions in taxing the income from gains on capital assets. Lower rates for 18-month and five-year assets were adopted in 1997 with the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997. In 2001, President George W. Bush signed the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, into law as part of a $1.35 trillion tax cut program.

Corporate tax

ee also

*Taxation in the United States
*Income tax in the United States

External links

* [ History of the Highest Tax Bracket] Interactive graph of how the highest tax bracket's rates have changed over time. (Flash)


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