Tracing the Opposition to Taxes in America
By Daniel Levitas
Nearly 40 years before We the People placed full-page ads in USA Today urging would-be taxpayers to safeguard their constitutional rights by refusing to file income tax returns, a building contractor from Wichita, Kansas, named Arthur Julius Porth scribbled "I plead the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States" across his Form 1040 and sent it to the IRS.
Opposition to the federal income tax predates Porth's 1961 rebellion, but his one-man act of defiance inspired a legion of activists, helped spark a national "Tax Strike" movement in the two decades that followed and laid the groundwork for today's generation of militant tax protesters.
Although the government finally cracked down on tax protesters in the early 1980s, imposing new penalties and launching prosecutions that sharply curtailed the growth of the movement Porth and others had created, that did not last.
In 1998, after holding one-sided hearings into alleged IRS abuses, Congress reversed course, passing legislation that has drastically weakened IRS enforcement, cost as much as $300 billion in lost tax revenues, and helped to unleash a new wave of tax rebellion.
Today, the number of those who simply refuse to file has skyrocketed, and federal tax and Treasury Department officials have shown a remarkable reluctance to act decisively.
In just six years, a taxpayer's chance of being audited has fallen from one in 67 to less than one in 200, with the IRS' budget slashed by more than a quarter since the 1980s. Property seizures to recoup back taxes have virtually ended.
And, as The New York Times reported last April, the IRS, struggling to stay within its meager budget, effectively wrote off $2.5 billion owed by 668,018 taxpayers.
"I am worried," said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who then headed the Senate Finance Committee, "that the IRS is a dog that doesn't have a bark."
How did we get here? How is it that the poor in America now have a substantially higher likelihood than the rich of having their tax returns audited? How can increasing numbers of businesses and individuals simply refuse to file without much fear of prison or fines?
Although right-wing tax protesters cannot claim all the credit for this "victory," they are certainly reaping the benefits.
As the story of the tax protest movement and its founding patriarchs reveals, some of the central ideas espoused by the anti-Semitic Posse Comitatus and other tax-protesting "Christian Patriots" — including many in the militias — have now penetrated far into the mainstream. As we look at the situation today, it is important to understand how we got here.
Back to the Beginning
Like present-day tax resisters, A.J. Porth gave plenty of reasons for breaking the law, including the notion that the 16th Amendment was unconstitutional and "put Americans into economic bondage to the international bankers" — a thinly veiled anti-Semitic reference to the supposed "international Jewish banking conspiracy."
In addition to citing Bible verses to justify his actions, Porth argued that because paper money was not backed by gold or silver, taxpayers weren't obligated to pay their taxes because "Federal Reserve Notes are not dollars."
Reasoning like this led to Porth's 1967 conviction for violating federal tax laws, and he was sentenced to five years in prison.
But his crusade actually dates back to 1952, when he sued the government on the grounds that being forced to withhold money from his employees' paychecks was equivalent to slavery and therefore unconstitutional. His lawsuit was dismissed and in 1957 he was ordered to pay $4,000.
To many observers, Porth's ideas may have seemed like fringe material, but hatred of the 16th Amendment and the IRS has never been limited to the political margins. In 1952, Ralph Gwinn, a Republican congressman from New York, introduced the so-called "Liberty Amendment," which proposed to repeal the income tax. By 1964, seven states had endorsed the proposal before it died.
Leaders such as J. Bracken Lee, the governor of Utah, also called for repeal of the 16th Amendment, saying taxes were unconstitutional because they paid for foreign aid, which supported America's enemies. Lee made this and other anti-tax arguments throughout his 20-year political career; first as governor, from 1949 to 1957, and then as mayor of Salt Lake City, from 1960 to 1972.
A Newspaper Applauds an Emerging Movement
Porth may have been tilting at windmills, but his earnest zeal won him the endorsement of the Wichita Evening Eagle and Beacon, which editorialized that he had a "unique rationale" for his actions and deserved the "good wishes" of all its readers.
"If the Internal Revenue Service disagreed with the figures on his tax return, it could use them in a criminal case against him," the paper declared. "So Porth plans to fill in his name and address, leave the rest of the return blank, and stand on the Fifth Amendment guarantee against self-incrimination."
Porth's so-called "Fifth Amendment Return" became wildly popular among tax protesters, even though federal courts categorically rejected the scheme. He wrote a handbook, lectured widely and won further fame for his commitment to confrontation.
Long before the so-called "common-law courts" of the 1990s handed down their edicts threatening government officials, Porth drafted homespun "arrest warrants" to be used against bureaucrats who allegedly violated the Constitution. But it was his 1967 conviction and subsequent prison sentence that made Porth's battle with the IRS a cause célèbre on the radical right.
Among those who campaigned for Porth's freedom was William Potter Gale, who would become the founder of the Posse Comitatus in 1971. Gale used the newsletter of his California-based Ministry of Christ Church — a church espousing the racist and anti-Semitic theology of Christian Identity — to promote Porth and the early tax rebellion movement.
After exhausting his appeals, Porth finally went to jail late in 1970, but he was released on probation 77 days later.