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History of the US Income Tax

Compiled by Ellen Terrell
Business Reference Services
February 2004
Updated 2012

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If, in the midst of sorting receipts and studying the latest changes in the US income tax laws, you suddenly wonder "What is the origin of this annual ritual in the weeks leading up to April 15th?" here are some places you can go for answers.

The origin of the income tax on individuals is generally cited as the passage of the 16th Amendment, passed by Congress on July 2, 1909, and ratified February 3, 1913; however, its history actually goes back even further. During the Civil War Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1861 which included a tax on personal incomes to help pay war expenses. The tax was repealed ten years later. However, in 1894 Congress enacted a flat rate Federal income tax, which was ruled unconstitutional the following year by the U.S. Supreme Court because it was a direct tax not apportioned according to the population of each state. The 16th amendment, ratified in 1913, removed this objection by allowing the Federal government to tax the income of individuals without regard to the population of each State. For additional information on taxation in the United States, see the section on taxes on the web site of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.


That reminds me, did you file our tax return Wife's comment while watching television show showing man in jail
"That reminds me, did you file our tax return?"
Wife's comment while watching television show showing man in jail.
from the Caroline and Erwin Swann Collection of Caricature & Cartoon (Library of Congress)
Reproduction number: LC-USZ62-84088
Left: Letter dated January 3, 1862, from Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase to President Abraham Lincoln recommending George S. Boutwell for the newly-created post of Commissioner of Internal Revenue.
The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, American Memory Collections.

Further reorganization came in the 1950s, replacing the patronage system with career employees. The IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 prompted the most comprehensive reorganization and modernization of IRS in nearly half a century and established a Taxpayer Advocate Service as an independent voice inside the agency on behalf of the taxpayer.

April 15th has not always been the filing deadline. March 1st was the date specified by Congress in 1913, after the passage of the 16th amendment. In 1918 Congress pushed the date forward to March 15th, where it remained until the tax overhaul of 1954, when the date was again moved ahead to April 15th. For further information on the choice of April 15th as the filing date see Yahoo! External Link and Fortune "Great questions of our age: Why is tax day April 15?" by Jessica Sung. Fortune, Apr 15, 2002. (Volume 145, Issue 8; page. 64,).

Original Form 1040 (1913)

a joint undertaking of the National Archives & Records Administration, National History Day, and the USA Freedom Corps.

Other Sources of Information


Additional Reading: Print Resources

  • American Taxation, its History as a Social Force in Democracy by Sidney Ratner. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, inc. [1942].
    LC Call Number: HJ2362.R3
    LC Catalog Record: 42006329

  • The American way in taxation : Internal Revenue, 1862-1963 edited by Lillian Doris. Buffalo : Hein, 1994.
    LC Call Number: HJ5018 .A6 1994
    LC Catalog Record: 94076047

  • The Bureau of Internal Revenue; Its History, Activities and Organization by Laurence F. Schmeckebier. Baltimore, Md., The Johns Hopkins Press, 1923.
    LC Call Number: HJ5018 .S3
    LC Catalog Record: 23011754

  • Income taxes 1862-1962; a history of the Internal Revenue Service. Washington [For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U. S. Govt. Print. Off., 1963]
    LC Call Number: HJ5018 .A53
    LC Catalog Record: 63060815

  • The Internal Revenue Service by JoAnn A. Grote ; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., senior consulting editor. Philadelphia : Chelsea House Publishers, c2001.
    LC Call Number: HJ2361 .G76 2001
    LC Catalog Record: 00034577

  • IRS historical fact book : a chronology, 1646-1992. Washington, D.C. : Dept. of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, 1993.
    LC Call Number: HJ5018 .I77 1993
    LC Catalog Record: 93201931

  • The Origins of the American Income Tax : The Revenue Act of 1894 and its Aftermath by Richard J. Joseph. 1st ed. Syracuse, N.Y. : Syracuse University Press, 2004.
    LC Call Number: KF6369 .J67 2004
    LC Catalog Record: 2003022296
    Table of Contents

  • Taxation in the United States 1789-1816. Baltimore, by Henry C. Adams, N. Murray, publication agent, Johns Hopkins university, 1884.
    LC Call Number: H31 .J6
    LC Catalog Record: 04008517

  • The United States Federal Internal Tax History from 1861 to 1871 by Harry Edwin Smith. Boston, New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914.
    LC Call Number: HJ2362 .S64
    LC Catalog Record: 14007065

Library of Congress Catalog Searches

Additional works on the history of the U.S. income tax in the Library of Congress may be identified by searching the Online Catalog under appropriate Library of Congress subject headings. Choose the topics you wish to search from the following list of Library of Congress subject headings to link directly to the Catalog and automatically execute a search for the subject selected. Please be aware that during periods of heavy use you may encounter delays in accessing the catalog. For assistance in locating other subject headings which relate to the business aspects of this subject, please consult a business reference librarian. For general inquiries relating to the legal aspects of the topic, please consult a legal reference librarian. Please note that the Library does not provide legal advice, interpretation, or analysis which could be interpreted as the practice of law.

Last Updated: 02/27/2018

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