In January 1953 President Dwight Eisenhower crossed party lines and named a Virginia Democrat to be the new commissioner of internal revenue. T. Coleman Andrews brought several virtues to the job, including a reputation for toughness and a set of strong convictions. Among other things, he was committed to bureaucratic reform, fiscal austerity, and vigorous enforcement of the revenue laws.
But Andrews believed in something else, too – something surprising, at least for the nation’s chief tax collector. The income tax, Andrews believed, was a dangerous, powerful, and “devouring” evil, a Marxist innovation with no legitimate place in freedom-loving America.
As commissioner, Andrews had a reputation for being both "pro-taxpayer and pro-business" (as the sociologist Isaac Martin wrote in his 2013 book, Rich People's Movements). "There is no excuse whatsoever,” Andrews declared in a typical comment, “for any person in the Bureau of Internal Revenue to take any attitude toward the taxpayer other than one that emanates from the sincere desire to be helpful."
But Andrews's time at the IRS was also contentious, which was inevitable given his charge to revamp the agency and scale back its budget. He slashed staffing in the Washington headquarters but added examining agents in the field for his new enforcement campaign. "We intend to use every dollar available to prove to cheaters that we mean business," Andrews told reporters.
In the summer of 1953, Andrews dispatched hundreds of IRS employees to knock on doors across New England, looking for tax delinquents. The results were impressive, as Andrews bragged to a meeting of the Tax Executives Institute; new returns and payments were "pouring in" to regional offices. "It all adds up to the fact that we are causing a lot of folks to face up to their tax obligations for the first time," he said.
Meanwhile, however, Andrews was struggling with his personal feelings about the income tax. For the most part, he kept his doubts to himself, but in 1955 he resigned his post and set out to tell the world about the evils of a progressive income tax.
Andrews gave a series of speeches outlining problems in the tax system. In April 1956 he endorsed a constitutional amendment to cap personal rates at 25 percent (it failed, but only narrowly). He also insisted that the federal government should stop taxing estates.
But Andrews's biggest splash came in May 1956, when he gave a lengthy interview to U.S. News & World Report. Replacing the income tax was vital, he told the magazine, unless Americans were prepared "to resign ourselves to slavery." The future was clear: "Absolutism in one form or another is the inevitable end of 'steeply graduated' taxes on income and inheritances," he declared, "and absolutism in any form is slavery."
Andrews was convinced that the income tax was unworkable. "I don't think it can be made even generally understandable, let alone fair and compatible with our tradition of freedom," he told U.S. News. The tax was a “devouring evil," its high rates a form of social engineering. "I don't believe in using tax legislation to force social reforms upon the people or to punish sin," he said. The income tax was "conceived in vengeance and it has been that way ever since."
Reform might improve matters, Andrews said, especially if it involved rate reduction. But he was dubious. "I am convinced that this law has reached the point of incurable infirmity, and I doubt that any full-scale income tax, rigidly enforced, can be made a primary source of a great nation's income without leading eventually to dictatorship, which I am convinced is happening under the present law."
Complexity was at the root of the problem. "The annual chore of complexity that people are confronted with is, in my opinion, almost as serious as the oppressiveness of the tax itself," he said. "It is certainly a shameful waste of time and talent."
Asked how he had been able to keep silent while in office, Andrews was humble. "My job was to enforce the law, not philosophize about it or try to make new law," he said. But silence didn’t come easy. "I was constantly unhappy about what I saw the income tax doing to us," he said.
Andrews's comments dismayed his former colleagues in government, but they thrilled right-wing political activists. In August 1956 they persuaded him to run for president, and he developed a stump speech with a straightforward title: "The Income Tax Is Bad." This became the foundation of an independent but deeply conservative bid for the White House. "We welcome to our cause all those who love their country and sincerely seek return to constitutional government and a genuine two-party system," Andrews explained.
Strong words, but not unusual ones for a certain kind of 1950s conservative. Andrews was one of a growing band of right-leaning activists who felt abandoned by both parties. Southern Democrats like Andrews had been estranged from their party colleagues for years, and many Republicans were disappointed by the moderate brand of GOP politics that Eisenhower brought to the 1952 campaign.
Andrews became a leading spokesman for these disgruntled conservatives, especially around the marquee issue of taxation. In the U.S. News interview, he declined to offer a specific replacement for the income tax, but he explained -- at length -- his reasons for rejecting the current system.
In the November election, Andrews won 108,956 votes, 42,964 of them from Virginia. After the election, he continued to agitate for fundamental tax reform while expanding his ambit to include a range of right-wing policy priorities. In 1958 he helped found the John Birch Society (before leaving it in 1962), and in 1968 supported George Wallace for president. He remained a fixture in Virginia politics for decades, but his real moment in the sun was over.
Still, Andrews had made his mark. During a crucial period, he gave important credibility to a brewing conservative revolt. And he did it with a genuine rhetorical flourish. "Maybe," Andrews told U.S. News in one of his most famous comments, "we ought to see that every person who gets a tax return receives a copy of the Communist Manifesto with it so he can see what's happening to him."
Strong words for a former commissioner.
For more tax talk follow me on Twitter @jthorndike.