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DEATH AND TAXES

April 10, 2016

The deadline for filing tax returns to the Internal Revenue Service has been extended this year to midnight April 18, 2016, because Washington D.C. will celebrate Emancipation Day on April 15. Those few days extra will make a difference for some folks. One man said with some relief, “If it weren’t for the last minute, I wouldn’t get anything done.”

A couple of years ago, I spoke to a civic club in Union County. The company was pleasant, and the food was some of the best down home cooking to be enjoyed this side of the Broad River.

I read a notice in the group’s newsletter announcing a fundraising event to be held on April 15. My opening words commended them on their courage and their optimism in hosting such an occasion on the very day that income tax payments were due to the Internal Revenue Service.

Some wag in the audience blurted out, “The kiss of death!”

It is neither the first time, nor the last, 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 offers a similar sentiment: “Death, taxes, and childbirth! There’s never any convenient time for any of them.”

Erwin N. Griswold, the United States Solicitor General under two Presidents, and for more than 20 years dean of the Harvard Law School, 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, 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, especially harsh on taxation, protested, “What at first was plunder assumed the softer name of revenue.”

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 instead 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, which was a forerunner of our modern income tax. The act established the office of Commissioner of Internal Revenue, which had the power to assess, levy, and collect taxes.  The office also had the right to enforce tax laws through seizure of property and income and through prosecution. Those powers and authority remain 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. That 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 stated, “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.”

Consider some random thoughts about taxes gleaned from popular wisdom.

  • 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, who is more imaginative, announced an art show several years ago entitled “Death and Taxes.” Kris had created a new series of paintings incorporating U.S. income tax forms. The show at Kris’ studio, The Wet Paint Syndrome, which is located on the flip side of Hillcrest Specialty Row, was scheduled for April 15. The community was invited for an evening of lighthearted tax relief. The successful event was well attended.

I was unable to be present. I just didn’t feel up to it. I had been scheduled to have a colonoscopy April 15, the very day of the art show and the day income taxes were due.  Honestly, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate time for such a rude invasion of privacy!

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