A Law with a Life of Its Own: The Development of the Federal Income Tax Statutes through World War I

Pittsburgh Tax Review, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2009

U of Cincinnati Public Law Research Paper No. 09-18

53 Pages Posted: 25 Aug 2008 Last revised: 7 Jul 2010

Date Written: September 1, 2008


This manuscript examines the development of the federal income tax within the United States fiscal system from the founding of the nation through World War I. The study reveals that, although the tax had become a permanent feature of the tax system by World War I, congressional debates had focused primarily on whether there should be an income tax as opposed to how it should or would operate in practice. This paper argues that the technical aspects of this tax received surprisingly little congressional attention because when the tax was originally passed it was a marginal revenue measure. Laden with rhetorical and political value, the modern federal income tax became law without receiving serious practical scrutiny from Congress. Instead, the statute was passed because it had been made familiar by 50 years of congressional debate, almost all of it theoretical. The development of the early United States income tax reveals a path that initially marginal policies may take to prominence. When a particular revenue measure becomes closely associated with a particular political movement or policy agenda, congressional debate is likely to focus on the merits of the movement or agenda rather than on the mechanical aspects of the law itself.

Suggested Citation

McMahon, Stephanie Hunter, A Law with a Life of Its Own: The Development of the Federal Income Tax Statutes through World War I (September 1, 2008). Pittsburgh Tax Review, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2009. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1254702

Stephanie Hunter McMahon (Contact Author)

University of Cincinnati - College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 210040
Cincinnati, OH 45221-0040
United States
513-556-4206 (Phone)
513-556-1236 (Fax)

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