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Death and Taxes

April 12, 2010

Last week I spoke to a civic club in Union County. The company was pleasant. The food was some of the best down-home cooking to be enjoyed this side of the Broad River.

I noticed an announcement in their newsletter for a fundraising event to be held on April 15. I opened my talk to them by commending them on their courage and their optimism in hosting such an occasion on the very day that income tax payments are due the Internal Revenue Service.

 “The kiss of death!” some wag in the audience blurted out.

It is not the first, nor the last time that death and taxes have been linked.

In 1789, in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Margaret Mitchell’s line from her book Gone with the Wind, 1936, offers a similar sentiment. “Death, taxes, and childbirth! There’s never any convenient time for any of them.”

Erwin N. Griswold wrote, “We have long had death and taxes as the two standards of inevitability.  But there are those who believe that death is the preferable of the two. 

An unknown author wrote, “Of life’s two certainties, taxes is the only one for which you can get an automatic extension.”

Taxes have had an interesting history in the United States. In January of 1776, Thomas Paine published Common Sense. It was an instant bestseller, both in the colonies and in Europe. Paine’s political pamphlet brought the rising revolutionary sentiment into sharp focus by placing blame for the suffering of the colonies directly on the reigning British monarch, George III. Paine was especially harsh on taxation. “What at first was plunder assumed the softer name of revenue.”

Common Sense advocated immediate separation from England. Within six months The Declaration of Independence strongly objected to taxes imposed on the American colonies by Great Britain. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 had been a demonstration against such unfair taxes.

The United States had few taxes in its early history.  From 1791 to 1802, the Federal government was supported by internal taxes on distilled spirits, carriages, refined sugar, tobacco and snuff, property sold at auction, corporate bonds, and slaves. The high cost of the War of 1812 brought about the nation’s first sales taxes on gold, silverware, jewelry, and watches. In 1817, however, Congress did away with all internal taxes, relying on tariffs on imported goods to provide sufficient funds for running the government.

In 1862, in order to support the Civil War effort, Congress enacted the nation’s first income tax law. It was a forerunner of our modern income tax. The act established the office of Commissioner of Internal Revenue. The Commissioner was given the power to assess, levy, and collect taxes, and the right to enforce the tax laws through seizure of property and income and
through prosecution. Those powers and authority remain very much the same today.

In 1913, the 16th Amendment to the Constitution made the income tax a permanent fixture in the U.S. tax system. The amendment gave Congress legal authority to tax income and resulted in a revenue law that taxed incomes of both individuals and corporations.

Through the years presidents have expressed varying opinions about the Federal Tax system. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The purse of the people is the real seat of sensibility.  Let it be drawn upon largely, and they will then listen to truths which could not excite them through any other organ.”  Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Taxes, after all, are dues that we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society.”  Ronald Reagan said, “The taxpayer is someone who works for the federal government but doesn’t have to take the civil service examination.”

Even The Old Farmer’s Almanac commented, “If Patrick Henry thought that taxation without representation was bad, he should see how bad it is with representation.”

Here are some random thoughts about taxes.

  • People try to live within their income so they can afford to pay taxes to a government that can’t live within its income.
  • I don’t know if I can live on my income or not – the government won’t let me try it.
  • A fine is a tax for doing something wrong.  A tax is a fine for doing something right.  
  • If the Lord loves a cheerful giver, how he must hate the taxpayer!    

When I look at a blank income tax form, I have an urge to doodle. Our son Kris is more imaginative. He has announced an art show entitled “Death and Taxes.” Kris has created a new series of paintings incorporating U.S. income tax forms. The show is at Kris’ studio, The Wet Paint Syndrome, located on the Flip Side of Hillcrest Specialty Row, 1040 Fernwood-Glendale Road, Suite 34, Spartanburg, S.C. Yes, the street address is really 1040 and the date of the show is Thursday, April 15, 2010, from 5:00 P.M. – 9:00 P.M. The community is invited for an evening of lighthearted tax relief during the April Art Walk. The event is free and open to the public.

Kris, I wish I could be there. I just don’t know whether I will feel up to it. I have a colonoscopy scheduled for April 15. Honestly, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate time for such an invasion of privacy!

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2010

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