At first, Americans did not protest much against the end of the income tax, but with skyrocketing income inequality of the Gilded Age, grassroots movements sprung up to find solutions. Many Americans were attracted to simple one-size-fits-all ideas like Henry George’s Single Tax, intended to pay for all government expenditures by taxes on land transactions that supporters also hoped would draw urban dwellers back to the farms.
Others supported taxing the rich directly. As historian Ajay K. Mehrotra has shown, grassroots organizations across the country began organizing around replacing the tariff with the income tax. He tells the story of Merlinda Sisins of Pickleville, Michigan, a mother of 16 who, despite a lack of education and poor spelling, began writing letters to the Journal of United Labor, where she demanded that working people nominate their own to Congress in order to pass legislation that would destroy the tariff and the monopolies.
Not all working-class people jumped on board with the income tax immediately. Some worried it would give the government too much power. Many labor unions worried that lowering the tariff could cost them their jobs. The Knights of Labor, the nation’s most important labor union in the 1880s, tried to avoid the question because members in protected industries supported the tariff while other workers knew it made them poorer.