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with Notes of Reference (1803)
St. George Tucker
Powers of Congress
We shall now resume our inquiry into the powers the exercise of which, is by the constitution confided to the congress of the United States. Most of these we have had occasion to enumerate in the course of our examination into the distribution of power between the federal and state governments. This examination we shall now resume more at large; another object of our further inquiry will be, how, these powers are adjusted and to whom confided, in other governments, particularly that of Great Britain: this will lead us frequently to resume our parallel, and I trust, it will scarcely be found, that upon a fair comparison, the superiority can in any instance be denied to the constitution of the United States.
6. The powers of congress are the next subject to which our inquiries are to be directed; these are in general legislative yet in some few instances, they extend also to other subjects, which fall under the executive department in most other nations.
1. Congress is authorized to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense, and general welfare of the United States:137 but all duties, imposts, and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States and no capitation; or other direct tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the census, or enumeration, before directed to be taken: nor shall any tax or duty be laid on articles exported from any state.138
The principle upon which the right of taxation is founded, is here shortly expressed; viz. “To pay the debts and provide for the common defense, and general welfare of the United States.” For since the government is bound to defend the lives and fortunes of the citizen, which protection cannot be afforded, unless the government be furnished with adequate supplies for that purpose, it is but reasonable that the individual should, on his part, contribute his proper proportion thereof.139 On the other hand, since the citizen is on no other account obliged to pay taxes, or undergo any other public burden, but as they are necessary to defray the expenses of the state, it ought to be the singular care of the government to draw no further supplies than the exigences of the public require; and to see likewise that the citizens be as little as possible incommoded with the charges they are forced to put them to; and moreover, that the public impositions be laid in just and fair proportions, without favoring and exempting of one, to the defrauding or oppression of another.140 Such are the principles which the constitution establishes, by requiring that direct taxes should be “according to the census;” and that indirect taxes, viz. duties, imposts; and excises should be “uniform” throughout the United States.
The distinction which the constitution thus creates between direct taxes, and others, renders an inquiry into the grounds and nature of that distinction particularly interesting.
The author of the treatise upon political economy defines a tax, to be “a certain contribution of fruits, service, or money imposed upon the individuals of a state.”141 He adds; “this definition may include, in general, all kinds of burdens which can possibly be imposed, whether under the name of tribute, tithe, tally, impost, duty, gabel, custom, subsidy, excise, or any other.
As this definition includes the several species of burdens which the congress are authorized to impose, it may be proper to see in what manner the same author distinguishes them …. This he does into three classes: 1. Those upon alienation, which he calls proportional; 2. Those upon possessions, which he calls cumulative, or arbitrary; 3. Those exacted in service, as in the militia, on the roads, etc.
1. A proportional tax is paid by the buyer, who intends to consume, at the time of the consumption; and is consolidated with the price of the commodity.
Two requisites are necessary to fix this tax upon any one first, he must be a buyer; secondly he must be a consumer.
Examples of this tax are all excises, customs, (viz. duties on imposts or exports) stamp duties, postage, coinage, and the like.
2. A cumulative or arbitrary tax may be known;
- a. By the intention; which is, to affect the possessor in such a manner; as to make it difficult for him to augment his income in proportion to the tax he pays:
b. By the object when instead of being laid on any determinate piece of labor, or consumption, it is made to affect past, and not present, gains;
c. By the circumstances, under which it is levied; which imply no transition of property from hand to hand.142
Examples of cumulative taxes, are land taxes, poll taxes, window taxes, duties upon coaches, servants, etc.
The taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, mentioned in the constitution of the United States, appear naturally to fall under a similar division, and the words direct, and indirect, may consequently be substituted for the terms cumulative and proportional, used by that author.
It is the nature of a cumulative (or direct tax) to affect the possessions, income, and profit, of every individual, without suffering it to be in their power to draw it back again in any way whatever. A proportional, (or indirect tax) on the contrary may be said to be paid voluntarily; being paid by a voluntary purchaser, who is also a consumer.143
This distinction it is conceived may be illustrated by the following example: If a tax be laid upon wheels, so that every person in the state shall be liable to pay a certain sum in proportion to the number of carriages he has for his convenience this, according to the author last mentioned, would be a cumulative, or direct tax; but if a similar tax be collected in the hands of the wheel-wright, it would be a proportional, or indirect tax: in the first case; he who pays the tax upon the carriages, which he keeps for his convenience, cannot possibly draw the tax back again, after he has once paid it, by any means whatever; in the second, the wheel-wright only advances the tax, but is repaid by the purchaser who buys it for his convenience: inasmuch as he advances the price of his wheels, in proportion to the duty or tax, he has paid upon them.144
Supposing this to be the true distinction to be taken between direct and indirect taxes, a correspondent distinction in the mode of imposing the tax should be adopted; if, for example, the last mentioned tax is to be levied upon the person who uses the carriage for his convenience; this being a direct tax, the whole sum required to be raised thereby, must first be apportioned among the several states; but the tax itself, need not be uniform throughout the state; if it be levied on the wheelright, the tax becomes an indirect one, and must be uniform throughout the states; but there need not be any previous apportionment of the quotas of the several states.145
Whilst the constitution of the United States was under consideration, objections were offered in this state, and in some others, against the power of direct taxation, thereby granted to congress. One of the amendments proposed by the convention of this state, was, “That when congress shall lay direct taxes or excises, they shall immediately inform the executive power of each state, of the quota of such state according to the census by the constitution directed, which is proposed to be thereby raised; and if the legislature of any state shall pass a law, which shall be effectual for raising such quota, at the time required by congress, the taxes and excises laid by congress shall not be collected in such state.” This amendment was passed over in silence by congress; but the exercise of the right of direct taxation, which it was intended to qualify, has never yet been exerted; and probably will not, so long as any other expedient can be fallen upon to raise money for the support of the government.146 Not only Virginia, but Massachusetts, South Carolina, New York, and North Carolina, concurred in expressing a disapprobation of this part of the constitution. It may, however, be doubted, whether there is as much reason for the objection, as the concurring sense of five such considerable states induces a supposition that there may be in it’s favor. The power of taxation seems indispensably necessary to constitute an efficient government, and appears inseparable from the right of deciding upon any measure, which requires the aid of taxes, to carry it into effect. By the same article of the constitution we shall find, that congress have power to declare war, and to raise and support armies. What could this declaration avail without the further power of procuring the means for their support? The effects of paper emissions, lotteries, loan-offices, impressments, and requisitions from the states, the occasional expedients, and ultimate resources of a feeble confederacy, had been sufficiently seen, and felt during the revolutionary war. How often were the sinews of government unstrung; how often were it’s operations stopped in the most critical conjunctures how few of them were carried into vigorous effect, from the imbecility of the federal government, and the deranged state of the finances of the union? …. Nor is the mode proposed by the amendment, altogether free from objection: the states might pass laws apparently effectual, for the purpose of raising the sum required, and yet the execution of those laws be so retarded by the delinquency of collectors, as to render the suspension of the act of congress a matter no longer reconcilable to the pressing emergencies of the government. In this case, the government must either be deprived of it’s resources, or the citizens he doubly burdened. Was there an instance where the requisitions of the revolutionary congress were strictly complied with, both as to the time of payment, and the quantum required? Were not arrears upon arrears continually the subject of their demands from the respective states? If this was the case during the struggle for independence, what may not be apprehended upon other occasions? It will be alledged, perhaps, that the quotas of the several states were not adjusted upon equal principles by the confederation: that each state supposed, and even complained, that it had already contributed more than it’s proper quota; and that this may well account for their tardiness in complying with the requisitions of congress. This, it is true, was the ostensible excuse with most of them: but it is no less true that the states who were under-rated, or who were actually in arrears, were not less positive, or vehement, in their complaints of the inequality of the burden, than those who had reason and justice on their side; consequently they were not less tardy in complying with any new requisition. If the experience of former evils ought to make us wise, the United States have surely derived sufficient information from this source.
It is observable, that the objection only goes to the exercise of the right of direct taxation; and the imposition of excises; all other indirect modes of taxation seem to be given up without a question: but if the necessity of investing congress with a power to impose taxes be admitted, it may be questioned, whether more numerous, and important objections may not be offered against indirect, than direct taxation, as a source of revenue in a free state. If, on the one hand, indirect taxation may be considered as least burdensome in the mode of collection, on the other hand it may be remarked, that the increase of burden upon the consumer, who ultimately pays every indirect tax, is probably more than an equivalent for this convenience; which is moreover fully counterbalanced by that unavoidable inequality of burdens, resulting from indirect taxes, which it should be the object of direct taxation to avoid. Indeed, if equality of taxation be desirable, the only mode by which it can be obtained, seems to be by direct taxes, imposed in the mode prescribed by the constitution. It was, perhaps, impracticable to fix the ratio of direct taxes, in any just proportion, by reference to any particular species of property, even land, that kind of property, which, of all others, is most susceptible of such an adjustment, being of very unequal value, although perfectly equal in quality, and produce, in different parts of the United States. And this circumstance, alone, appears to afford a sufficient reason against uniformity, in the imposition of direct taxes. The attempt was made under the confederation to apportion the burdens of the union among the states, according to the value of all lands within each state, granted to, or surveyed for any person, with the buildings and improvements thereon.147 But congress, by their act of April 18, proposed to the states to rescind that part of the articles of confederation, and in lieu thereof, to adopt precisely the same mode which the present constitution establishes. A bill to that effect was passed in this state;148 but whether the proposal was favorably received by the other states, I am not informed. It appears then to be somewhat extraordinary, that the opposition to direct taxation was so strong in Virginia, where the proportion proposed, had already received the approbation of her legislature. A proportion established by reference to labor, the original source of wealth, may be considered as the best medium, by which to ascertain the rate of actual wealth; and if it be remembered, that two-fifths of the slaves in the southern states are thrown out of the calculation, we should conclude that they could not reasonably be dissatisfied with the ratio thereby established.149
One of the objections to the power of direct taxation most strongly insisted on, was, that a representative of Massachusetts, or Georgia, could not be a proper judge of the most fit objects of taxation in Virginia; this objection, however, the constitution seems to have guarded against effectually, by requiring that the sum to be raised by direct taxes should be apportioned among the several states in the first instance. What motive, then, could representative from Massachusetts, or from Georgia, have for opposing any mode of raising the tax in Virginia, which might be proposed by the representatives from that state? As the sum to be contributed by the state would be previously fixed, it could neither be augmented nor diminished by the mode of collection: of this, the members from the several states might he considered as the best judges, respectively. Uniformity not being required by the constitution to be observed in the imposition of direct taxes, the tax in New England might be a poll-tax, in Pennsylvania a land-tax, and in South Carolina a tax on slaves, if those modes, respectively, should be recommended by the representatives of those states, without either violating the constitution, or disadvantage to any other state. In the imposition of such taxes; therefore, congress might pursue the system of each State, respectively, within that state.150 The inequality of indirect taxes, among states, as well as among individuals, is perfectly unavoidable.151 It may in time become so great as to shift all the burdens of government from a part of the states, and to impose them, exclusively, on the rest of the union. The northern states, for example, already manufacture within themselves, a very large proportion, or perhaps the whole, of many articles, which in other states are imported from foreign parts, subject to heavy duties. They are consequently exempted, in the same proportion, from the burden of duties paid on these articles. Hence a considerable inequality already exists between the contributions from the several states; this inequality daily increases, and is indeed daily favored, upon principles of national policy: for whenever any species of manufacture becomes considerable in the United States, it is considered proper to impose what are called protecting duties, upon foreign articles of the same kind. Nor does the matter rest here; for several American manufactures are now subject to an excise:152 this species of tax, though advanced by the manufacturer, is paid by the consumer, as has been already shown: consequently, the duty upon every excised commodity is in fact paid by that state where it is consumed, whilst the manufacturing state is not only exempt from the burden, but enriched by it. This inequality is no otherwise to be avoided but by direct taxes. The same disproportion also obtains among individuals of the same state where it operates as a tax on luxury, it may be considered in a beneficial light; but there are a thousand instances where a tax upon consumption will produce an inequality of burdens, though the tax should operate only upon the necessaries, and not the luxuries of life: a person in health may dispense with many comforts which a sick man stands in the utmost need of; he can better afford to pay a tax on what he consumes; but the sick man must either pay an additional tax, or perish because he cannot afford it. Indirect taxes, therefore, not unfrequently impose the burden upon those who are least able to sustain it; a direct tax on the contrary may always be apportioned according to the means of defraying it.
It seems agreed among political writers, that another objection to indirect taxes arises from the tax being so interwoven with the price, that the consumer blends them together, and is thus rendered ignorant of the burdens imposed upon him by the government. This is conceived to be peculiarly dangerous in a free government, and utterly incompatible with that responsibility, which ought to subsist between the representative and his constituents; whose burdens are thus imperceptibly increased, to the great hazard of their liberties, whenever the government shall thus insensibly acquire an independent revenue; the source and amount of which may be equally unknown to the generality of the people. If, for example, a duty of 10 per cent. ad valorem, he imposed upon any foreign article imported, or upon any domestic manufacture made for sale in the United States, the duty is in a very few years entirely forgotten, being wholly lost in the price of the article, in the consumer’s estimation; an additional 5 per cent. is laid; this, like the former, is equally forgotten, and blended with the price in a few years more. This may be repeated at no very distant periods, till the duty is doubled, trebled, or quadrupled, and the effect still be the same: in another generation the same experiment may be repeated with like success, and each succeeding generation undergo the like additional burdens, until it would require the most consummate skill in political arithmetic to calculate the amount; whereas, if direct taxes were increased in the like proportion, every individual would at once perceive from what source this additional burden arose, and would be led to inquire for what reason he was subjected to it. Hence it would seem to be the interest of every freeman, in a free state, that his taxes should be imposed in such manner as to be subject to his immediate observation; since whatever inconvenience he may thereby sustain, must be amply recompensed by the security thus afforded to his liberty.
The power of imposing direct taxes, excises, and duties, except on imports or exports, is one of those, in which, according to our distribution, the United States and the individual states possess concurrent authority. It was apprehended by the opposers to the constitution, that this power in the congress would, like Aaron’s rod, swallow up that of the state legislatures.153 The government must be wholly corrupted whenever this happens; so long as the taxes imposed by the federal legislature are limited to constitutional purposes, it is impossible that the states should be without a revenue sufficient to support their civil lists. Beyond that object, so long as the federal government is properly administered, the states can have no urgent occasion for any revenue.154
The abuse of the powers of government should be guarded against by the constitution as far as possible. The purposes for which any grievous tax can, with any shadow of necessity, be imposed by the federal legislature, must be the raising and supporting armies. Appropriations for that purpose are limited to two years. The duration of congress is limited to the like period. Would not a new election strike at the root of the evil? If it should not, the people must resort to first principles. Even annual elections would probably be an insufficient protection against such a total depravity, as could not be curbed by these provisions in the constitution.”
Excises, the second branch of revenue which created an alarm in the minds of the opposers of the constitution, are defined to be an inland imposition, usually paid upon the retail sale of a commodity.155 It appears, however, that they are generally imposed on manufactures, and paid by the manufacturer,156 who advances the price of his commodity in proportion. The author of the commentaries on the laws of England acknowledges, that the rigor and arbitrary proceedings of excise laws; seems hardly compatible with the temper of a free nation.157 … This observation, founded on the experience of a nation whose accumulated debts, financial embarrassments may have driven them to it’s adoption, it might have been expected, would have co-operated with the clamors of a considerable part of the union, against the admission of such a principle of taxation into the constitution, to deter congress from an immediate resort to an experiment of it’s effects upon the minds of their constituents. It is said that this mode of taxation is familiar to the New England states, and that it is by no means obnoxious to the people there. This circumstance probably paved the way for its reception in congress; in this state it was a perfect novelty, and was made the subject of one of the amendments, proposed to the constitution. The arguments in favor of this, as an economical mode of taxation, abstractedly considered, appear to be much in its favor; it being alledged, that the charges of levying, collecting, and managing the excise duties in England, are considerably less in proportion, than in any other branches of the revenue.158 This may be true in a country abounding in manufacturing towns; but in a country where the objects of the excise are few, and those dispersed over an immense tract of country, it is perhaps demonstrable from the number of salaried officers employed in the collection, that a smaller portion of the excise, than of any other tax goes into the treasury of the United States. The giving salaries to these officers is an irrefragable proof of this position: for if the tax to be collected were so considerable, as that a moderate per centage would afford a sufficient compensation to the collectors, for their trouble, there would be no need of resorting to salaries, which may perhaps amount to fifteen, or twenty per cent, in some places, and in others, prove almost commensurate with the tax itself.159 On the other hand, it must be acknowledged, that the excise contributes in some measure to restore the balance arising from the inequality produced by duties on foreign imports and this, not only among individuals, but in a small degree among the states; the manufacturing states being thereby subject to some portion of the tax on consumption: but this last benefit can only last so long as each state shall manufacture for its own consumption, only; and it will be entirely lost, and even become doubly oppressive, whenever the manufactures of one part of the union, are exported from thence and consumed in the other states. Excises will then operate as the most burdensome species of impost, on those parts of the union, where consumption takes place.
Duties and imposts, in their common acceptation mean those takes which merchants are compelled to pay upon merchandis e imported, or exported, from any state, and which have in many countries obtained the general name of customs; probably from the usual and constant demand made of them for the use of the princes, state, or government. But in the constitution of the United States they seem to have obtained a more extensive signification, and were probably intended to comprehend every species of tax, or contribution, not included under the ordinary terms, taxes and excises. Taken in the general and comprehensive sense, the states respectively possess the power of imposing them, concurrently with the federal government, with the single exception of customs, or duties upon imports or exports; the right of imposing which, is either exclusively vested in the congress of the United States, or can only be exercised by the respective states with the assent of congress, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing their inspection laws: and the nett produce of all duties and imposts laid by any state on imports or exports, shall be for the use of the treasury of the United States; and all such laws are subject to the revision and control of the congress; nor can any state without the consent of congress lay any duty on tonnage.160 Frequent instances have occurred where the assent of congress has been given to acts of the state legislatures, made for especial purposes, such as erecting piers, appointing health officers, deepening the navigation, etc.161
In February 1781, the congress of the United States made a proposal to the several states to authorize congress to impose a duty of five per cent. ad valorem, on certain goods, wares and merchandis es, (such as wines and ardent spirits, etc.) and on all prizes and prize goods, which might be imported, or brought, into the United States. The legislature, at their next session, passed an act, in conformity thereto.162 Several of the states as was afterwards alledged, neglected to pass similar laws, and their unanimous consent was requisite,163 under the existing articles of confederation, to give effect to such an important change in the system; in consequence of which, the act of this state was suspended, by a law passed at the ensuing session,164 until the several states in the union should concur in adopting the measure: it has been said that the non-concurrence of a single state, (and that, one of the smallest in the union,) prevented the proposition from taking effect; but this is not the reason, assigned by the legislature of this state, for repealing their act of assent. An ill timed jealousy at that period, had crept into the legislature, who declared by their act of October, 1782, c. 137. “That the permitting any power, other than the general assembly of the commonwealth to levy duties or taxes upon the citizens of this state, within the same, is injurious to it’s sovereignty, and may prove destructive of the rights and liberties of the people;” for which reason they repeated the act of the preceding year, by which the concurrence of the state was yielded to the proposed measure. In the month of April 1783, the proposition was new modeled by congress, and again presented to the states, for their assent and concurrence; and was a second time acceded to by the state of Virginia, in the month of October, in the same year, but, with a suspending clause, until the other states, in the union, should likewise, concur in the proposed concession.165 The preamble to this act recites, that congress had recommended to the several states as indispensably necessary to the restoration of public credit, and to the punctual and honorable discharge of the public debt, to invest the United States in congress assembled with a power to levy, for the use of the United States, certain duties upon goods imported into the said states from any foreign part, for the period of twenty-five years. The powers thereby granted were moreover guarded by a number of provisoes and restrictions, and limited to a period, barely sufficient to answer the purpose of reviving the confidence of the creditors of the union …. Yet this measure like the former, miscarried for the want of the unanimous concurrence of the states, so cautious were they at that time, in their concessions of power to the federal government. It was at this session, likewise, (Oct. 1783166), that the legislature of Virginia, passed an act to authorize the congress of the United States to adopt certain regulations respecting the British trade; the object of which was to authorize that body to prohibit the importation of the growth or produce of the British West-India Islands, in British vessels; or, to adopt any other mode which might most effectually tend to counteract the designs of Great Britain, with respect to the American commerce, so long as the growth or produce of any of the United States of America should be prohibited from being carried to those islands, by any other than British subjects, in British built ships, owned by British subjects, and navigated according to the laws of that kingdom. This measure, which, if it had been adopted would have operated to the exclusive benefit of the navigating states, likewise failed, from the same causes as the two former. When peace was concluded with Great Britain a commercial rivalship very soon began to manifest itself among the several states, but between none more remarkable than Maryland and Virginia, to both which the waters of the Chesapeake, and the Potowmac, were as a common high-way. Scarcely a session of the general assembly passed over in either state, without some change in the duties upon imports, and tonnage, with a view to counteract some law, or regulation, of the other. Various attempts were made to produce an uniformity in their custom-house systems, but without effect. At this period, likewise, the inefficiency of the federal government began to excite loud clamors, as we have had occasion to mention, elsewhere. The want of an uniform system of commercial regulations, among the states, and the total want of funds, in the hands of congress, for the discharge of the continental debt, as well foreign, as domestic, convinced every one of the propriety of investing congress with power over these subjects, and gave rise to the measures already mentioned elsewhere. Hence, no opposition was ever made, to these branches of the authority of congress, when the question respecting the adoption of the constitution of the United States was agitated.
All duties and imposts (as contradistinguished from direct taxes) and all excises, as we have seen, must be uniform throughout the United States,167 by which means the principle of equality, as far as the nature of the subject will admit, is still adhered to in the constitution. A candid review of this part of the federal constitution, cannot fail to excite our just applause of the principles upon which it is founded. All the arguments against it appear to have been drawn from the inexpediency of establishing such a form of government, rather than from any defect in this part of the system, admitting that a general government was necessary to the happiness and prosperity of the states, individually. This great primary question being once decided in the affirmative, it might be difficult to prove that any part of the powers granted to congress in this clause, ought to have been altogether withheld: yet being granted, rather as an ultimate provision in any possible case of emergency, than as a means of ordinary revenue, it is to be wished that the exercise of powers; either oppressive in their operation, or inconsistent with the genius of the people, or irreconcilable to their prejudices, might be reserved for cogent occasions, which might justify the temporary recourse to a lesser evil, as the means of avoiding one more permanent, and of greater magnitude.168
2. Congress have power to borrow money on the credit of the United States;169 a power inseparably connected with that of raising a revenue, and with the duty of protection which that power imposes upon the federal government. For, though in times of profound peace, it may not be necessary to anticipate the revenues of a state, yet the experience of other nations, as well as our own, must convince us that the burden and expense of one year, in time of war, may be more than equal to the revenues of ten years. Hence a debt is almost unavoidable, whenever a nation is plunged into a state of war. The least burdensome mode of contracting a debt is by a loan: in case of a maritime war, the revenues arising from duties upon merchandis e imported, and upon tonnage, must be greatly diminished. Had not congress a power to borrow money, recourse must be had to direct taxes in the extreme, or to impressments, lotteries, and other miserable and oppressive expedients. A system of revenue being once organized, and the ability of the states to pay their debts, being known, money may easily be procured on loan, to be repaid when all the sources of revenue shall have regained their operation, and flow in their proper channel.
But while we contend for the power, let it not be supposed that it is meant to contend for the abuse of it. When used as a means of necessary defense, it gives energy, vigor and dispatch to all the measures of government; inspires a proper confidence in it, and disposes every citizen to alacrity and promptitude, in the service of his country. By enabling the government punctually to comply with all it’s engagements, the soldier is not driven to mutiny for want of his subsistence, nor the officer to resign his commission to avoid the ruin of himself; and his family. By this means also, the pressure and burden of a war, undertaken for the benefit of posterity, as well as the present generation, may be in some degree alleviated, and a part of the burden transferred to those who are to share the advantage. On the other hand, where loans are voluntarily incurred, upon the principle that a public debt is a public blessing, or to serve the purposes of aggrandizing a few at the expense of the nation, in general, or of strengthening the hands of government, (or more properly those of a party grasping at power, influence and wealth,) nothing can be more dangerous to the liberty of the citizen, nor more injurious to remotest posterity, as well as to present generations.
Congress had power, under the former articles of confederation, to borrow money upon the credit of the United States, and to pledge their faith for the repayment. But not possessing any revenue independent of the states, their loans were obtained with difficulty, and, very rarely in time to answer the purposes for which they were intended. The consequences of these, and other corresponding defects in the system, have been too frequently noticed to require a repetition of them in this place.
3. Congress have power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.170
We have already had occasion to mention the state of foreign commerce, upon the conclusion of the peace with Great Britain, and the conduct of the government of that nation in excluding our vessels from their ports in the West-India Islands. The proposition made by the state of Virginia to authorize congress to prohibit the importation of the growth or produce of those islands into the United States in British vessels, and even to adopt more energetic measures, by refusing the necessary supplies to those islands, if adopted, would probably have counteracted the designs of that politic nation: but, that fatal want of unanimity among the states, which at that period marked all their councils, defeated the proposal. The boldness of the measure on the part of Great Britain, evinced a determination to secure her commercial advantages, even at the risk of the existence of her colonies; yet it is not to be imagined that she would have persevered in such a conduct towards her own colonies, if the United States had offered to retaliate her policy, by refusing them provisions, lumber, and other articles of the first necessity, unless they were admitted to send them thither in their own vessels, as well as in those of British subjects. For, independent of the injustice and inhumanity of such a conduct in the predominant state, the prosperity of the sugar colonies must have been of more consequence to Great Britain, than the whole of the carrying trade between those islands and the United States. True it is, that it was pretended by the British ministry, and their adherents, that Nova Scotia and Canada could supply those islands, with every necessary formerly derived from the United States. But the bare admission of those articles from the United States, in any manner whatsoever, might be relied on as an unequivocal evidence that they had no confidence in the sufficiency of the resources which might be drawn from Canada or Nova Scotia; and experience is said to be strongly in favor of the opinion that those colonies cannot supply the sugar islands, either with provisions or lumber, in any degree proportionate to their necessities. The conduct of Great Britain in declining any commercial treaty with America, at that time, was unquestionably dictated at first by a knowledge of the inability of congress to extort terms of reciprocity from her; and of that want of unanimity among the states, which, under the existing confederation, was a perpetual bar to any restriction upon her commerce with the whole of the states; and any partial restriction would be sure to fail of effect.
Having repeatedly noticed the defect of the former confederation, in respect to the regulation of the commerce between the several states, and the inconveniences resulting from it, I shall only mention one not yet touched upon: I mean the burdens which might be imposed by some of the states, on others, whose exports and imports must necessarily pass through them. Thus a duty on salt imported into Virginia, or on tobacco exported from thence, might operate very extensively as a tax upon the citizens of the western parts of North Carolina and Tennessee, to the exclusive emolument of the state of Virginia. So unreasonable an advantage ought not to prevail among members of the same confederacy, and without a power to control it lodged somewhere, it would be impossible that it should not be exerted: the repetition of such exertions could scarcely fail to lay the foundation of irreconcileable jealousies, and animosities among the states. And it was evidently with a view to prevent these inconveniences, that the constitution provides that no state shall, without the consent of congress, lay any imposts, or duties on exports or imports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it’s inspection laws.171
A direct consequence of this power of regulating commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, is that of establishing ports; or such places of entry, lading, and unlading, as may be most convenient for the merchant on the one hand, and for the easy and effectual collection of the revenue from customs, on the other. In England, this is one of the branches of the royal prerogative, but is vested in the supreme federal legislature, and not in the executive, by the constitution of the United States.
Previous to the revolution the ports of Virginia were co-extensive with her tide waters. The ships anchored wherever their navigators thought proper, and discharged or took on board their cargoes, as suited their own convenience, or contributed to the saving of expense. Nothing could be more favorable to the practice of smuggling; and consequently the revenue was frequently defrauded with impunity. Nothing could be more unfavorable to the internal navigation by small vessels, although few countries possess greater advantages for it’s encouragement and promotion. The employment of a considerable number of these, would not only afford a nursery for seamen, but prove an actual mercantile saving to the state, so long as commerce should be carried on in foreign bottoms, as was at that time pretty generally the case. The legislature became sensible of the things, and in the year 1784, (May session, c. 32.) passed an act, whereby ship: and other vessels trading to this commonwealth, from foreign parts, being the property of other than citizens of the commonwealth, were obliged to lade, and unlade at certain particular ports, and no where else, within the commonwealth. The number of ports was increased, by the act of 1786. c. 42. and the restrictions as to unlading was extended to all vessels whatsoever, coming into the state; but any vessel built within the United States, and wholly owned by any citizens thereof, was permitted to take in her lading at any port or place within the state. These acts underwent some further amendments by the acts of 1787. c. 3, among which were some whole some regulations respecting river craft: but these appear to have beta considered as repealed, by the act of 1 cong. 1 sess. c. 11. sec. 22 and 23, on the subject of the coasting trade. But the constitutionality of that act may perhaps be questioned,172 so far as it relates to vessels trading wholly within the limits of any particular state. The policy of the before-mentioned acts of this state, appears to have been well founded: the effects begun to manifest themselves in the production of a greater number of river craft, than had ever been known at any former period …. But the acts of congress, for the establishment of ports, having extended the number for foreign ships to fourteen, and even permitted them to proceed as far as the tide-water flows in James’ River, Rappahannock, and Potowmac, these salutary regulations in the state laws, have undoubtedly been, in a great measure, frustrated. It seems rather extraordinary; that on a subject of this nature, no regard should have been paid to the former policy of the state legislature, especially, as that policy was evidently favorable to the collection of the revenue arising from the customs.
A distinction between the admission of foreign ships, and those of our own confederacy, into the ports of the state, obviously appears to be proper to be made on other grounds. The navigation of our rivers was found, in the time of the revolutionary war, to be infinitely too familiar to our enemies, in consequence of the privilege before-mentioned, which had so long been enjoyed by the trading ships of Great Britain. A renewal of the same policy will probably produce the same consequences, whenever the occasion will permit. But if these reasons be not sufficiently cogent for restraining foreign ships to a few ports, and those as near to the sea as might be consistent with safety; the promotion of an internal domestic navigation, as a nursery for domestic seamen, appears of itself to be an object of sufficient importance to have engaged the attention of congress to this subject.
Another consequence of the right of regulating foreign commerce, seems to be the power of compelling vessels infected with any contagious disease, or arriving from places usually infected with them, to perform their quarantine. The laws of the respective states, upon this subject, were, by some persons, supposed to have been virtually repealed by the constitution of the United States. But congress have manifested a different interpretation of the operation of that instrument, and had passed several acts for giving aid and effect to the execution of the laws of the several states respecting quarantine. The last act upon the subject, 5. cong. c. 118, enjoins it as a duty upon the collectors, and other officers of the revenue, the masters and crews of the revenue-cutters, and the commanding officers of forts or stations upon the sea-coasts, duly to observe, and aid in the execution of those laws. Upon the like principle, I presume that the act of this commonwealth concerning wrecks, (Edi. 1794. c. 6.) remains in force, until congress shall think proper to pass some law upon that subject. A contrary construction of the operation of the federal constitution in these and other similar cases, upon which congress may be authorized to legislate, but omit doing it, might be productive of infinite inconvenience and disorder.
The right of regulating foreign commerce, draws after it also, the right of regulating the conduct of seamen, employed in the merchant service; and by a continued chain, that of punishing other persons harbouring or secreting them, as well on land, as elsewhere; and the act of 1. cong. 2. sess. c. 29, accordingly makes it penal in any person to harbour or secret any seaman regularly engaged in the service of any ship.
There seems to be one class of laws which respect foreign commerce, over which the States still retain an absolute authority; those, I mean, which relate to the inspection of their own produce, for the execution of which, they may even lay an impost, or duty, as far as may be absolutely necessary for that purpose: of this necessity it seems presumable, they are to be regarded as the sole judges. [C. U. S. Art. 1. Sec. 10.] The article, indeed, is not altogether free from obscurity; but as no controversy has hitherto arisen upon the subject, it is not my intention to begin one.
But, this power of regulating commerce is qualified by some very salutary restrictions; for the constitution expressly declares, Art. 1. Sec. 9. “That no tax or duty shall be laid on articles exported from any state …. that no preference shall be given by any regulation of commerce, or revenue, to the ports of one state, over those of another; and that vessels bound to, or from, one state, shall not be obliged to enter, clear, or pay duties in another.” These restrictions are well calculated to suppress those jealousies, which must inevitably have arisen among the states, had any tax or duty been laid upon any particular article of exportation; and, at the same time, to curb any disposition towards partiality in congress, should it at any time be likely to manifest itself.
An amendment to the constitution proposed by the convention of this state, and concurred in by that of North Carolina, was, “That no commercial treaty should be ratified without the concurrence of two-thirds of the whole number of the members of the senate …. And, that no navigation law, or law regulating commerce should be passed without the consent of two-thirds of the members present in both houses.”173 It is somewhat remarkable, that the treaty of navigation and commerce concluded with Great Britain in the year 1794, notwithstanding the very general repugnance to it in almost every part of the United States, was, nevertheless, ratified precisely in the manner proposed by the first of these amendments. It appears that a proposition somewhat like the second, viz. “that no treaty should be binding upon the United States, which was not ratified by law;” had been made in the general convention at Philadelphia, and rejected.174 Nevertheless, the experience which we have had upon the subject of treaties, seems to recommend the adoption of some further precautions against the indiscreet use of this extensive power. On this subject we shall say something more hereafter.
The regulation of commerce with the Indian tribes, as distinguished from foreign nations, seems, in some degree, to be founded upon this principle, that those tribes which are not settled within the limits of any particular state, could only be regarded as tributary to the United States in their federal capacity; as to those who reside within the limits of particular states, it was thought necessary to unfetter them from two limitations in the articles of confederation which rendered the provision obscure, and perhaps contradictory. The power is there restrained to Indians not members of any of the states, and is not to violate or infringe the legislative right of any state within its own limits. What description of Indians were to be deemed members of a state; had been a question of frequent contention and perplexity in the federal councils. And how the trade with Indians, though not members of a state, yet residing within its legislative jurisdiction, could be regulated by an external authority, without so far intruding on the internal rights of legislation, seems altogether incomprehensible.175
137. C. U. S. Art. 1. Sec. 8.
138. C. U. S. Art. 1. Sec. 9.
139. Spavan’s Puffendorf, vol. II. p. 330.
140. Spavan’s Puffendorf, vol. II. p. 283.
141. Stuart’s Political Economy, vol. II. p. 485.
142. Stuart’s Political Economy, vol. II. p. 485.
143. Ibid. p. 496.
144. Stuart’s Pol. Economy, Vol. 1, p. 520. … For a variety of examples to illustrate the distinction here made, the student is referred to the same book. Art. taxes.
145. The preceeding investigation of this subject, was made about two years before congress passed the act imposing duties upon carriages for the conveyance of persons. The tax was opposed in Virginia as unconstitutional, because the sum to be raised thereby was not first apportioned among the states. A suit was brought in the federal court in Virginia; the judges were divided in opinion, and the case, by consent, was carried to the supreme federal court; it was there decided that the tax was not direct; and consequently that no apportionment was necessary. United States vs. Hylton. The editor’s reasoning upon this subject, must therefore be regarded by the student as merely hypothetical, and speculative.
146. Direct taxes have been more than once proposed in congress: but the strenuous opposition to them leaves reason to believe that a maritime war, alone, will overcome the repugnance to them. Happily for America, if this repugnance should always operate so strongly, as to make her avoid such an occasion for them.
But since the preceding was written, congress have imposed a direct tax of two million of dollars. See L. U. S. 5. Cong. c. 86, and 92. 126. 6 Cong. c. 3. See Note 33. p. 313. of the first Book of the Commentaries …. part 2.
147. Confederation, Art. 8.
148. May, 1784, c. 31.
149. See Federalist, No. 54.
150. See Federalist, No. 36.
151. Ibid. No. 35.
152. See L. U. S. 2. Cong. c. 32. 3. Cong. c. 51. 108. But since this was written the excise laws have all been repealed. 7 Cong. 1 Sess. c. 19.
153. “Though the law for laying a tax for the use of the United States would be supreme in its nature, and could not legally be opposed or controled, yet a law for abrogating or preventing the collection of a tax laid by the authority of a state, unless upon exports or imports; would not be the supreme law of the land, but an usurpation of power not granted by the constitution.” Federalist, No. 33.
The inference upon the whole is, that under the proposed constitution the individual states would retain an independent and uncontrolable authority to raise revenue to any extent, of which they may stand in need, by every kind of taxation, except duties on imports and exports.” Ibid, No. 33, vol. I. p. 205.
154. “As to the suggestion of double taxation, the answer is plain. The wants of the union are to be supplied in one way or another: if it be done by the authority of the federal government, it will not be done by that of the state governments. The quantity of taxes to be paid by the community must be the same in either case.” Ibid. No. 36. vol. I. p. 225.
155. 1 Blacks. Com. 318.
156. Ibid. 320.
158. Blacks. Com. 318, which appears however to be a mistatement. See Christian’s Edi. in a note to p. 318. 1. Blacks. Com.
159. What is said above was the result of conjecture but a report of the secretary of the treasury to the house of representatives, dated December 18, 1801, places the subject beyond the uncertainty of conjecture. “It will appear, says the secretary, from a statement annexed, that whilst the expences of collection on merchandize and tonnage, which are defrayed out of the revenue do not exceed four per cent, those on the permanent internal duties amount to almost twenty per cent. This is an inconvenience which, on account of the great number of individuals on whom the duties are raised, and of their dispersed situation throughout the whole extent of the United States, must, more or less attach to the system of internal taxation, so long as the wants of government shall not require any considerable extention, and the total amount of revenue shall remain inconsiderable.”
160. C. U. S. Art. 1. §. 10.
161. See L. U. S. 5. Cong. c. 38, and 39, with many others.
162. May 1781, c. 2. the title occurs in the chancellor’s revisal, p. 140.
163. Articles of confederation and perpetual union, Art. 13.
164. L. V. November, 1781. c. 9. Sessions Acts.
165. Ibid. October, 1783. c. 218 Ibid.
166. L. V. October, 1783. c. 5.
167. C. U. S. Art. 1, Sec. B.
168. It seems to have been upon this principle that all the internal taxes (except that arising from the post-office,) were repealed by an act of 7. Cong. 1. Session, c. 19)
169. C. U. S. Art. 1. Sec. 8.
170. C. U. S. Art. 1, Sec. 8.
171. C. U. S. Art. 1. §. 10.
172. The constitution of the United States does not authorise congress to regulate, or in any manner to interfere with, the domestic commerce of any state. Consequently, a vessel wholly employed in that domestic commerce, seems not to he subject to the control of the laws of the United States. Those laws may certainly provide for the punishment of such persons. and confiscation of such vessels, as may he detected in giving aid or assistance to any fradulent commerce, either with foreign parts, or between the states; they may also prescribe, or limit the terms and conditions, upon which vessels may he permitted to trade with foreign parts, or with other states: but they seem to have no constitutional right to control the intercourse between any two or more parts of the same state. See Amendments to C. U. S. Art. 12.
173. Amendments proposed by the convention of Virginia, Art. 7, 8.
174. Message from the President of the U. S. to the House of Representatives, March 30, 1796.
175. Federalist, No. 42.