Historians, like other commentators, tend to focus on two questions about American tax politics: how much and how progressive (or regressive). These are important questions, but they can neglect one of the crucial determinants of tax policy. Because the U.S. political system is designed to emphasize geography more strongly than class interest or political ideology, the history of federal taxation is best understood in geographical terms. Most generally, it is a story about redistribution from the South to the Northeast through the nineteenth-century tariff and from the Northeast to the South through the twentieth-century income tax. After reviewing the familiar story of tariff struggles, this lecture focuses on the lesser-known sectional politics of the income tax.
Robin Einhorn is Preston Hotchkis Professor in the History of the United States at the University of California, Berkeley, where her research interests include political economy, taxation, cities, and the nineteenth century. Among her publications on these topics are American Taxation, American Slavery (2006) and Property Rules: Political Economy in Chicago, 1833–1872 (1991), and “Look Away Dixieland: The South and the Federal Income Tax,” in the Northwestern University Law Review (vol. 108, no. 3, 2014). As a 2014–15 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the Center, she worked on Taxes in U.S. History.