Utah Governor J. Bracken Lee Refuses to Pay Federal Income Tax

Here’s a historical nugget that’s escaped my attention until now. A fellow named Joseph Bracken Lee, who was, at the time, governor of the state of Utah, in decided to stop paying his income tax because, in his words, “It is unconstitutional for this nation to tax its citizens for the support of foreign nations!”

Lee was part of the isolationist right wing — opposing foreign aid, the United Nations, and the income tax. The Republican party wasn’t nearly far enough to the right for him. He was a foe of Eisenhower, and ran against Richard Nixon as a third-party challenger in the presidential election of . His invocation of the Constitution marks him as a likely forefather of today’s constitutionalist tax protesters. The form of his protest, though, bore much more resemblance to that of conscientious tax resisters than do those of most of today’s constitutionalists.

“I am refusing,” Lee wrote to the IRS, “to pay that portion of my tax which was not withheld in order to instigate a court test of the constitutional right of the U.S. government to appropriate taxpayers’ funds for foreign aid.” He eventually forced the issue in his political capacity, filing a Supreme Court suit on behalf of the state of Utah, making this same argument. “I am not attempting to avoid payment of taxes, but am simply using this means to bring a constitutional question before a federal court. I trust you will proceed with the necessary legal action against me to collect my unremitted tax and thus bring this matter before a federal court.”

His political opponents accused him of grandstanding and using the issue for publicity. The IRS seized the money — which he had deposited in a bank specifically to cover such a possibility — from his account a few months later.

Later, after his terms as governor, and not making much progress in politics (he had been ousted as governor by a primary challenger in his own Republican party), he became the national chairman of “For America,” which agitated for the repeal of the federal income tax. He spoke at John Birch Society meetings, but also palled around with libertarians and even wrote the forward to minarchist Frank Chodorov’s The Income Tax: Root of All Evil.