A federal income tax was first levied in the United States in 1862. Congress instituted the tax to meet the extraordinary expenses of the Civil War. The Revenue Act of 1862 levied a progressive tax on Americans, of 3% on incomes between 600 and 10,000 dollars, and 5% on incomes over 10,000 dollars (roughly $238,000 today).
Prior to the Civil War, the federal government relied primarily on tariffs (duties on goods imported into the US) to finance its activities. The use of the tariff protected the growth of nascent American manufactures, by making foreign goods more expensive relative to those made in the US. This arrangement allowed the government to operate without taxing citizens directly.
The cartoon above, published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper soon after the Revenue Act went into effect, captures its impact on American psyches. The tax is depicted as indecorously invasive. In the drawing, four federal tax collectors are snooping around inside the home of an American citizen named Scroggs. Caught in the act of arranging his hair, Scroggs faces interrogation armed only with a brush and comb. A tax commissioner in a high hat accosts him while fingering Scroggs’s pocket-watch. Another visitor peeks under his wife’s skirt, while still others scrutinize the couple’s clothes and look under their child’s bed. The caption: ‘Scroggs says he is ready and willing to pay any amount of tax, but he would like them to leave his wife’s crinoline and other domestic trifles alone.’
Did instituting the income tax create an antagonistic relationship between citizens and the government that had not existed before? What we do know is that in 1867, the Civil War at an end, the income tax was sharply reduced, and in 1872 it was eliminated. According to the Internal Revenue Service website, between 1868 and 1913, 90 percent of internal revenue was garnered through taxes on alcohol and tobacco. The income tax was re-instituted only in Woodrow Wilson’s era, following the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment, which increased Congress’s discretion in levying income taxes directly on the citizenry.
For the January 30, 1864, issue of Harper’s Weekly, Thomas Nast drew a many-paneled illustration of Central Park in winter. Like many of his works, this one featured a large central drawing, surrounded by smaller vignettes in round and elliptical frames. The main drawing shows New Yorkers ice-skating on Central Park’s Pond. (The Park was then only a few years old.) Below that is a rather wild sleighing scene, in which genteel New Yorkers ride through a desolate terrain, as urchins throw snowballs or rocks at them.
The opening of Central Park coincided with ice-skating’s growing popularity, which took hold in earnest in the 1850s. The Park was most heavily visited in winter, when its pond became crowded with thousands of skaters, whose activities Nast captures here in wonderful detail. (Note the woman in the skating chair.)
Perhaps inevitably, Nast’s wonderland contains some politics, too. Two months earlier, President Lincoln had been reelected as an inconclusive Civil War dragged on, inflicting terrible casualties. New York, being a commercial center, had always viewed the war with ambivalence. The conflict was contrary to the city’s interests, disrupting a lucrative trade with the South on which New York’s economy relied. While many New Yorkers were ardent Unionists and Republicans, the city also had a large Democratic constituency, including a politically active immigrant population, which resented the war, the federal government, and the fuss about slaves. Many, wishing a return to peace, had lately voted for Lincoln’s challenger, Democrat George McClellan.
Anger over the federal government’s war policies had boiled into violence the previous July. New York became the scene of bloody draft riots, in which rioters lynched at least 11 blacks and 120 people were killed in street fighting between protesters and the police. Poor whites were inflamed against a draft bill that Congress had recently passed: while ostensibly requiring all fit men to serve in the Union military, it contained a loophole that wealthier Northerners would use to evade the draft: arranging for a replacement by paying a bounty.
In the foreground of his skating scene, Nast (who ardently supported Lincoln and the war) highlights several figures, including a military man at the far left wearing a kepi—a reminder of high-minded Northerners voluntarily leading the Union effort as officers. At right are two prominent New York newspaper editors, James Gordon Bennett Sr and Horace Greeley, who have run into trouble on proverbially thin ice. Greeley is teetering, while Bennett has fallen, both near a hole signifying treachery. Bennett had been an outspoken critic of Lincoln and proponent of McClellan, whereas Greeley, while fitfully supportive of the war, had recently embarrassed the Lincoln administration by engaging in bogus ‘peace negotiations’ with some Confederate representatives who turned out to be fakes.
Both editors, though overwhelmingly influential, earned Nast’s scorn because they were feckless peace-mongers. To have ended the Civil War through a settlement at that juncture would have rendered the suffering of the soldiers in vain.
Their presence heightens the allegorical meaning of the left side of the tableau, where three figures guard the safety of the family and society. Besides the Union officer, who holds a small boy in his arms, Nast’s own editor Fletcher Harper (with mutton-chop whiskers) stands over a young girl protectively, while a third man (unidentified, but probably a prominent editor, too) deferentially greets a woman standing at the edge of the ice. Nast depicts these figures as both benevolent and patriotic. Harper gave Nast a venue for his pro-Union and radically egalitarian views.
So what at first glance passes for an innocuous pleasure scene is a comment on specific editors, and a paean to the value of virtuous editors in a conflict-ridden time.
All the fervent hopes associated with the end of American slavery animate this colored engraving of Thomas Nast’s “Emancipation: The Past and the Future,” published in 1865.
Better than pages upon pages of tracts and editorials, this vivid artwork expresses the moral convictions and sentiments that led Americans of 150 years ago to get rid of slavery, and, beyond that, to envision a society in which all people would equally enjoy certain basic rights.
Freeing the slaves was one thing: it was quite another for white America to embrace a vision of political equality that would extend to Americans of another color. Yet this northern Americans did right after the Civil War (1861-65), amending the Constitution to secure positive legal equality for former slaves and all persons of color. Proponents of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments—which abolished slavery, promised citizens equal protection under the law, and extended voting rights to blacks—believed that these measures would guarantee the liberty of former slaves and their descendants, opening the way for their sharing in the blessings of prosperity and peace.
In that sense, the so-called Reconstruction Amendments, passed between 1865 and 1870, represent the high-water mark of nineteenth-century America’s quest for racial equality. That quest, which had begun in earnest in the 1830s, was an essentially moral and intellectual movement, a movement that a generation of writers, moralists, orators, newspaper publishers, and outspoken clergymen advanced. For many decades they labored hopelessly and alone. Abolitionists were marginal and dangerous figures. Politicians wanted nothing to do with their cause. Statesmen were uniformly loathe to disturb slavery: it was essential to the US economy; therefore, it was far better to let it be.
Only the abolitionists persistently and inconveniently refused to be silent. For decades, their cause, their dream of banishing slavery once and for all, was a fringe movement, something entertained only in truly radical minds. Those who demanded abolition were literally playing with fire, and sometimes the fire found them, as when their offices were burned, or when their efforts to keep the courts from returning fugitives slaves to their masters caused riots.
The belief that slavery had to end and that, once it did, the only proper course was to recognize black Americans as citizens, gradually gained some political traction, though it remained a minority view. Radical Republicans like Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts would not rest until they had expunged slavery from the Constitution and enshrined the principle of racial equality in its place. After the war, Northerners succeeded in amending the Constitution as they did only because the South was relatively disenfranchised and in a state of social and economic disarray.
The amendments were right, but they remained radical: like many of our nation’s founding principles, the Reconstruction amendments spelled out an ideal, one that has proved elusive, for decades more inspirational than real.
But the dream of it, the dream of racial inclusion and equality: that dream has made all the difference, both during Reconstruction and subsequently. The Americans who struggled, 150 years ago, to codify this radical vision and make it more real were the forerunners of modern civil-rights heroes like Martin Luther King. That dream continues to inspire all people of conscience to practice mutual respect, and to be true to the radical principle of equality that ennobles us all.
Nast’s drawing telescopes all the horrifying aspects of slavery. At left, the capture and abduction of Africans from their native lands; the break-up of their families; their sale on the auction block to American owners;
the powerlessness of male and female slaves in the face of their owners’ will;
their forced labor, the fruits of which now belonged to their owner;
and the absence of any recourse except to the ear of God,
to end the injustices and torment of being enslaved.
Only Liberty (at the top of the print) could dispel these grave moral and social sins.
Nast imagined a future in which newly freed people would enjoy everyday blessings,
such as (at right) having intact families, sending their children to school,
being paid wages for labor performed,
and owning something themselves instead of being owned.