Income Tax Myths and Document Control Systems

This is the United States Treasury, seat of our nation's  
accounting, revenue collection, money production, 
and economic policy formulation.

Sometimes myths remind us how technology can change the course of history.

I’ve been reading Steve Berry’s novel, “The Patriot Threat.” The crux of the book is that the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, the one that requires Americans to pay income tax, may be illegal. The story goes that some of the states may have never ratified the Amendment, and some may have ratified a document that didn’t have the same wording as others. (I won’t spoil the mystery by telling you what transpires.) 

This was back in 1909. Documents were typed on old Remington typewriters, and carbon paper (which did exist) for copies may or may not have been used. The 16th Amendment had to be sent to the state governors for ratification by the state legislatures; there were 48 states at that time. That means 48 copies of the Amendment had to be typed word for word on those old machines with their worn cloth ribbons.

Three-fourths, or 36 states, had to approve the document before it could be ratified.

The copies of the Amendment were sent to the governors through the mail or hand delivered. The process was slow, at best. It would have been easy to switch the genuine documents with forgeries. Who would know? How could the substitution be verified?

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And finally, as the myth goes, Secretary of State Philander Knox may not have unwittingly miscounted signatures when he ratified the amendment--he may have knowingly committed fraud!

Steve Berry would have no myth to base his book on if the U.S. government had an electronic document control system in place in 1909. 

  • The delivery to the states would have been automated, so every governor would have received the same document.
  • The Amendment would have been an electronic document, so revisions would be time-stamped. There would have been no way to alter the wording without everyone knowing. The veracity of the document could not have been called into question.
  • The government would not have had to rely upon the U.S. Postal Service or some dubious government minion to deliver the Amendment to the governors. The same document would have been delivered at the same time to everyone.
  • Ratifying the 16th Amendment took almost the whole four years of Taft’s administration. Today it could be done electronically in at least half the time (if it’s not an election year!).
  • Even if ratification were slow, with an electronic document system, the Secretary of State could have identified where the logjam was and provided some incentive to get the document moving again.
  • Because documents are tracked in electronic systems, there would have been no question about how many states ratified the amendment. There would have been proof if a document had not been returned to Secretary of State Knox to be counted. And Knox couldn’t have claimed that some states had ratified the document if they hadn’t because an audit trail would have revealed the truth.  
Fortunately for Steve Berry and his fans, no such system functioned while Philander Knox was in office. 

It does leave one wondering how U.S. history could have been changed if electronic document control had existed during our nation’s infancy.   

Learn more about document control systems and let your imagination run wild with conspiracy plots!

Robyn Barnes writes about the life sciences industry and other regulated environments. Her three decades of marketing and public relations experience include work with USAA, Morrison Knudsen Corp., and KBHome Inc. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in business from New Mexico State University.