The Tax History Project: A History of Taxes in the U.S.


Some of the information in this post may be out of date. Please speak to a librarian for more up to date information. 

The time is near when even the worst of procrastinators will file their tax returns, many of which will be accompanied by a large check.  The Internal Revenue Service website, at, makes filing free, easy and simple for anyone with an adjusted gross income (AGI) of $57,000 or less.  The site also provides pdf copies of many tax forms with instructions and links to state offices.  What the IRS site doesn’t provide you with is a history of how we all got where we are today.  Why do we pay taxes?  Did the Founding Fathers agree on ideas related to taxing citizens?   What were tax rates in colonial America and did all citizens pay taxes?  Try the following sources to answer these and other questions you might have about the history behind that predictable, unavoidable and inescapable ritual known as paying your taxes.

The Tax History Project
A site from Tax Analysts, a non-profit tax publisher known for its publications Tax Notes and Tax Notes Today, and its international publications Tax Notes International Weekly News and Worldwide Tax Daily.   Tax Analysts’ mission is to “provide the latest and most in-depth tax information worldwide,” but they also have an educational mission of teaching the public more about the tax system.  The Tax History Project does an excellent job of fulfilling this mission by achieving its goal to “provide scholars, policymakers, students, the media and citizens with information about the history of American taxation.”  The site contains everything from copies of recent presidential tax returns to a tax history museum  displaying a timeline showing important developments in taxation from 1660 on to a section titled Taxing Federalism that displays excerpts from the Federalist Papers where authors Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay argue in defense of a strong central government with unlimited taxing powers.  An interesting image display on the site includes U.S. 1040 forms from 1913-2006.

The history of taxation has probably not been given its fair due in the academic literature; however, the following books cover the topic and provide fascinating reads on its different aspects and periods:
Contemporary U.S. Tax Policy by C. Eugene Steuerle.
Federal Taxation in America: A Short History by W. Elliot Brownlee.
The Great Tax Wars: Lincoln to Wilson, the Fierce Battles over Money and Power… by Steven R. Weisman
Taxation in Colonial America by Alvin Rabushka.

For help finding these or other sources on the history of taxation in America, Ask a Reference Librarian!