Today marks an anniversary that perhaps many people would like to forget: February 3, 1913 was the day that the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. For those of you who have blocked this amendment from your memory, the 16th Amendment 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 16th Amendment followed earlier attempts at a national income tax, including the Revenue Act of 1861, which was a personal tax imposed to help defray the costs of the Civil War.
The 1861 act was quickly followed by the Revenue Act of 1862, which shored up the provisions of the earlier act and also created the office of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue to enforce the new laws.
This income tax structure was eventually repealed in 1871 when Congress allowed the legislation to lapse. Proponents wanted to continue with a national income tax, but lost out to those who thought that tariffs would provide enough funding to run the government.
This new tax was challenged in court and the Supreme Court, in Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Company (158 U.S. 601 (1895)), ruled:
Third. The tax imposed by sections twenty-seven to thirty-seven, inclusive, of the act of 1894, so far as it falls on the income of real estate and of personal property, being a direct tax within the meaning of the Constitution, and, therefore, unconstitutional and void because not apportioned according to representation, all those sections, constituting one entire scheme of taxation, are necessarily invalid.
Before the 1909 proposal for a constitutional amendment, the Court ruled, in a series of decisions, in favor of certain excise taxes that allowed for the taxation of corporate income as the price of doing business in the United States.