Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1
Debate in Virginia Ratifying Convention5--7, 11--12 June 1788Elliot 3:57--58, 95--96, 98--100, 114--23, 128--29, 250--55, 263--66, 299--301
[Mr. Henry:] In this scheme of energetic government, the people will find two sets of tax-gatherers--the state and the federal sheriffs. This, it seems to me, will produce such dreadful oppression as the people cannot possibly bear. The federal sheriff may commit what oppression, make what distresses, he pleases, and ruin you with impunity; for how are you to tie his hands? Have you any sufficiently decided means of preventing him from sucking your blood by speculations, commissions, and fees? Thus thousands of your people will be most shamefully robbed: our state sheriffs, those unfeeling blood-suckers, have, under the watchful eye of our legislature, committed the most horrid and barbarous ravages on our people. It has required the most constant vigilance of the legislature to keep them from totally ruining the people; a repeated succession of laws has been made to suppress their iniquitous speculations and cruel extortions; and as often has their nefarious ingenuity devised methods of evading the force of those laws: in the struggle they have generally triumphed over the legislature.
It is a fact that lands have been sold for five shillings, which were worth one hundred pounds: if sheriffs, thus immediately under the eye of our state legislature and judiciary, have dared to commit these outrages, what would they not have done if their masters had been at Philadelphia or New York? If they perpetrate the most unwarrantable outrage on your person or property, you cannot get redress on this side of Philadelphia or New York; and how can you get it there? If your domestic avocations could permit you to go thither, there you must appeal to judges sworn to support this Constitution, in opposition to that of any state, and who may also be inclined to favor their own officers. When these harpies are aided by excisemen, who may search, at any time, your houses, and most secret recesses, will the people bear it? If you think so, you differ from me. Where I thought there was a possibility of such mischiefs, I would grant power with a niggardly hand; and here there is a strong probability that these oppressions shall actually happen. I may be told that it is safe to err on that side, because such regulations may be made by Congress as shall restrain these officers, and because laws are made by our representatives, and judged by righteous judges: but, sir, as these regulations may be made, so they may not; and many reasons there are to induce a belief that they will not. I shall therefore be an infidel on that point till the day of my death.
[Mr. Madison:] But the honorable member has satirized, with peculiar acrimony, the powers given to the general government by this Constitution. I conceive that the first question on this subject is, whether these powers be necessary; if they be, we are reduced to the dilemma of either submitting to the inconvenience or losing the Union. Let us consider the most important of these reprobated powers; that of direct taxation is most generally objected to. With respect to the exigencies of government, there is no question but the most easy mode of providing for them will be adopted. When, therefore, direct taxes are not necessary, they will not be recurred to. It can be of little advantage to those in power to raise money in a manner oppressive to the people. To consult the conveniences of the people will cost them nothing, and in many respects will be advantageous to them. Direct taxes will only be recurred to for great purposes. What has brought on other nations those immense debts, under the pressure of which many of them labor? Not the expenses of their governments, but war. If this country should be engaged in war,--and I conceive we ought to provide for the possibility of such a case, --how would it be carried on? By the usual means provided from year to year? As our imports will be necessary for the expenses of government and other common exigencies, how are we to carry on the means of defence? How is it possible a war could be supported without money or credit? And would it be possible for a government to have credit without having the power of raising money? No; it would be impossible for any government, in such a case, to defend itself. Then, I say, sir, that it is necessary to establish funds for extraordinary exigencies, and to give this power to the general government; for the utter inutility of previous requisitions on the states is too well known. Would it be possible for those countries, whose finances and revenues are carried to the highest perfection, to carry on the operations of government on great emergencies, such as the maintenance of a war, without an uncontrolled power of raising money? Has it not been necessary for Great Britain, notwithstanding the facility of the collection of her taxes, to have recourse very often to this and other extraordinary methods of procuring money? Would not her public credit have been ruined, if it was known that her power to raise money was limited? Has not France been obliged, on great occasions, to use unusual means to raise funds? It has been the case in many countries, and no government can exist unless its powers extend to make provisions for every contingency. If we were actually attacked by a powerful nation, and our general government had not the power of raising money, but depended solely on requisitions, our condition would be truly deplorable: if the revenue of this commonwealth were to depend on twenty distinct authorities, it would be impossible for it to carry on its operations. This must be obvious to every member here; I think, therefore, that it is necessary, for the preservation of the Union, that this power shall be given to the general government.
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[Mr. Nicholas:] We are, in the next place, frightened by two sets of collectors, who, he tells us, will oppress us with impunity. The amount of the sums to be raised of the people is the same, whether the state legislatures lay the taxes for themselves, or for the general government; whether each of them lays and collects taxes for its own exclusive purposes; the manner of raising it only is different. So far as the amount of the imposts may exceed that of the present collections, so much will the burdens of the people be less. Money cannot be raised in a more judicious manner than by imposts; it is not felt by the people; it is a mode which is practised by many nations: nine tenths of the revenues of Great Britain and France are raised by indirect taxes; and were they raised by direct taxes, they would be exceedingly oppressive. At present, the reverse of this proposition holds in this country; for very little is raised by indirect taxes.
The public treasuries are supplied by means of direct taxes, which are not so easy for the people. But the people will be benefited by this change. Suppose the imposts will only operate a reduction of one fifth of the public burdens; then, sir, out of every ten shillings we have now to pay, we shall only have to pay eight shillings: and suppose this to be apportioned so that we pay four shillings to the federal and four shillings to the state collector,--what inconvenience or oppression can arise from it? Would this be as oppressive as the payment of ten shillings to the state collector? Our constituents do not suspect our delegates to the state legislature, but we suspect the members of the future Congress.
But, sir, they tell us this power of direct taxation ought not to be intrusted to the general government, because its members cannot be acquainted with the local situation of the people. Where do the members of the state legislatures get their information? It is by their own experience, and intercourse with the people. Cannot those of the general government derive information from every source from which the state representatives get theirs, so as to enable them to impose taxes judiciously? We have the best security we can wish for: if they impose taxes on the people which are oppressive, they subject themselves and their friends to the same inconvenience, and to the certainty of never being confided in again. And what will be the consequence of laying taxes on improper objects? Will the funds be increased by it? By no means. I may venture to say, the amount of the taxes will diminish in proportion to the difficulty and impropriety of the mode of levying them. What advantage, then, would it be to the members of Congress to render the collection of taxes oppressive to the people? They would be certainly out of their senses to oppress the people without any prospect of emolument to themselves.
[Mr. Randolph:] Is it necessary that the legislative power of the United States should be authorized to levy taxes? A strange question to be agitated in this house, after hearing the delinquency of other states, and even of Virginia herself! Money is the nerve--the life and soul of a government. It is the utmost folly to say that a government could be carried on without this great agent of human affairs. Wars cannot be carried on without a full and uncontrolled discretionary power to raise money in an eligible manner. Nay, sir, government cannot be administered in time of peace without this power. For how is it to be done? It is needless to impress any further on the minds of the gentlemen who hear me the necessity of this power in governments. If so, ought the general government to be more circumscribed in the power of providing for its own safety and existence than any other government? Ought it to depend for the means of its preservation on other bodies? This is actually the case with the Confederation. The power of raising money was nominally vested in that system. In March, 1781, even Maryland, the most backward state then, conceded that Congress should have the power of receiving and demanding their proportionate quotas of the states. This was an acknowledgment of the necessity of vesting a power in Congress to raise such sums as emergencies might require; but the means which were proposed have been found inadequate to compass the end: the propriety of the means is alone disputed. No doubt it is the universal opinion of the people of this commonwealth, that its legislature should have the power of raising money at its own will and pleasure. There are two ways whereby this may be effected--by requisitions, or taxation: there is no other manner; for it surpasses the ingenuity of man to devise any other mode of raising money than by one of these two methods. If the alternative of requisitions be determined upon, as more eligible, it will not avail without coercion. If that of taxation be preferred, it will be sufficient without any coercion. If our legislature were to depend on requisitions for money to answer the ends of government, then, sir, the absurdity and sophistry of the arguments urged in defence of such a mode of procuring money would strike the weakest intellect. If the mere pleasure of individuals were alone to be consulted, if it were left to the choice of your people to pay or not, your treasury would be much poorer than it is; and the advocates of this pernicious policy would perhaps be ashamed of their pertinacity. Suppose, for a moment, the only existing mode of raising a revenue in Virginia to be that of requisitions; suppose your requisitions sent on to every county; say that money is wanted; assume the most pressing language--"We earnestly entreat you; we humbly supplicate and solicit you would furnish us with one thousand or one hundred pounds, to defray the necessary charges of our government!" What would be the result of such applications for voluntary contributions? You would be laughed at for your folly, for thinking human nature could be thus operated upon. From my knowledge of human nature, and of my countrymen, I am perfectly certain this would be the case. The argument will be found good in all cases; it will admit of any extension. I ask any gentleman in this house, if states would comply with what even a few individuals would refuse? Would not the requisitions of Congress meet a similar fate? This, sir, has as often happened as it has been the pleasure of the states to withhold the quotas. Not a shilling has been put into the Continental treasury but with the utmost reluctance. The probable delinquency of other states has been the pretext of noncompliance, with every state. It has been thought hard that our General Assembly should pay when Congress ordered us. Our representatives have been supposed careless of our interest in paying the demands of Congress, while delinquencies happened in other states. Punctuality, sir, instead of being held in that estimation which it really merits, has been looked upon as an improvident expenditure of the substance of the people, and a subjection of the inhabitants to grievances and burdens to which the people of delinquent states were not exposed. This idea has been held in many states, and would hold again. Whosoever depends on the mere right to demand their respective proportions of the states, shows a total ignorance of human actions, and betrays an unacquaintance with the principles of sure policy. The principal ends of all political institutions are the happiness and safety of the community; but a reliance on congressional requisitions would leave the country exposed and open to those who should choose to invade us, or lead to such sedition and confusion among ourselves as must subvert and destroy every object of human society. If requisitions be not faithfully complied with, military coercion seems necessary: coercion, judiciously and moderately used, is proper; but, if severely and cruelly inflicted, begets unconquerable aversion and hatred. If the spirit of resentment actuates individuals, will not states be equally vindictive? What species of military coercion could the general government adopt for the enforcement of obedience to its demands? Either an army sent into the heart of a delinquent state, or blocking up its ports. Have we lived to this, then, that, in order to suppress and exclude tyranny, it is necessary to render the most affectionate friends the most bitter enemies?--set the father against the son, and make the brother slay the brother? Is this the happy expedient that is to preserve liberty? Will it not destroy it? If an army be once introduced to force us, if once marched into Virginia, figure to yourself what the dreadful consequence will be: the most lamentable civil war must ensue. Have we any troops but militia to confront those disciplined bands that would be sent to force our compliance with requisitions? The most virulent railings are vented against the federal executive. We are told that the President can fix himself in the chair of state, establish himself as a monarch, and destroy the liberties of the people.
It has too often happened that powers delegated for the purpose of promoting the happiness of a community have been perverted to the advancement of the personal emoluments of the agents of the people; but the powers of the President are too well guarded and checked to warrant this illiberal aspersion. Let us candidly consider the consequences of the favorite plan of requisitions, and see whether, instead of imaginary or problematical, there be not real, palpable dangers. To compel your obedience, a rapacious army will penetrate into the bosom of your country, carrying destruction and desolation before it. The commander of such an army will be liable to the corruptions and passions incident to other men. If he be possessed of military genius, address, and ambition, he may procure this army to proclaim him king. Who can tell the result? Who can oppose him with success? Who can say to him, Sir, you shall not be a despot! The reasoning, however inconclusive or illogical it may appear to some, is, in my estimation, more accurate than arguments drawn from the possibility of a President's becoming a tyrant.
Mr. Chairman, I should object to the so-much-admired alternative of gentlemen, were there no other reason than the danger of an army to enforce requisitions, and the danger of its general becoming our master. I will not mention those nations that might be applied to for aid in such a case: it could easily be procured, but the remedy would be worse than the disease. I speak with respect to Virginia alone. Suppose our trade was to be taken into the hands of Congress; they would find little to satisfy their demands. If permitted by other nations, the compensation they could derive from the exclusive control of our trade would be but trivial. Great Britain, France, and Holland, are intimately concerned to carry on trade with us: those nations would disapprove of the measure; and such evasions would be practised on such an occasion as would render it totally ineffectual. If Congress were then to block up our ports, or send an army into our country, Virginia would be in such a horrid situation as would induce her to call for the aid of foreign nations: they have their eyes fixed on us; they watch every opportunity to avail themselves of our divisions. It is their interest we should be weak and divided. Any of them would readily engage in our dissensions; none of them would be displeased at our distractions. But what would be their object in assisting us? On what principles have auxiliaries ever been sent to the aid of a country? Show me an instance (except the conduct of France to America) where auxiliaries have not either attempted or actually made themselves masters of those they assisted. With respect to France, her magnanimity to America is almost unprecedented. She has displayed a degree of disinterestedness and generosity not often exemplified in the annals of mankind. Till France joined us, our troops were not able to withstand the enemy. Yet the fate of many other nations ought to convince us that the assistance of foreigners is the most dangerous and the last experiment that ought to be recurred to. Yet the predilection for retaining the power of direct taxation is not to be overcome.
An expedient, proposed by a gentleman whom I do not now see in the house, (Mr. George Mason,) is, that this power shall be only given to the general government as an alternative after requisitions shall have been refused. The most positive requisitions will be unavailable, and failure will produce war. A formal refusal, or negligent non-compliance with the demands of Congress, under a knowledge of the existence of this execrated alternative, would be a prelude to active opposition. I consider this expedient very little better than the ineffectual mode of simple requisitions. The only difference is, that it gives a little more time to a refractory state to provide itself with arms and foreign alliance, to enable it to oppose the operation of this alternative, and resist federal collectors, as was observed by the honorable gentleman in the chair. The proper time will be picked for the commencement of opposition, and for putting the bayonet to the breasts of their fellow-citizens. Suppose a requisition to be made on Virginia for two hundred thousand pounds: she fails to comply: taxes are then to be collected in the common manner. Is it not probable that the aversion to the exercise of this power by the general government will incite discontented minds to oppose it? Then, sir, the dogs of war are to be let loose, and inconceivable mischief to ensue. If the inability of the people requires an extension of the time of payment, let them be indulged as far as may be consistent with a regard for the public exigencies; but let us not be so infatuated as to choose an expedient which must either be inadequate to the destined purpose, or eventuate in bloodshed and war. Requisitions, sir, however modified, must come within this description; they strike me with horror and disgust. I would as soon see a separation from the Union, and trust to the genius, patriotism, vigilance, and activity--to the morals and natural uprightness--of the people, as ask a government with no other powers than those whereof our present system is possessed. This is an improvement on that system; and if we reject it, we are ruined.
Our credit is depressed and irretrievably gone, without a change of that system which has caused its depression. It is humiliating and disgraceful to recur to loans, situated as we are. It is ruinous on any condition on which our credit could be competent to obtain them; though, under a regular, judicious system of administration, they may be very salutary and beneficial. If some accounts be believed, your ambassador has received from the king of France those stipends which have supported him. Is this honorable? Is it safe for America? Safety, sir, forbids so dishonorable and despicable a conduct as to leave our representatives in a state of absolute dependence on another power. Will not this situation be freely and forcibly represented to him?--"Remember, sir, the bread you eat to-morrow depends on the bounty of the Count de Vergennes!" Is it possible that, in our present circumstances, we can inspire any one with confidence in our engagements? Where, in the hour of distress and calamity, shall Congress be able to borrow money? The present revenues are appropriate to different purposes, and are, from the incompetency of requisitions, inadequate to the public exigencies. Admitting the impost will be sufficiently productive to enable Congress to discharge its engagements, and answer all the demands of government, in case of a war, will not necessity and the fear of danger render it necessary for the general government to divert the revenues, from the usual appropriations, to the defence of the Union? The necessity of such a diversion does not lessen the certainty that the public credit would be destroyed by it. The interest on the public debt could not be paid; foreign and domestic creditors would be disappointed and irritated; and the displeasure of the former might lead to the most serious consequences. What could the general government do, in such a situation, without the power of providing money by taxation? Requisitions would be fruitless and ineffectual; nor could a government, which depended on such a slender and inefficient force, meet with credulity enough any where to trust it. Will you expose the Continental Congress to such a critical distress? Do you consult public liberty by reducing it to an extremity, whereof none can with certainty foretell the dangerous consequences? Is it not laying a train by which liberty is to be blown up? By withholding a necessary power, you may unwarily lay the foundation of usurpation itself.
I conclude with my firm belief, that I show my friendship for Virginia more steadfastly by discarding these requisitions, than by any proposition I could suggest.
The benefits arising from loans are innumerable. Every nation, even the most wealthy and the oldest nations, have found it necessary to recur to loans in time of war. This country has found it so even in time of peace; but on a supposition of war, we must borrow money. It will be inevitable. How can Congress have credit to borrow any sum to a considerable amount, on any reasonable conditions, unless it have full scope and complete command over the resources of the Union? Whatever may be the visionary and fanciful conclusions of political skeptics, the credit of a nation will be found to be coëxtensive with its ability. If Congress have an uncontrolled power to raise money as contingencies may render it necessary, it can borrow with ease; but if it have not this power, it is not possible that any confidence can be put in it.
The difficulty of justly apportioning the taxes among the states, under the present system, has been complained of; the rule of apportionment being the value of all lands and improvements within the states. The inequality between the rich lands of James River and the barrens of Massachusetts has been thought to militate against Virginia. If taxes could be laid according to the real value, no inconvenience could follow; but, from a variety of reasons, this value was very difficult to be ascertained; and an error in the estimation must necessarily have been oppressive to a part of the community. But in this new Constitution, there is a more just and equitable rule fixed--a limitation beyond which they cannot go. Representatives and taxes go hand in hand: according to the one will the other be regulated. The number of representatives is determined by the number of inhabitants; they have nothing to do but to lay taxes accordingly. I will illustrate it by a familiar example. At present, before the population is actually numbered, the number of representatives is sixty-five. Of this number, Virginia has a right to send ten; consequently she will have to pay ten parts out of sixty-five parts of any sum that may be necessary to be raised by Congress. This, sir, is the line. Can Congress go beyond the bounds prescribed in the Constitution? Has Congress a power to say that she shall pay fifteen parts out of sixty-five parts? Were they to assume such a power, it would be a usurpation so glaring, that rebellion would be the immediate consequence. Congress is only to say on what subject the tax is to be laid. It is a matter of very little consequence how it will be imposed, since it must be clearly laid on the most productive article in each particular state. I am surprised that such strong objections should have been made to, and such fears and alarms excited by, this power of direct taxation, since experience shows daily that it is neither inconvenient nor oppressive. A collector goes to a man's house; the man pays him with freedom, or makes an apology for his inability to do it then: at a future day, if payment be not made, distress is made, and acquiesced in by the party. What difference is there between this and a tax imposed by Congress? Is it not done by lawful authority? The distinction is between a Virginian and Continental authority. Yet, in both cases, it is imposed by ourselves, through the medium of our representatives. When a tax will come to be laid by Congress, the collector will apply in like manner, and in the same manner receive payment, or an apology; at a future day, likewise, the same consequences will result from a failure. I presume, sir, there is a manifest similarity between the two cases. When gentlemen complain of the novelty, they ought to advert to the singular one that must be the consequence of the requisitions--an army sent into your country to force you to comply. Will not this be the dissolution of the Union, if ever it takes effect? Let us be candid on this subject: let us see if the criterion here fixed be not equal and just. Were the tax laid on one uniform article through the Union, its operation would be oppressive on a considerable part of the people. When any sum is necessary for the general government, every state will immediately know its exact proportion of it, from the number of their people and representatives; nor can it be doubted that the tax will be laid on each state, in the manner that will best accommodate the people of such state, as thereby it will be raised with more facility; for an oppressive mode can never be so productive as the most easy for the people.
The system under consideration is objected to in an unconnected and irregular manner: detached parts are attacked without considering the whole: this, sir, is disingenuous and unreasonable. Ask if the powers be unnecessary. If the end proposed can be obtained by any other means, the powers may be unnecessary. Infallibility was not arrogated by the Convention: they included in the system those powers they thought necessary. If you do not think the ceding those powers indispensable, never give them up. But, I trust, this power of imposing direct taxes has been proved to be essential to the very existence of the Union. The advocates for the national government, circumstanced as they are, with the accession of so many states, never will give their assent to leave it in the power of the states to sacrifice the Union. It has been observed, by an honorable gentleman over the way, (Mr. George Mason,) that there could not be a fellow-feeling between the national representatives and their constituents, and that oppression must be inseparable from their exercise of the power of imposing taxes. I beg leave to remind you of a similar complaint made on a similar occasion. I allude to the Scotch union. If gentlemen cast their eyes to that period, they will find there an instructive similitude between our circumstances and the situation of those people. The advocates for a union with England declared that it would be a foundation of lasting peace, remove all jealousies between them, increase their strength and riches, and enable them to resist more effectually the efforts of the Pretender. These were irresistible arguments, one would be inclined to believe; arguments a priori, which challenge conviction, and which appear perfectly conclusive, since now verified by actual events. Yet the opposers of that union declaimed that the independence of Scotland was gone; that the peerage of Scotland was degraded; that the people of England would alone be gainers; and that the people of Scotland would be the losers. How are the facts? Both kingdoms have derived great benefits from that union, and the predictions of the advocates for that union have been fully verified. The arguments used on that occasion apply with more cogency to our situation.
Mr. Madison. Mr. Chairman, in considering this great subject, I trust we shall find that part which gives the general government the power of laying and collecting taxes indispensable, and essential to the existence of any efficient or well-organized system of government: if we consult reason, and be ruled by its dictates, we shall find its justification there: if we review the experience we have had, or contemplate the history of nations, here we find ample reasons to prove its expediency. There is little reason to depend for necessary supplies on a body which is fully possessed of the power of witholding them. If a government depends on other governments for its revenues--if it must depend on the voluntary contributions of its members--its existence must be precarious. A government which relies on thirteen independent sovereignties for the means of its existence, is a solecism in theory and a mere nullity in practice. Is it consistent with reason that such a government can promote the happiness of any people? It is subversive of every principle of sound policy, to trust the safety of a community with a government totally destitute of the means of protecting itself or its members. Can Congress, after the repeated unequivocal proofs it has experienced of the utter inutility and inefficacy of requisitions, reasonably expect that they would be hereafter effectual or productive? Will not the same local interests, and other causes, militate against a compliance? Whoever hopes the contrary must ever be disappointed. The effect, sir, cannot be changed without a removal of the cause. Let each county in this commonwealth be supposed free and independent; let your revenues depend on requisitions of proportionate quotas from them; let application be made to them repeatedly:--is it to be presumed that they would comply, or that an adequate collection could be made from partial compliances? It is now difficult to collect the taxes from them: how much would that difficulty be enhanced, were you to depend solely on their generosity! I appeal to the reason of every gentleman here, whether he is not persuaded that the present Confederation is as feeble as the government of Virginia would be in that case: to the same reason I appeal, whether it be compatible with prudence to continue a government of such manifest and palpable debility.
[Mr. Madison:] The expedient proposed by the gentlemen opposed to this clause is, that requisitions shall be made, and, if not complied with in a certain time, that then taxation shall be recurred to. I am clearly convinced that, whenever requisitions shall be made, they will disappoint those who put their trust in them. One reason to prevent the concurrent exertions of all the states, will arise from the suspicion, in some states, of delinquency in others. States will be governed by the motives that actuate individuals.
When a tax is in operation in a particular state, every citizen, if he knows the energy of the laws to enforce payment, and that every other citizen is performing his duty, will cheerfully discharge his duty; but were it known that the citizens of one district were not performing their duty, and that it was left to the policy of the government to make them come up with it, the other districts would be very supine and careless in making provisions for payment. Our own experience makes the illustration more natural. If requisitions be made on thirteen different states, when one deliberates on the subject, she will know that all the rest will deliberate upon it also. This, sir, has been a principal cause of the inefficacy of requisitions heretofore, and will hereafter produce the same evil. If the legislatures are to deliberate on this subject, (and the honorable gentleman opposed to this clause thinks their deliberation necessary,) is it not presumable that they will consider peculiar local circumstances? In the general council, on the contrary, the sense of all America would be drawn to a single point. The collective interest of the Union at large will be known and pursued. No local views will be permitted to operate against the general welfare. But when propositions would come before a particular state, there is every reason to believe that qualifications of the requisitions would be proposed; compliance might be promised, and some instant remittances might be made. This will cause delays, which, in the first instance, will produce disappointment. This also will make failures everywhere else. This, I hope, will be considered with the attention it deserves. The public creditors will be disappointed, and more pressing. Requisitions will be made for purposes equally pervading all America; but the exertions to make compliances will probably be not uniform in the states. If requisitions be made for future occasions, for putting the states in a state of military defence, or to repel an invasion, will the exertions be uniform and equal in all the states? Some parts of the United States are more exposed than others. Will the least exposed states exert themselves equally? We know that the most exposed will be the more immediately interested, and will make less sacrifices in making exertions. I beg gentlemen to consider that this argument will apply with most effect to the states which are most defenceless and exposed. The Southern States are most exposed, whether we consider their situation, or the smallness of their population. And there are other circumstances which render them still more vulnerable, which do not apply to the Northern States. They are therefore more interested in giving the government a power to command the whole strength of the Union in cases of emergency. Do not gentlemen conceive this mode of obtaining supplies from the states will keep alive animosities between the general government and particular states? Where the chances of failures are so numerous as thirteen, by the thirteen states, disappointment in the first place, and consequent animosity, must inevitably take place.
Let us consider the alternatives proposed by gentlemen, instead of the power of laying direct taxes. After the states shall have refused to comply, weigh the consequences of the exercise of this power by Congress. When it comes in the form of a punishment, great clamors will be raised among the people against the government; hatred will be excited against it. It will be considered as an ignominious stigma on the state. It will be considered, at least, in this light by the state where the failure is made, and these sentiments will no doubt be diffused through the other states. Now, let us consider the effect, if collectors are sent where the state governments refuse to comply with requisitions. It is too much the disposition of mankind not to stop at one violation of duty. I conceive that every requisition that will be made on my part of America will kindle a contention between the delinquent member and the general government. Is there no reason to suppose divisions in the government (for seldom does any thing pass with unanimity) on the subject of requisitions? The parts least exposed will oppose those measures which may be adopted for the defence of the weakest parts. Is there no reason to presume that the representatives from the delinquent state will be more likely to foster disobedience to the requisitions of the government than study to recommend them to the public?
There is, in my opinion, another point of view in which this alternative will produce great evil. I will suppose, what is very probable, that partial compliances will be made. A difficulty here arises which fully demonstrates its impolicy. If a part be paid, and the rest withheld, how is the general government to proceed? They are to impose a tax; but how shall it be done in this case? Are they to impose it, by way of punishment, on those who have paid, as well as those who have not? All these considerations taken into view (for they are not visionary or fanciful speculations) will, perhaps, produce this consequence: The general government, to avoid those disappointments which I first described, and to avoid the contentions and embarrassments which I last described, will, in all probability, throw the public burdens on those branches of revenue which will be more in their power. They will be continually necessitated to augment the imposts. If we throw a disproportion of the burdens on that side, shall we not discourage commerce and suffer many political evils? Shall we not increase that disproportion on the Southern States, which for some time will operate against us? The Southern States, from having fewer manufactures, will import and consume more. They will therefore pay more of the imposts. The more commerce is burdened, the more the disproportion will operate against them. If direct taxation be mixed with other taxes, it will be in the power of the general government to lessen that inequality. But this inequality will be increased to the utmost extent, if the general government have not this power.
There is another point of view in which this subject affords us instruction. The imports will decrease in time of war. The honorable gentleman who spoke yesterday said that the imposts would be so productive that there would be no occasion of laying taxes. I will submit two observations to him and the committee. First, in time of war, the imposts will be less; and as I hope we are considering a government for a perpetual duration, we ought to provide for every future contingency. At present, our importations bear a full proportion to the full amount of our sales, and to the number of our inhabitants; but when we have inhabitants enough, our imposts will decrease, and as the national demands will increase with our population, our resources will increase as our wants increase. The other consideration which I will submit on this part of the subject is this: I believe that it will be found, in practice, that those who fix the public burdens will feel a greater degree of responsibility, when they are to impose them on the citizens immediately than if they were to say what sum should be paid by the states. If they exceed the limits of propriety, universal discontent and clamor will arise. Let us suppose they were to collect the taxes from the citizens of America; would they not consider their circumstances? Would they not attentively consider what could be done by the citizens at large? Were they to exceed, in their demands, what were reasonable burdens, the people would impute it to the right source, and look on the imposers as odious.
When I consider the nature of the various objections brought against this clause, I should be led to think that the difficulties were such that gentlemen would not be able to get over them, and that the power, as defined in the plan of the Convention, was impracticable. I shall trouble them with a few observations on that point.
It has been said that ten men deputed from this state, and others in proportion from other states, will not be able to adjust direct taxes, so as to accommodate the various citizens in thirteen states.
I confess I do not see the force of this observation. Could not ten intelligent men, chosen from ten districts from this state, lay direct taxes on a few objects in the most judicious manner? It is to be conceived that they would be acquainted with the situation of different citizens of this country. Can any one divide this state into ten districts so as not to contain men of sufficient information? Could not one man of knowledge be found in a district? When thus selected, will they not be able to carry their knowledge into the general council? I may say, with great propriety, that the experience of our own legislature demonstrates the competency of Congress to lay taxes wisely. Our Assembly consists of considerably more than a hundred; yet, from the nature of the business, it devolves on a much smaller number. It is, through their sanction, approved of by all the others. It will be found that there are seldom more than ten men who rise to high information on this subject. Our federal representatives, as has been said by the gentleman, (Mr. Marshall,) who entered into the subject with a great deal of ability, will get information from the state governments. They will be perfectly well informed of the circumstances of the people of the different states, and the mode of taxation that would be most convenient for them, from the laws of the states. In laying taxes, they may even refer to the state system of taxation. Let it not be forgotten that there is a probability that that ignorance which is complained of in some parts of America will be continually diminishing. Let us compare the degree of knowledge which the people had in time past to their present information. Does not our own experience teach us that the people are better informed than they were a few years ago? The citizen of Georgia knows more now of the affairs of New Hampshire, than he did, before the revolution, of those of South Carolina. When the representatives from the different states are collected together, to consider this subject, they will interchange their knowledge with one another, and will have the laws of each state on the table. Besides this, the intercourse of the states will be continually increasing. It is now much greater than before the revolution. My honorable friend over the way, (Mr. Monroe,) yesterday, seemed to conceive, as an insuperable objection, that, if land were made the particular object of taxation, it would be unjust, as it would exonerate the commercial part of the community; that, if it were laid on trade, it would be unjust, in discharging the landholders; and that any exclusive selection would be unequal and unfair. If the general government were tied down to one object, I confess the objection would have some force in it. But if this be not the case, it can have no weight. If it should have a general power of taxation, they could select the most proper objects, and distribute the taxes in such a manner as that they should fall in a due degree on every member of the community. They will be limited to fix the proportion of each state, and they must raise it in the most convenient and satisfactory manner to the public.
[Mr. Mason:] That unconditional power of taxation which is given to that government cannot but oppress the people. If, instead of this, a conditional power of taxation be given, in case of refusal to comply with requisitions, the same end will be answered with convenience to the people. This will not lessen the power of Congress; we do not want to lessen the power of Congress unnecessarily. This will produce moderation in the demand, and will prevent the ruinous exercise of that power by those who know not our situation. We shall then have that mode of taxation which is the most easy, and least oppressive to the people, because it will be exercised by those who are acquainted with their condition and circumstances. This, sir, is the great object we wish to secure--that our people should be taxed by those who have a fellow-feeling for them. I think I can venture to assert that the general government will lay such taxes as are the easiest and the most productive in the collection. This is natural and probable.
For example, they may lay a poll tax. This is simply and easily collected, but is of all taxes the most grievous. Why the most grievous? Because it falls light on the rich, and heavy on the poor. It is most oppressive: for if the rich man is taxed, he can only retrench his superfluities; but the consequence to the poor man is, that it increases his miseries. That they will lay the most simple taxes, and such as are easiest to collect, is highly probable, nay, almost absolutely certain. I shall take the liberty, on this occasion, to read you a letter, which will show, at least as far as opinion goes, what sort of taxes will be most probably laid on us, if we adopt this Constitution. It was the opinion of a gentleman of information. It will in some degree establish the fallacy of those reports which have been circulated through the country, and which induced a great many poor, ignorant people to believe that the taxes were to be lessened by the adoption of the proposed government.
[Here Mr. Mason read a letter from Mr. Robert Morris, financier of the United States, to Congress, wherein he spoke of the propriety of laying the following taxes for the use of the United States; viz., six shillings on every hundred acres of land, six shillings per poll, and ninepence per gallon on all spirituous liquors distilled in the country. Mr. Mason declared that he did not mean to make the smallest reflection on Mr. Morris, but introduced his letter to show what taxes would probably be laid.]
He then continued: This will at least show that such taxes were in agitation, and were strongly advocated by a considerable part of Congress. I have read this letter to show that they will lay taxes most easy to be collected, without any regard to our convenience; so that, instead of amusing ourselves with a diminution of our taxes, we may rest assured that they will be increased. But my principal reason for introducing it was, to show that taxes would be laid by those who are not acquainted with our situation, and that the agents of the collection may be consulted upon the most productive and simple mode of taxation. The gentleman who wrote this letter had more information on this subject than we have; but this will show gentlemen that we are not to be eased of taxes. Any of those taxes which have been pointed out by this financier as the most eligible, will be ruinous and unequal, and will be particularly oppressive on the poorest part of the people.
As to a poll tax, I have already spoken of its iniquitous operation, and need not say much of it, because it is so generally disliked in this state, that we were obliged to abolish it last year. As to a land tax, it will operate most unequally. The man who has one hundred acres of the richest land will pay as little as a man who has one hundred acres of the poorest land. Near Philadelphia, or Boston, an acre of land is worth one hundred pounds; yet the possessor of it will pay no more than the man with us whose land is hardly worth twenty shillings an acre. Some landholders in this state will have to pay twenty times as much as will be paid for all the land on which Philadelphia stands; and as to excise, this will carry the exciseman to every farmer's house, who distils a little brandy, where he may search and ransack as he pleases. These I mention as specimens of the kind of tax which is to be laid upon us by those who have no information of our situation, and by a government where the wealthy only are represented. It is urged that no new power is given up to the general government, and that the Confederation had those powers before. That system derived its power from the state governments. When the people of Virginia formed their government, they reserved certain great powers in the bill of rights. They would not trust their own citizens, who had a similarity of interest with themselves, and who had frequent and intimate communication with them. They would not trust their own fellow-citizens, I say, with the exercise of those great powers reserved in the bill of rights. Do we not, by this system, give up a great part of the rights, reserved by the bill of rights, to those who have no fellow-feeling for the people--to a government where the representatives will have no communication with the people? I say, then, there are great and important powers, which were not transferred to the state government, given up to the general government by this Constitution.
[Mr. Pendleton:] To come to the great object of direct taxation, more immediately under consideration:--If we find it our interest to be intimately connected with the other twelve states, to establish one common government, and bind in one ligament the strength of thirteen states, we shall find it necessary to delegate powers proportionate to that end; for the delegation of adequate powers in this government is not less necessary than in our state government. To whom do we delegate these powers? To our own representatives. Why should we fear so much greater dangers from our representatives there, than from those we have here? Why make so great a distinction between our representatives here, and in the federal government, where every branch is formed on the same principle--preserving throughout the representative, responsible character? We have trusted our lives, and every thing, to our state representatives. We have particularly committed our purse to them, with unlimited confidence. I never heard any objection to it; I am sure I make none. We ought to contribute our share of fixing the principles of the government. Here the representative character is still preserved. We are to have an equal share in the representation of the general government, should we ratify this Constitution. We have hitherto paid more than our share of taxes for the support of the government, &c. But by this system we are to pay our equal, ratable share only. Where is the danger of confiding in our federal representatives? We must choose those in whom we can put the greatest confidence. They are only to remain two years in office. Will they in that time lose all regard for the principles of honor, and their character, and become abandoned prostitutes of our rights? I have no such fear. When power is in the hands of my representatives, I care not whether they meet here or a hundred miles off.
A gentleman (Mr. Monroe) has said that the power of direct taxation was unnecessary, because the imposts and back lands would be abundantly sufficient to answer all federal purposes. If so, what are we disputing about? I ask the gentleman who made the observation, and this committee, if they believe that Congress will ever lay direct taxes if the other funds are sufficient. It will then remain a harmless power upon paper, and do no injury. If it should be necessary, will gentlemen run the risk of the Union by withholding it? I was sorry to hear the subjects of requisitions and taxation misinterpreted. The latter has been compared to taxation by Great Britain without our own consent. The two cases are by no means similar. The king of Great Britain has not the purse, though he holds the sword. He has no means of using the sword but by requisitions on those who hold the purse. He applied to the British Parliament; and they were pleased to trust him with our money. We declared, as we had a right, that we ought to be taxed by our own representatives, and that therefore their disposing of our money without our consent was unjust. Here requisitions are to be made by one body of our representatives to another. Why should this be the case, when they are both possessed of our equal confidence--both chosen in the same manner, and equally responsible to us?
But we are told that there will be a war between the two bodies equally our representatives, and that the state government will be destroyed, and consolidated into the general government. I stated before, that this could not be so. The two governments act in different manners, and for different purposes--the general government in great national concerns, in which we are interested in common with other members of the Union; the state legislature in our mere local concerns. Is it true, or merely imaginary, that the state legislatures will be confined to the care of bridges and roads? I think that they are still possessed of the highest powers. Our dearest rights,--life, liberty, and property,--as Virginians, are still in the hands of our state legislature. If they prove too feeble to protect us, we resort to the aid of the general government for security. The true distinction is, that the two governments are established for different purposes, and act on different objects; so that, notwithstanding what the worthy gentleman said, I believe I am still correct, and insist that, if each power is confined within its proper bounds, and to its proper objects, an interference can never happen. Being for two different purposes, as long as they are limited to the different objects, they can no more clash than two parallel lines can meet. Both lay taxes, but for different purposes. The same officers may be used by both governments, which will prevent a number of inconveniences. If an invasion, or insurrection, or other misfortune, should make it necessary for the general government to interpose, this will be for the general purposes of the Union, and for the manifest interest of the states.
The Founders' Constitution
Volume 2, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1, Document 16
The University of Chicago Press
Elliot, Jonathan, ed. The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. . . . 5 vols. 2d ed. 1888. Reprint. New York: Burt Franklin, n.d.
Easy to print version.