As I was thinking about what to write for today’s post, I came across a post from November 2008 that I wrote about the incoming Obama administration. We are in the first few weeks of the Biden administration which I think has been going very well and is a great change from the previous regime.
The post is one of those that I wrote before I had a wordpress blog; when Network Solution hosted my website. It is interesting that twelve years Obama was facing a huge financial crisis and that today Biden is facing multiple crises including Covid and the economy. Since I can’t link to the original post, I decided to post it today.
November 18, 2008
The New Administration
It is interesting that President-Elect Obama is reading Abraham Lincoln since there are many parallels between Lincoln’s first term and Obama’s. Lincoln was the first Republican president; he faced the mammoth task of financing the Civil War as well as staffing all of the departments and agencies of the government. Many loyal Republicans sought rewards for their support of the party and the President.
Here is an excerpt from Brewing Battles: A History of American Beer about the issues the new government faced.
From the moment Southern troops fired on Fort Sumter the Federal government required large sums of money to finance the Civil War. A Special Session of the Thirty-Seventh Congress (July?August 1861) attempted to meet this need by increasing certain customs duties, imposing a direct tax of $20 million on the States, and instituting an income tax.
It soon became clear that these measures alone could not relieve the country’s financial burdens. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase was hoping to raise $85 million and sent a bill to the Thirty-Seventh Congress. Congress, which reconvened on December 2, 1861, reviewed his request for a small increase in the income tax and excise taxes on manufactured goods. Distilled spirits, malt liquors, cotton, tobacco, carriages, yachts, billiard tables, gross receipts of railroads, steam boats and ferries, and playing cards all became taxable items. Signed by President Lincoln July 1, 1862, the measure became effective the following month. By the 1870s Congress had repealed most of the excise taxes; the liquor tax, however, has remained in effect until today. The Internal Revenue Act of 1862 marked the entrance of the federal government into the affairs of the liquor industry; it has never left.
On July 22, 1862, President Lincoln appointed George Boutwell to be the first Commissioner of Internal Revenue. A two-time Governor of Massachusetts, Boutwell had been a Whig and a moderate anti-slavery man. This work plus political alliances with the Governor of Massachusetts, John A. Andrew, and Senator Charles Sumner led Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase to give Boutwell the job.
Staffing and organizing the Bureau preoccupied Boutwell, who had almost four thousand jobs at his disposal. The size of the Federal Government expanded tremendously during the Civil War; the Treasury Department was no exception. The endless patronage possibilities caused both Boutwell and Secretary Chase to devote the first year of Internal Revenue’s existence to staffing. They paid little attention to other administrative or regulatory concerns. On August 7, 1862 Chase complained that he had “very little accomplished as yet, though much, I hope, in the train of accomplishment. Engaged nearly all day on selections for recommendation of Collectors and Assessors.”
Six months after Boutwell took office, he had the department organized, at least nominally. The majority of employees were in the field. There were 366 collectors and assessors, 898 deputy collectors, and 2,558 assistant assessors. The Washington office consisted of the Commissioner, fifty-one male clerks and eight female clerks. The law authorized the establishment of collection districts which corresponded roughly to congressional districts. There were 185 districts in the loyal states.
 U.S. Department, Internal Revenue Service, History of the Internal Revenue Service 1791-1929, prepared under the direction of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, (Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1930), 2.
 Ibid., 3; Charles A. Jellison, Fessenden of Maine: Civil War Senator (Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press, 1962), 149; Leonard P. Curry, Blueprint for Modern America: Non-Military Legislation of the First Civil War Congress (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1968), 149?181; Bray Hammond, Sovereignty and an Empty Purse: Banks and Politics in the Civil War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), 52; Charles Estee, The Excise Tax Law (New York: Fitch, Estee, 1863), passim.
 Thomas H. Brown, George Sewall Boutwell: Public Servant 1818-1905, (Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1979), 53, 56, 59, 110.
 Salmon P. Chase, Inside Lincoln’s Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase, ed. David Donald (New York, 1954), 110-111.
 History of Internal Revenue, 4; Schmeckebier and Eble, Bureau of Internal Revenue 8; Estee, Excise Tax Law, 310.
Copyright, Algora Publishing, 2007.
A few points about this history: It makes clear the large burden of setting up a new presidential administration especially during a crisis. It is also clear that in times of financial need the federal government often turns to the liquor industry and taxes for help. It is entirely possible that the Obama administration will eventually look at excise taxes for help with financing projects and reducing the deficit. State governments will probably follow suit.
Jay Brooks at Brookston Beer Bulletin has been writing a fair amount about taxes recently and nicely cited Brewing Battles as a source. One slight correction however- Jay maintains that the taxes stayed after the Civil War due to pressure from temperance advocates and prohibitionists. It is more accurate that the taxes remained because they developed into a steady, secure source of revenue for the federal government. It was not until a new source, the income tax, developed in the early twentieth century that the federal government could contemplate losing the money from liquor taxes. The prohibition movement had an ambivalent relationship to the federal liquor tax. They often decried the legitimacy the tax provided to the industry.
Of course when the federal government, in the depths of the Great Depression, needed a quick source of revenue, the 18th amendment was repealed. The liquor industry and the liquor tax became legal on December 5, 1933, seventy-five years ago. I will be writing more on the subject of Repeal in the coming days.