Tax Day is coming up – this year, it falls on April 17th (two days later than usual). Filing income taxes is a universal pain in the neck, but believe it or not, the history of taxation is even more convoluted than the current U.S. Tax Code.
Taxation been around since the beginning of civilization. The earliest tax supposedly dates all the way back to Mesopotamia, and tax collectors are frequently referenced in the Bible. Ancient cultures around the world paid taxes in the form of “currency” ranging from pressed tea (ancient China) to shrunken heads (certain tribes in the Amazon).
The origin of modern taxation, according to The Economist, “can be traced to wealthy subjects paying money to their king in lieu of military service.” In addition, early taxes were levied through tolls and customs on travelling merchants, and on easily quantifiable goods like wine, and leather. Governments across the world would often impose “temporary” taxes to help finance war efforts that hung around far after the war ended (hardly surprising). Not only have taxes been used to help countries wage war, they have often been one of the factors contributing to conflict.
Rulers must be careful with how, who, and what they tax. Throughout history, many heads have rolled over taxation (literally) because rulers got carried away. Taxation is cited as one of the reasons King Charles I of England lost his head in the 1600s. The guillotine was the star of the show in The French Revolution, and while a number of things drove The Reign of Terror, you can bet political conflict over finances and the tax system is on the list.
We all know that here in the United States, taxation was the catalyst named most responsible for our independence. Over-taxation by the British through the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act were the impetus for the cry of “No taxation without representation,” which became the slogan for many a protest (see: the Boston Tea Party), and eventually, the Revolutionary War itself.
America’s independence didn’t necessarily mean Americans weren’t taxed any less, just that the taxes weren’t going to a government that the citizens abhorred. Taxation in the States was rather erratic until the ratification of the 16th Amendment in 1913, which gave Congress the power to collect taxes on personal income at the source. 1914 saw the release of the first Form 1040, which is something we’re all too familiar with during this time of year!
Today’s news media battles over taxation may be torturous, but on the bright side, at least no one is losing their heads!