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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


The Origins of the American Income Tax: The Revenue Act of 1894 and Its Aftermath by Richard J. Joseph (Syracuse University Press) offers a new and provocative interpretation of tax history and its surprising significance in current corporate debates.

  • Why do congressional critics want to "pull up the income tax by its roots?"

  • Why do we have an income tax in the first place – especially if its roots are no longer viable and the tax no longer serves its intended purpose?

  • What are the roots of the tax system anyway, and are they, in fact, still viable?

The Origins of the American Income Tax seeks answers to those questions in the long-forgotten archives of tax history. Drawing on extensive Congressional records from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the book reveals how the fundamental ideas underlying our present system of income taxation evolved during 1893-1895, leading to enactment of a broad-based income tax in 1894. That initial law was intended to create a fair tax system based on the principle of "ability-to-pay." With an eye for detail, Richard J. Joseph, senior lecturer in federal income taxation at the University of Texas at Austin, explores ways in which this system would serve as a model for future income tax schemes. He explains how global and domes­tic changes rendered tariff taxation passé. And he demonstrates how significant aspects of that early law, despite its swift demise in the case of Pollock v. The Farmers' Loan & Trust Company, inspire our current federal taxation system.

This book marks the culmination of several years' inquiry into the social ori­gins of the American income tax. The Origins of the American Income Tax was written in response to the cries on the part of some congressional critics to “pull up the income tax by its roots”, and attempts to shed light on the original intent, rationale, and effect of the early income tax and thus to stimulate discus­sion and debate on the philosophical underpinnings of our present tax system.

Excerpt from the book:

In conducting this inquiry, I initially consulted the Congressional Record for 1913. It was in that year that the Sixty-third Congress enacted a permanent tax on individual incomes. This tax, merged with a corporate tax instituted in 1909, laid the foundation for our modern system of income taxation. I soon discov­ered that relatively little is revealed in the way of why Congress wanted to insti­tute a broad-based tax on net income. Indeed, I learned, the central issue in the debates of 1913 was not the impending shift to a new tax base, but rather the degree to which rates should be progressive.

Joseph writes engagingly and The Origins of the American Income Tax makes the origins of tax law accessible to both lay persons and tax scholars. Its descriptions of corporate taxation, rarely if ever divulged before, are highly relevant today.

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