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Maine's Hidden History: Income Tax Controversial 100 Years Ago
05/03/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

This time last month, you may well have been knee-deep in pay stubs and invoices, trying to get your tax returns done on time. What you might not have know is that this year is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment - that's the measure that made federal income tax a permanent feature of American life. As part of our ongoing series looking at Maine's hidden history, local historian and former state legislator Herb Adams has been going through the state archives. Tom Porter has more.

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This time last month, you may well have been knee-deep in pay stubs and invoices, trying to get your tax returns done on time. What you might not have know is that this year is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment - that's the measure that made federal income tax a permanent feature of American life. As part of our ongoing series looking at Maine's hidden history, local historian and former state legislator Herb Adams has been going through the state archives. Tom Porter has more.

Although federal income tax is now 100 years old, says historian Herb Adams, the government initially introduced it many years earlier.

Herb Adams: "The American Congress - that is the northern Congress during the Civil War - attempted to levy an income tax, very successfully in fact, passed it, levied it, invented the greenback - that is the dollar bill, instead of hard currency - to make it possible. And that was one of the major sources of revenue for the North to proceed with the Civil War. So it had been around, hadn't been loved, and had sort of been set aside."

Tom Porter: "Why didn't it stay around?"

Herb Adams: "Well, in those days the United States made its money out of sales of the surplus western lands, the country looked infinite, and what's called tarriffs - that is taxes on goods that are imported. So the federal income tax is kind of set down and pushed to the edge of the table. Then when they decided to try to bring it back, because new sources of revenue are needed, it caused a huge explosion. No war, good times, we don't need this. It was struck down by the United States Supreme Court in 1904 as unconstitutional."

Tom Porter: "Congress approved the amendment in 1909, but it was ratified four years later. Maine ratified it in 1911, two years before final ratification - relatively early. Does this mean that here in Maine our legislators were pretty much in a political consensus on the issue?"

Herb Adams: "Well, on one level, you could say Maine waved the banner, but we didn't really march in the parade. We did have an interesting situation where both political parties at the turn of the century, were both in agreement, and both put in their mainstay political platforms the fact that a federal income tax should be ratified. Then what happened was there was an upset election in 1910 and the Democrats took over the Maine state Legislature by numbers that you would never see again until the end of the century. Eighty-six Democrats in the House in 1911, 64 Republicans. They are both in agreement and yet they are still parties in opposition. What happened is that most of the Republicans wanted to have a state income tax, not a federal one, a state one - keep the money here at home. The Democrats - most, not all - were hoping to outrightly adopt the federal income. So you had a fascinating thing of, 'Yes me too, but my version not yours.'"

Tom Porter: "And the Republicans worried about tax dollars leaving the state."

Herb Adams: "They did. The Republicans said, 'You are chasing lightning bugs, sending all this money out to fund irrigation schemes and gold mines in Colorado, and we're never going to see that money again.'"

Tom Porter: "There was some pretty colorful debate wasn't there - I gather this played out for quite a few weeks in the Legislature?"

Herb Adams: "You know, it covers between 40 and 60 pages of double column tiny print in the Maine legislative record, and it's spread out over a couple of weeks with magnificent oratory that you wouldn't hear today. This is speaking in favor of the income tax as a simple remedy for our problems: 'As was the case with Naaman the leper when he was told to bathe seven times in the river Jordan he thought the remedy was so simple, could not be of any possible use, because it seemed to rob the disease of the mysterious distinction he supposed it to possess.' Now that's verbal, on the floor, you don't hear that today."

Tom Porter: "Not since you were in the Legislature have we had that kind of oratory."

Herb Adams: "Well, that's very kind of you, Tom."

Studying these legislative transcripts from more than 100 years ago, Adams says he was struck by how well-spoken
people were.

"Whether you're a farmer from Sebec, or a city man from Waterville, often they used Bible allusions, allusions to the founding fathers, to the Federalist Papers, and they speak in complete sentences that form paragraphs that deliver thoughts. And Maine was blessed in the fact that we were one of the few Legislatures that kept an absolute verbatim stenographic copy of what was said upon the floor of both houses. So today we can look back and see exactly what they said, and exactly how they said it."

Even today, 100 years later, Adams says Maine is one of only three legislative bodies in the entire U.S. that keeps a verbatim record of what lawmakers say in debate.



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