Bill Benson released The Law that Never Was in 1985, which "claims that the Sixteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, commonly known as the income tax amendment, was never properly ratified."1 At least several have gone to jail for buying into his theories.2 On his site, he summarizes his argument:

...the 16th Amendment was not ratified by the requisite three-fourths of the states and [] nevertheless Secretary of State Philander Knox had fraudulently declared ratification.

He presents an elaborate argument claiming "that not a single [state] had actually and legally ratified the proposal to amend the U.S. Constitution."1 His argument has been rejected by many courts,3 but is there a detailed point-by-point refutal of his claims?

Do Benson's claims of negligence in the ratification process have any validity? Was the Sixteenth Amendment improperly ratified? And would that even matter after being on the books for so long?

  • 1
    Does it matter if it was "properly" ratified if the government recognizes the amendment as being ratified? There is nothing in the US Constitution that spells out what the states need to do to ratify a constitution. That is up to the state to determine how that will happen. As a side note the 16th amendment was credited with a part of the Illinois constitution that requires all amendments to be ratified through a popular vote in the general election.
    – Chad
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 22:16
  • 2
    False. Article 5 specifies ratification by legislatures or state conventions. Yes, it is up to the states as to the rules required for the congressional or conventional voting, but there is still a process required.
    – fire.eagle
    Commented Nov 8, 2012 at 18:40
  • @fire.eagle - That is exactly what i was getting at. There is no requirement of a vote of any sort. Just that the state ratify it in a process that the state defines.
    – Chad
    Commented Nov 9, 2012 at 16:42
  • 1
    Since you ask if "that even matter" I will answer that part. It would not matter if the 16th amendment were improperly ratified. Powerful interests who obtain advantage from the taxes would still oppose eliminating these taxes, legal or not. In the case of a procedural error, the US federal government probably has less costly ways to remedy the problem than refunding all previously paid taxes, discontinuing the collection of future taxes, or allowing a potentially unbounded group of people to escape payment of the tax. Tax fraudsters prey on the public's desire for one of those 3 outcomes.
    – Paul
    Commented Nov 11, 2012 at 2:09
  • It's worth noting that Benson's website does not contain a point-by-point statement of his claims. Is one available?
    – phoog
    Commented Nov 1, 2018 at 16:34

1 Answer 1


It is legally incontrovertible that the 16th Amendment was properly ratified.

This matter was the subject of a court case, United States v. Thomas, eventually heard before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. It found against Benson, and for the validity of the Sixteenth amendment:

Thomas insists that because the states did not approve exactly the same text, the amendment did not go into effect. Secretary Knox considered this argument. The Solicitor of the Department of State drew up a list of the errors in the instruments and — taking into account both the triviality of the deviations and the treatment of earlier amendments that had experienced more substantial problems — advised the Secretary that he was authorized to declare the amendment adopted. The Secretary did so. Although Thomas urges us to take the view of several state courts that only agreement on the literal text may make a legal document effective, the Supreme Court follows the "enrolled bill rule." If a legislative document is authenticated in regular form by the appropriate officials, the court treats that document as properly adopted. Field v. Clark, 143 U.S. 649, 36 L.Ed. 294, 12 S.Ct. 495 (1892). The principle is equally applicable to constitutional amendments. See Leser v. Garnett, 258 U.S. 130, 66 L.Ed. 505, 42 S.Ct. 217 (1922), which treats as conclusive the declaration of the Secretary of State that the nineteenth amendment had been adopted. In United States v. Foster, 789 F.2d. 457, 462-463, n.6 (7th Cir. 1986), we relied on Leser, as well as the inconsequential nature of the objections in the face of the 73-year acceptance of the effectiveness of the sixteenth amendment, to reject a claim similar to Thomas's. See also Coleman v. Miller, 307 U.S. 433, 83 L. Ed. 1385, 59 S. Ct. 972 (1939) (questions about ratification of amendments may be nonjusticiable). Secretary Knox declared that enough states had ratified the sixteenth amendment. The Secretary's decision is not transparently defective. We need not decide when, if ever, such a decision may be reviewed in order to know that Secretary Knox's decision is now beyond review.

A point-by-point rebuttal would be (ahem) pointless. The view of the courts was that the declaration by the states that they had ratified the amendment, and the assessement by the Secretary of State that sufficient states had done so, is enough to validate the amendment. Wording variations were considered too trivial to affect the outcome. Even if Benson's historical facts were 100% accurate, they would not affect the validity of the amendment.

The promulgation of these arguments has in fact been declared to be fraud.

"The argument that the Sixteenth Amendment was not ratified and variations of this argument have been officially identified as legally frivolous federal tax return positions for purposes of the $5,000 frivolous tax return penalty imposed under Internal Revenue Code section 6702(a)"

See also this dismissal from the IRS.

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    Are the variations of the text available somewhere? It would probably be amusing to see the deviations. Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 0:19
  • @DJClayworth I just mentioned your answer here. Thank you :) Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 13:51

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