The power of deduction

In the beginning, income taxes weren't certain at all, but then came war

Could some taxes actually be more "just" than others? Steven Weisman's "The Great Tax Wars," returns to the era when American presidents and their advisers, along with wealthy bankers and populist dreamers, first wrestled with the moral ramifications of a nascent idea: the income tax.

Weisman's compelling narrative presents what he calls "two definitions of fairness" that shaped the tax struggles from 1860 to 1920. Politicians from Abraham Lincoln to Woodrow Wilson wrestled with this same central question: Is it fair to aggressively tax income at graduated rates? Or should a just government foster the spirit of free enterprise and entrepreneurship by allowing its citizens to keep more of the wealth they've earned? Weisman, a journalist with The New York Times for 30 years, takes us to the birth of that partisan issue that still sparks heated conversations on the campaign trail and at the dinner table.

The income tax was first utilized in the heat of the Civil War in 1862, when a desperate President Lincoln was forced to raise revenues to pay for Union soldiers' boots and uniforms. With careful research into the monetary strategies of both the Union and Confederacy, Weisman proves that Lincoln's unprecedented decision to tax income – coupled with the Confederacy's reluctance to do the same – "was essential to saving the Union and freeing the slaves."

As Weisman charts the ever-changing fate of the income tax, it's clear that permanent implementation was never a foregone conclusion. The 1862 tax was repealed when war revenues were no longer needed. In 1895, the Supreme Court went so far as to declare income taxes unconstitutional. For 17 years, that ruling stonewalled the populists' efforts to create what they considered a more egalitarian society.

It took a revision of the Constitution to reverse the court's verdict. Weisman handles the 16th Amendment's 1913 ratification crisis in depth and conveys a clear sense of its immediate significance: Without the amendment, Wilson never would have had the enormous sums of money necessary to fight Germany in World War I.

"The Great Tax Wars" proves that the income tax indeed changed America – and, Weisman argues, for the better. Without an income tax, the government's primary source of revenue had always come from import duties. But these tariffs on foreign items raised the price of all goods by as much as 50 percent, and worked as a "silent consumer tax" that hit low-income families the hardest.

The progressive income tax was more than a political idea pushed by bureaucrats in Washington. Instead, Weisman argues, it answered a popular demand for lower prices on consumer goods. With the tariffs cut, the government had to find funds somewhere else.

Weisman's training as a journalist shows in his ability to frame each new battle in historical context. The ideas and policies of Lincoln, populist candidate William Jennings Bryan, young Theodore Roosevelt, and finally the idealist Woodrow Wilson, are all a part of the story – a story that grows to explore far more than just taxes. Come April 15, most Americans won't view their yearly duty as a "glorious privilege" the way President Wilson did, but "The Great Tax Wars" might make filing the 1040 form a little more meaningful.

• Nathaniel Hoopes works on the Monitor's Op-Ed desk.

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