Today is April 18, 2017, which means it is Tax Day in the United States. Tax Day is the deadline for filing your federal income tax returns. It is a long-standing deadline which has been around for over a hundred years, and is currently enforced on April 15.

But didn’t we just say that today, April 18, is Tax Day? What’s this about April 15?

Would you be more confused if we told you it’s because of Abraham Lincoln?

In order to explain, let’s briefly travel back in time to when income tax, and the first Tax Day, were established.

Where did Tax Day come from?

Many people know that personal income tax was first introduced to help fund the Civil War. The Revenue Act of 1861 was drafted by Congress and signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in response to the enormous costs involved with training and providing arms to the Union Army. The Revenue Act created a 3% flat tax on annual incomes over $800 for every person living in the United States.

At the time, it is estimated that only 3% of the US population earned more than $800 a year. This made the Revenue Act a relatively easy pill for most citizens to swallow.

From 1861, we skip forward to 1913 and the adoption of the Sixteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which reads as follows:

“The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.”

While the original US Constitution held provisions for tax collection, it is generally agreed that the Sixteenth Amendment formalized the creation of federal income tax.

The Amendment was adopted on February 3, 1913. Congress decided that March 1, 1914 would be the first deadline for filing income tax returns, making March 1 the first Tax Day.

Why is Tax Day now on April 15?

In 1918, a new Revenue Act pushed the tax deadline forward to March 15. There isn’t a clear explanation of why the date was changed—at any rate, it moved Tax Day to the middle of March.

In 1955, Tax Day leapt four weeks forward to its current date of April 15. The IRS has claimed this move was made to help “spread out the peak workload,” but a USC law professor has offered a more interesting and plausible explanation.

In a 2002 Fortune article, professor Ed McCaffery said that by the 1950s, income tax was applying to more of the middle class, which resulted in the US government having to issue more tax refunds. Shifting Tax Day ahead by a month gave the government more time to use the money in the budget before having to pay out tax refunds.

What is Emancipation Day? And what does it have to do with Tax Day?

For the answer to this question, we turn again to Abraham Lincoln, this time for the signing of a piece of human equality legislation that pre-dated the more prominent Emancipation Proclamation by almost a year.

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On April 16, 1862, President Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act. This legislation freed an estimated 3,100 slaves in Washington, D.C. and created a $1 million fund to compensate Union slaveholders. The more significant Emancipation Proclamation would be issued by President Lincoln nearly nine months later on January 1, 1863.

In 2005, the Mayor of the District of Columbia signed a law establishing April 16 as an official state holiday called Emancipation Day. More notably, the US federal government also came to recognize Emancipation Day as an official holiday.

Why is Tax Day on April 18 this year?

Using all of this information, we can now determine how Tax Day moved from April 15 to April 18 this year. Here’s how it happened:

  • In years when Tax Day (April 15) falls on a weekend, the deadline is moved forward to the next official business day. Because April 15 was a Saturday this year, Tax Day was shifted to Monday, April 17.
  • However, in years when Emancipation Day (April 16) falls on a weekend, it is either celebrated on the Friday (if April 16 is a Saturday) or on Monday (if April 16 is a Sunday). This year, Emancipation Day was a Sunday, so it was pushed forward to the Monday (April 17).
  • Since the federal government recognizes Emancipation Day as a holiday, Monday April 17 was not an official business day. So, the tax deadline had to be nudged forward one more day.

And therefore, Tax Day 2017 made the leap from Saturday to Tuesday, April 18. Which makes today Tax Day!

US residents will get some extra time to file their tax returns again next year, because Tax Day falls once more on Tuesday, April 17. However, this bonus time comes to a halt the following year—Tax Day will be back to April 15 in 2019.

Did you get your taxes filed on time this year?

Posted by Aaron Axline

Aaron Axline is an author, technology journalist, blogger, and knowledge management expert.