Skip to content

April 15: A Brief History

4 min readBy: Alicia Hansen

April 15 probably conjures up images of tedium and drudgery for most people (even in the nation’s capital), but the history of TaxA tax is a mandatory payment or charge collected by local, state, and national governments from individuals or businesses to cover the costs of general government services, goods, and activities. Day is actually fascinating—at least we here at the Tax Foundation think so. If you’re looking for reading material to help you pass the time while waiting in line to mail your tax return (or protesting) at the Post Office today, here are some great resources on the history of the income tax.

The Library of Congress has an excellent article on the history of the federal individual income taxAn individual income tax (or personal income tax) is levied on the wages, salaries, investments, or other forms of income an individual or household earns. The U.S. imposes a progressive income tax where rates increase with income. The Federal Income Tax was established in 1913 with the ratification of the 16th Amendment. Though barely 100 years old, individual income taxes are the largest source of tax revenue in the U.S. (scroll down to “Tax Day”). Here’s an excerpt:

An income tax was first collected during the Civil War from 1862 to 1872. During the administration of President Grover Cleveland, the federal government again levied an income tax, enacted by Congress in 1894. However, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional the following year. Supporters of an income tax were forced then to embark on the lengthy process of amending the Constitution. Not until the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified in 1913 was Congress given the power “to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionmentApportionment is the determination of the percentage of a business’ profits subject to a given jurisdiction’s corporate income or other business taxes. U.S. states apportion business profits based on some combination of the percentage of company property, payroll, and sales located within their borders. among the several states, and without regard to any census of enumeration.”

Homer S. Cummings, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the Woodrow Wilson administration, counted the income tax among the most notable accomplishments of the Democratic Party. Provision for an income tax, he observed in “Achievements of the Democratic Party,” in American Leaders Speak, 1918-1920, relieved the law “of the reproach of being unjustly burdensome to the poor.”

Arthus Botsford, interviewed in “Connecticut Clockmakers,” an American Life Histories, 1936-1940 interview, had a different point of view. “If you got money in the bank, they want to know just how much, and how much interest is comin’ on it, and everything else. It may be only two dollars, and if you got money in the bank, they want to know.”

The Tax History Project’s Tax History Museum provides an illustrated timeline of the income tax, and the IRS itself provides a brief history of the agency’s creation. The Tax History Foundation also has a collection of old tax forms.

If you’ve ever wondered how April 15 came to be Tax Day, here’s an excerpt of an interesting discussion from Yahoo:

[W]e did find one web site [link no longer works] that claimed the first income tax was paid only by the very wealthy, and they tended to spend their summers vacationing. Thus, the IRS Commissioner argued, “The collection of taxes would be much easier if an earlier assessment was made, before they leave town.” And so it was. This information made sense and explained the general time frame for the deadline but didn’t pinpoint why April 15 was chosen.

Also, from Fortune magazine, an explanation of why April 15 was chosen:

When the 16th Amendment, which allows Congress to institute the income tax, was adopted on Feb. 3, 1913, Congress chose March 1—one year and a few dozen days later—as the deadline for filing returns. Then, with the Revenue Act of 1918, Congress inexplicably moved the date forward to March 15. The next overhaul came in 1955, when buried between tax-code revisions was yet another date change, this time to April 15. According to an IRS spokesman, the move “spread out the peak workload,” but there’s another explanation. Turns out that as the income tax applied to more of the middle class, the government had to issue more refunds. “Pushing the deadline back gives the government more time to hold on to the money,” says Ed McCaffery, a University of Southern California law professor and tax guru.

If you’re anticipating a very long line at the Post Office, you might want to take a look at one of these books, which come highly recommended by Tax Foundation staff:

  • Tax Stories: An In-Depth Look at Ten Leading Federal Income Tax Cases, by Paul L. Caron
  • Federal Tax Policy, by Joseph A. Pechman
  • Personal Income Taxation: The Definition of Income as a Problem of Fiscal Policy, by Henry C. Simons
  • The Concept of Income—Economic and Legal Aspects, Robert M. Haig
  • The Nature of Capital and Income, by Irving Fischer

Public Tax Worker, Washington, D.C.,
Carl Mydans, photographer, 1936.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, [LC-USF33- 000363-M1]