Tax Analysts Blog

Presidents Paying Taxes, Abraham Lincoln Edition

Posted on Mar 17, 2011

A few days ago, Joe Henchman of the Tax Foundation posted a fascinating item on Warren Harding's tax bill for 1922. The president paid $17,000 in tax, Henchman reported, on a presidential salary of $75,000. Apparently, this was the first time a president had filed a tax return, since Woodrow Wilson had been constitutionally insulated from such unpleasantness. As Henchman explains:

    The income tax had been enacted in 1913, but then-President Woodrow Wilson was protected by Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, which states that the President's salary "shall neither be increased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected." From the 1860s until 1939, it was held that a new tax or tax increase diminished salary, and thus could not go into effect for presidents and federal judges (judges have a similar provision protecting them).
Which got me to thinking ... What about the other income tax? The one imposed during the Civil War? I vaguely recall seeing Lincoln's return reproduced in a book somewhere, but a quick Google search turned up nothing. That's a research project for another day, I guess.

But that same Google search did turn up something almost as good. Ancestry.com publishes a database of tax assessor records from the Civil War era. Back then, federal assessors from the Bureau of Internal Revenue (forerunner of the IRS) were required to assemble comprehensive lists of taxpayers, their incomes, and their taxes due. These lists, moreover, were open to public inspection. "The object of the law seems to have been to afford every tax-payer an opportunity of ascertaining what returns his neighbors have made," explained the Commissioner of Internal Revenue in 1865. "He is interested in these returns, because the burden of the national duties is a common one, and every person should be required to pay his due proportion of it."

I call this sort of arrangement "social auditing," and it has virtues even today. Localities still use it to help administer the property tax, although publicity in that case is probably aimed more at assessor accuracy than taxpayer honesty.

But anyway, who do you think turns up on the assessor's list for the District of Columbia in 1864? None other than Abraham Lincoln, with a listed residence of ""White House" and a reported income of $25,000. He paid $1,296 in taxes, thank you very much.

It's not a tax return, so I can't be certain that Harding has been usurped in the category of "first to file." But it's almost as good.

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