Eleanor Roosevelt probably would have disagreed with Donald Trump on many topics. But a new article in Modern American History highlights one issue Roosevelt saw eye-to-eye with President Trump: the non-disclosure of presidential tax returns.
In “Eleanor Roosevelt’s Tax Returns,” Carolyn Jones provides a short but illuminating history of how tax returns became confidential documents, shielded from public access. As Professor Jones explains in her article, tax privacy was not always the order of the day in Washington. When Congress adopted an income tax during the Civil War to pay for the Union war effort, the government allowed public inspection of all tax returns. Six decades later, in the case of United States v. Dickey, the Supreme Court held that no congressional statute or constitutional provision barred newspapers from publishing the details of individual taxpayers’ federal income tax returns.
In response to the Dickey decision, the Coolidge Administration made tax returns confidential. But during the Great Depression allegations of widespread tax evasion by the rich became a highly partisan issue. As Jones points out, when President Franklin Roosevelt called for disclosing the names of “very wealthy individuals” who used loopholes to avoid paying taxes, the IRS Commissioner publicly identified 67 wealthy people (mostly Republicans) who allegedly had not paid “their full share of taxes.”
Viewing the tax disclosures as a partisan attack as well as a blatant abuse of power, Congressional Republicans responded by demanding an investigation into the Roosevelt family’s finances. The intrusive nature of the investigation affected Eleanor Roosevelt as much as her husband. As Professor Jones notes, the First Lady made so much money from her product endorsements, speaking fees, and writing royalties that “her income sometimes exceeded her husband’s salary.” Although proud of her financial independence from her husband, Eleanor Roosevelt had little interest in revealing to the world the most private details of her personal finances, let alone those of her family. The controversy soon fizzled out, but the experience left Roosevelt with a deeply wary view of mandatory disclosure of government officials’ tax returns.
During the 1952 election, the issue of presidential taxes returned to public prominence when Senator (and Republican vice presidential candidate) Richard Nixon challenged the Democratic presidential and vice presidential candidates to disclose their tax information. Eleanor Roosevelt, however, publicly disagreed with Nixon in a newspaper column. Although she understood the benefits of public disclosure, she nevertheless argued that asking “government officials to reveal their finances . . . is a sign that we no longer believe people should be proved guilty before they are accused of wrongdoing.” The controversy over the Roosevelt family finances, Jones concludes, “helps explain [Eleanor] Roosevelt’s reticence in 1952 to Nixon’s call for politicians to disclose their filings.”
Professor Jones’s excellent article is timely, engaging, and concise (it is only 4 pages long). It is available here at the Cambridge University Press website. In addition, Legal History Blog has a link to the other articles in the new issue of Modern American History.