Think Lincoln when paying tax

April 15, 2001|By Matthew Olshan

I RECENTLY was in the basement of Ford's Theater in Washington standing in front of a hermetically sealed glass cube the size of a commercial refrigerator inspecting the blood-stained topcoat Abraham Lincoln wore the night he was shot dead.

My visit to the theater had been surreal up to that point because of a dramatic narrative presentation by a young man in a Park Service uniform who sounded suspiciously like Keanu Reeves -- "And that's when the dude leaped over the balcony and shouted "Sic semper tyrannis!" -- and an unnerving encounter with another Park Service person whose exasperation was obvious as he explained to me that no one, "not even the president of the United States," was granted access to the box where Lincoln was shot. It was, he explained, "A shrine."

There is definitely a churchy feel to the theater, with its quaint wooden chairs and its Sacrificial Altar of the Republic, the infinitely magnetic presidential box, ceremonially draped with the Stars and Stripes.

That sense of religious fervor extends downstairs, into the hagiographic exhibits in the basement museum, which is full of what you'd expect to find at any saint's shrine: the stories of the martyr's gruesome end, fetishistic representations in stone and on canvas, even holy relics in the form of death souvenirs.

Apparently, Americans in the 1860s were no less souvenir-crazy than we are today. On display are framed bits of a bloody surgeon's sleeve, a square of wallpaper from the presidential box, splinters from the wooden prop John Wilkes Booth used to jam the door while he carried out his assassination.

A striking bit of information caught my eye. Abraham Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865. April 15? Had I ever known that? If I had, the knowledge was buried deep, sunk under the weight of the other April 15, which represented a national day of mourning of a different kind. Was this a mere coincidence?

To find out, I called my father, who, as an accountant, has organized his entire working life around tax dates.

"Individual income taxes used to be due on March 15," he told me, "which would have given individuals 2 1/2 months to prepare their returns, the same as corporations. But at some point it got switched, I think in the '50s."

I was satisfied there was no overt link to Lincoln.

But I was surprised to discover that it was Lincoln who signed the first federal income tax into law, in 1862, in response to the heavy financial demands of the Civil War.

So the Great Emancipator was also responsible for the dreaded income tax -- although, granted, the first income tax was progressive, with exemptions for all but the wealthiest Americans.

That first income tax also involved a voluntary preparation in which the responsibility for preparing one's tax return lay with the citizen. It's easy to forget the self-preparation aspect of the U.S. tax system, which sets it apart from virtually all of the tyrannical forms of tax collection throughout history.

In the 52 years from Lincoln's death to the passage of the 16th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913, the American people debated the wisdom -- and legality -- of taxing the income of its citizens. Now we take it as a necessary evil, the price tag, some say, of civilization.

This year, April 15 is a Sunday, which gives taxpayers an extra day of reprieve before the last of us drive, rumpled and resentful, to the Post Office to mail in our returns.

Today this year will find me raising a glass to Honest Abe, who, fully aware of horrendous costs to himself and the nation, knowingly sacrificed everything to preserve a more or less perfect union.

Matthew Olshan is a novelist and teacher living in Baltimore. His debut literary effort, "Finn: a novel," recently was published by the Bancroft Press.

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