Tracing the Opposition to Taxes in America

From Tax Protest to Terror
Among Cooley's followers was Robert Jay Matthews, the future founder of the neo-Nazi revolutionary group, The Order. In 1970, Matthews was 17 years old and still living with his parents in Phoenix when Cooley indoctrinated him about the income tax and made the teenager a sergeant-at-arms for some of his meetings.

Inspired by what Cooley had taught him, Matthews would list 10 non-existent dependents on his W-4 tax form in 1973. This was a common enough protest tactic, but Matthews failed to take into account the basic fact that no 20-year-old could have so many dependents — especially not one whose tax form showed him as unmarried.

Matthews was convicted on misdemeanor charges and sentenced to six months on probation. He soon left Arizona and moved to Metaline Falls, Wash., where he later launched The Order.

Another tax protester who followed Matthews' path of armed rebellion was Ardie McBrearty, the founder in 1974 of the United States Taxpayers Union, a group dedicated not only to repealing the 16th Amendment, but also to abolishing the Occupational Safety and Health Act, consumer protection statutes, gun control laws, and other "unconstitutional" legislation.

McBrearty was a believer in the white supremacist Christian Identity theology, and he eventually abandoned tax protest in favor of the militancy of The Order. His role in the group — he helped set up its security system — eventually earned him 40 years in prison.

The Feds Strike Back
By the early 1980s, the propaganda efforts of men like A.J. Porth, Jerome Daly, Irwin Schiff, Tupper Saussy, Ardie McBrearty, Marvin Cooley and others had motivated tens of thousands of Americans to act. The problem was severe enough that the agency launched a special "Illegal Tax Protester Program," and appointed special "tax protest coordinators" to each of its district offices.

Congress also raised the penalties for illegal tax protest in 1982. It took more than a year, however, for the legislation to make itself felt.

Illegal tax returns peaked in 1983 at 58,000, up 10-fold from five years earlier. Filing an illegal return now had serious consequences, and the fact that nearly 60,000 people were willing to risk jail in 1983 demonstrates the significant strength of the movement.

Other prominent propagandists included William "Bill" Benson, a former investigator with the Illinois Department of Revenue, whose two-volume set, The Law That Never Was, argued that the 16th Amendment was never properly ratified and that the income tax, therefore, was a nullity.

The first volume came out in 1985 and was co-authored by Martin J. "Red" Beckman, a hard-core anti-Semite and "constitutionalist" from Billings, Mont., who accused Jews of worshipping the devil and asserted that the Holocaust was God's "judgment upon a people who believe Satan is their god."

'A Struggle to the Death'
Not all tax protesters were religious bigots, but hatred of Jews has been a dominant theme in the tax strike movement since its inception. This point was driven home by Gordon Wendell Kahl, the 63-year-old Posse Comitatus activist and tax protester who shot and killed two federal marshals, also wounding two other lawmen, outside Medina, N.D., in February 1983.

Wanted for violating probation in a 1977 federal income tax case, Kahl — and two others, including his son — responded with gunfire when the marshals tried to arrest him. Kahl described his version of events in a 16-page handwritten letter he wrote the night of the shooting and mailed several weeks later.

In it, he announced that it was time to wage war against the Jews.

"We are engaged in a struggle to the death between the people of the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of Satan," Kahl wrote. "We are a conquered and occupied nation; conquered and occupied by the Jews, and their hundreds or maybe thousands of front organizations doing their un-Godly work. They have two objectives in their goal of ruling the world. Destroy Christianity and the White race. Neither can be accomplished by itself, they stand or fall together."

Kahl escaped right after the shooting and, despite a massive manhunt, disappeared into the right-wing underground for four months before the fbi finally tracked him down in the hills of northern Arkansas. A local sheriff was killed in the gun battle that followed, as was Kahl, who became the most famous martyr of both the Posse Comitatus and the tax protest movements.

He Who Laughs Last
Fifteen years after Kahl murdered the three lawmen, a bipartisan and overwhelming majority in Congress lent credibility to the claims of right-wing activists regarding IRS abuses. Repeating some of the same themes heard in Sen. Arlen Specter's 1995 probe into the events in Ruby Ridge and Waco, Republican-sponsored hearings in the House and Senate in 1997 and 1998 focused attention on supposed commando-style raids by armed tax inspectors wearing flak jackets.

No testimony was heard about the sharp decline in audit rates for wealthy Americans and large corporations as a result of deep cuts made to IRS spending by the same Congress in 1995, however.

Instead, lawmakers chose to emphasize the image of a menacing federal agency out of control — an image long cultivated by the patriarchs of tax protest and other ideologues of the radical right.

"The I.R.S. is too big and too mean," said then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas in November 1997. Swept up in heady antigovernment rhetoric, the House voted 426 to 4 to overhaul IRS collection practices and the Senate followed, 97 to 0.

Congress said it was "protecting taxpayer rights," but attacking the IRS was good election year politics and supporters of the "overhaul" did not seem overly troubled — or simply did not see — that their actions both vindicated an old generation of tax strikers and inspired a new legion of right-wing scofflaws.

The sponsors of this recent round of anti-IRS legislation did not share the explicitly anti-Semitic and racist motivations of those in the right wing tax protest movement. But their IRS-bashing owes much to the efforts of men like A.J. Porth, William Potter Gale and others who spent decades agitating around the issues of tax rebellion.

Even though the Posse and its militia descendants have been discredited in many ways, their relentless criticism of the IRS contributed to a climate that, decades later, helped politicians to dramatically weaken the IRS.

Daniel Levitas, a long-time expert on the radical right in America, is the author of a forthcoming book on the history of the militia movement and the Posse Comitatus.