by Chandler Jenrette, Research Assistant
“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 Sixteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
The sixteenth amendment, enabling Congress to levy an income tax, was ratified on February 3, 1913. The Constitution previously required that any direct taxes collected be apportioned among the states based on population, which the sixteenth amendment challenged.
The push for an income tax had been debated for several years. In 1894 an amendment proposing a tax on incomes in excess of $4000 was attached to a tariff bill. That amendment was challenged in the Supreme Court, which decided that income tax qualified as a direct tax and was therefore unconstitutional. In 1909 Nebraska Senator Norris Brown proposed a Constitutional amendment for income tax. Congress passed the resolution proposing the tax, and the matter was submitted to the states. Though Republicans protested, by February 3, 1913, the requisite number of states ratified the amendment, overruling the 1895 court decision.
The sixteenth amendment is viewed as the first of the Progressive Era amendments, signaling a major shift in the way government influenced society. Marked by a push for political and social change and an end to corruption, the Progressive Era ushered in a new period of reform. By establishing a steady revenue source, the amendment gave the government the opportunity to expand and fund programs. It also addressed Progressives’ concern about ever-increasing private wealth.
1913 also saw the passage of the seventeenth amendment, establishing the process of electing senators by popular vote. The eighteenth amendment, ratified in 1919, prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation” of alcohol, and the nineteenth amendment, ratified in 1920, gave women the right to vote. Together with the sixteenth amendment, they define the political change that took place during the Progressive Era.
The sixteenth amendment was controversial when it was enacted, and it remains a source of conflict. In 2012, the Republican Party platform called for the repeal of federal income tax.
The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution is on view October 11, 2013 through February 23, 2013 at the New-York Historical Society.