Don’t Tax You. Don’t Tax Me. Tax That Fellow Behind the Tree

Russell B. Long? Anonymous?

long05Dear Quote Investigator: It’s tax time again in the U.S., and I recently heard a humorous rhyming verse on this topic:

Don’t tax you. Don’t tax me. Tax the guy behind the tree.

Do you know who originally said this?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match for this verse located by QI appeared in a “Money” magazine article in July 1973 titled “Congress Tackles the Income Tax”. The words were credited to Russell B. Long who was a legislator from Louisiana: 1

“Most people have the same philosophy about taxes,” says Senator Russell B. Long, who has heard all the variations during seven years as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which handles tax legislation. Long puts that universal theme to verse:

Don’t tax you,
Don’t tax me,
Tax that fellow behind the tree.

This is the earliest citation for the full tripartite expression located by QI; however, other versions were in circulation by the 1930s, and the expression evolved over a period of decades.

In March 1932 “Collier’s Weekly” ran an article titled “Tax Everyone But Me” which included an instance starting with “Congress! Congress! Don’t tax me” instead of the sing-song: “Don’t tax you. Don’t tax me”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

At the end of the year, and again at the opening of 1932, the hotel rooms and lobbies of Washington were crowded and swarming with citizens who had come to play, in paraphrased adult form, an old game of their childhood:

Congress! Congress! Don’t tax me,
Tax that fellow behind the tree.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

On April 5, 1932 a newspaper in Omaha, Nebraska printed an instance of the verse: 3

TAX THAT OTHER FELLOW.

It may be true, as Speaker Garner said, that to get the national treasury out of the red “the worst tax is better than no tax at all.” But, human nature being what it is, it is also true that pretty much everybody is inclined to join in the chorus: “Congress, congress, don’t tax me; tax that fellow behind the tree.”

On April 26, 1932 a California newspaper inveighed against newspaperman William Randolph Hearst, and his attempts to shift the tax burden: 4

He is of no use to the nation and is only running true to form when he seeks to stampede the timid and the half educated congressmen to thrust the burden of taxation upon those who least can afford it. The theme song behind his rantings is—

Congress, congress, don’t tax me;
Tax that fellow behind the tree.

In June 1932 the above saying was used as an epigraph for an article titled “The Locust Swarm of Lobbyists” in “The Literary Digest”. 5

Also in June 1932 a newspaper in Marietta, Georgia used the label “old saying” when reprinting the expression and added a comical remark about the expanding tax base: 6

“Congress, Congress, don’t tax me; tax that man behind the tree” is an old saying, but Congress has cleared up the situation by not only taxing the man, but also the tree.

In August 1935 an instance with a different wording was printed in a trade publication called “The Spectator: An American Review of Life Insurance”: 7

You may soak the rich, sock the poor, or milk the middleman, but however the tax collecting process is achieved the old, old cry will be heard:

Mister, mister, don’t tax me,
Tax the man behind the tree.

The saying continued to circulate in the 1950s. Here is an example printed in the “Boston Globe” in 1955 under the byline of a commentator named Uncle Dudley: 8

An old lament of John Q. Taxpayer runs, “Congress, Congress, don’t tax me—tax that fellow behind the tree!” The Federal government, which collected more than a billion dollars of personal income taxes from Massachusetts in 1953, is not the only recipient of this plea.

In 1962 the opinion writer Uncle Dudley employed the saying again in the pages of the Massachusetts newspaper: 9

“Congress, Congress, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree,” runs an old ditty. This year the stress is on tax cuts, and who is to get what.

Finally, in July 1973 “Money” magazine printed a version closely matching the words in the query and ascribed the verse to Russell B. Long as noted previously in this article.

In September 1973 the “National Tax Journal” published an article that included the verse credited to Long together with a footnote pointing to the instance in “Money” magazine: 10

RUSSELL B. LONG, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has recently been credited with a little doggerel describing “Most people[‘s] . . . philosophy about taxes”:

Don’t tax you,
Don’t tax me,
Tax that fellow behind the tree.

In 1975 a letter writer in a South Dakota newspaper mentioned a version of the saying without an attribution: 11

There is a saying that goes something like this: “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree.” Well the farmer is the man behind that tree, when that tree falls, where will you be.

Researcher Barry Popik examined this verse, and his entry on the topic included an initial citation in 1975 with an ascription to Russell B. Long. 12

Also, the key reference “The Yale Book of Quotations” contained an entry for this saying with a citation in 1976 and an ascription to Long. 13

In 2010 an article at the “American Thinker” website used a version of the saying as the title of an article. The word “guy” was used instead of “fellow”: 14

Don’t Tax You. Don’t Tax Me. Tax That Guy Behind the Tree!

In conclusion, humorous verses advocating that taxes be levied on someone “behind the tree” began to appear by the 1930s. These early instances were anonymous.

By the 1970s a version with the distinctive introductory words “Don’t tax you. Don’t tax me” was circulating. QI believes that this version can properly be ascribed to Russell B. Long though it was a variant of pre-existing expressions.

Image Notes: Russell B. Long picture from the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

Update History: On April 13, 2014 the June 1932 cite in “Literary Digest” was added.

(Special thanks to Joe Mirsky who located the “Literary Digest” citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1973 July, Money, “Congress Tackles the Income Tax” by William B. Mead, Start Page 55, Quote page 55, Time Inc., Chicago and New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1932 March 26, Collier’s Weekly, “Tax Everyone But Me” by William G. Shepherd, Start Page 12, Quote Page 12, Column 1, P.F. Collier, New York. (Unz)
  3. 1932 April 5, Morning World-Herald (Omaha World-Herald), Tax That Other Fellow, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1932 April 26, Woodland Daily Democrat, Hearst and Taxes, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Woodland, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  5. 1932 June 4, The Literary Digest, “The Locust Swarm of Lobbyists”, (Quote is used as an epigraph), Quote Page 8, Funk and Wagnalls, New York. (Unz)
  6. 1932 June 2, Marietta Journal, (Freestanding item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Marietta, Georgia. (NewspaperArchive)
  7. 1935 August 22, The Spectator: An American Review of Life Insurance, Names and News: In Home Office and the Field, As I Live, Page 28, Column 3, Chilton Company, Inc., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1955 January 13, Boston Globe, Pay-Up Time by Uncle Dudley, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  9. 1962 July 13, Boston Globe, “What About Joe Doakes?” by Uncle Dudley, Quote Page 10, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  10. 1973 September, National Tax Journal, Volume 26, Number 3, “Tax Incentives for Investment” by Robert Eisner, Start Page 397, Quote Page 397, Published by National Tax Association, Washington D.C. (ProQuest ABI/INFORM)
  11. 1975 February 20, Aberdeen American News, Public Voice By Our Readers, (Letter from Gerald Snyder, Conde), Quote Page 5, Column 3, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank)
  12. Website: The Big Apple, Article title: “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax the fellow behind that tree”, Date on website: December 28, 2009, Website description: Etymological dictionary with more than 10,000 entries. (Accessed barrypopik.com on April 4, 2014) link
  13. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Russell B. Long, Quote Page 470, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  14. Website: American Thinker, Article title: Don’t Tax You. Don’t Tax Me. Tax That Guy Behind the Tree!, Article Author: Jeffrey L. Scribner Date on website: January 8, 2010, Website description: a daily internet publication. (Accessed americanthinker.com on April 4, 2014)