We pick up with the first amendment of the twentieth century, the sixteenth to the constitution.
“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.”
Perfect for today, wouldn’t you say? During the War of 1812, the first public proposal for an income taxwas made by the secretary of the treasury, but it was never implemented until one hundred years later, on the eve of the first world war. We tried income tax during the civil war, first a flat tax then a graduated tax, and those expired in 1872.
The sixteenth amendment came into being thanks to an attempt to tax income illegally. In 1894, an amendment was attached to the Wilson–Gorman Tariff Act that attempted to impose a federal tax of two percent on incomes over $4,000 (equal to $109,000 today). Prior to this, federal funding was through indirect taxes apportioned among the states. In Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co.(1895), the U.S. Supreme Court declared certain taxes on incomes — such as those on property under the 1894 Act — to be unconstitutionally unapportioned direct taxes.
Enter Justice John Marshall Harlan, who in his dissenting opinion in Pollock wrote “it practically decides that, without an amendment of the Constitution — two-thirds of both Houses of Congress and three-fourths of the States concurring — such property and incomes can never be made to contribute to the support of the national government.” Lacking a word processor, he was unable to further emphasize this rather obvious instruction to amend the constitution.
After another fourteen years of bouncing ideas of who to tax, the sixteenth amendment passed congress in 1909., and took four years to be ratified by three fourths of the states (thirty six required at the time). Four states, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Utah, and Virginia, rejected the amendment, and two states, Florida and Pennsylvania, never even considered the amendment.
I think this was an interesting time in American social history. During the years in which the sixteenth amendment was being ratified, the seventeenth amendment, changing the election of senators from by state legislature to popular vote, was introduced and passed congress. It was ratified only months after the sixteenth amendment.
Both of these amendments remove responsibility (and some might say control) from the state legislatures and gives that responsibility to the individual.
The seventeenth amendment reads as follows;
“The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures. When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct. This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.”
State legislatures, which had been (and in some ways still are) local centers of power (and the requisite corruption that is chained to power), were no longer as directly tied to federal funding or the election of senators. Senators are supposed to represent the state and its interests, with Members of the House representing the individuals of the state. With these two amendments America took the first steps away from being a union of states and towards being a unified republic. There are positive and negative aspects to this change of direction, and as with all things, those aspects are affected by the the climate presented by society.
In 1912, there were four popular political parties, Republican, Democratic, Progressive, and Socialist represented in the presidential election, and over 239 political parties in existence. Today we recognize two popular parties, treating other points of view as “fringe elements”. With a population of eligible voters in excess of two hundred and thirty million, how can we rationalize a “digital” or “binary” choice? I believe this is the influence of technology on society. We have moved from the “analog” spectrum of multiple points of view to the digital view of “yes/no”, “good/bad”, “black/white”. Add to that basic ego-centrism and you end up with a growing Fascist movement.
We are still growing, and will hit many bumps along the road, but the all or nothing positions that are becoming increasingly popular in every aspect of society have their roots in these attempts to spread political power. The founding fathers were either prescient or lucky in designing a republic which balanced democracy between the masses and the elite, we should keep these missteps in mind as we consider further changes.