A Brief History of Taxes

Terry Savage, Tribune Content Agency on

The Internal Revenue Service has postponed the deadline for filing income taxes for 2020 to May 17, 2021, giving Americans a chance to avoid this unpopular topic for an extra month. Most states that have an income tax have fallen in line. But those first quarterly estimates are still due on April 15 and June 15.

Did your eyes just glaze over at the boring or confounding idea of reading about taxes. Well, that was intended! Not by me, your columnist, but by the politicians of both parties who have created our monstrous tax system and then changed it several time in recent years on a whim — and likely will do so again in the current year.

The unpredictability of taxes messes up financial planning efforts and leaves ordinary people helpless to adjust. Of course, the very wealthy have expert attorneys and accountants to deal with these changes. But for middle-class America, all too often new tax policies blindside efforts to plan for retirement or pass assets on to children.

How It Started

Of course, the United States of America basically started as a tax rebellion against King George. Do they still teach about the Liberty Tree and the Boston Tea Party? They were about unjust taxes — as was the Whiskey Rebellion, which President George Washington quashed in 1794!

The first American income tax was initiated during the Civil War, but our “modern” income tax started in 1913. (Funny, we typically celebrate centennials like this, but I remember no parties for 100 years of the income tax!) A federal income tax was made possible by passage of the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified that same year.


That first tax was on income over $3,000, which applied to only 1% of the population. By 1945, to fight World War II, people with incomes of $500 faced a 23% tax, while the top marginal rate was 94%.

Over the years, numerous other taxes were added and removed in order to raise money for government projects like the New Deal — and to create incentives for certain behaviors. We have had the alternative minimum tax, designed to make sure the wealthy didn’t use too many deductions to avoid paying taxes. That didn’t work well, since it soon hit many middle-class taxpayers when inflation pushed them into higher tax brackets.

Some taxes were well-disguised. The “Social Security tax” is called FICA. That stands for “Federal Insurance Contributions Act.” When Social Security was created in 1935, with taxes first paid in 1937, people were told they would get a tax-free benefit. But that was changed in 1983, and now higher-income retirees pay taxes on some of their Social Security benefits.

The Most Recent Change


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