Elliot’s Debates: Volume 2

Convention of New York

Friday, June 27, 1788.

Section 8 was again read, and

The Hon. Mr. SMITH rose. We are now come to a part of the system which requires our utmost attention and most careful investigation. It is necessary that the powers vested in government should be precisely defined, that the people may be able to know whether it moves in the circle of the Constitution. It is the more necessary in governments like the one under examination, because Congress here is to be considered as only a part of a complex system. The state governments are necessary for certain local purposes; the general government for national purposes. The latter ought to rest on the former, not only in its form, but in its operations. It is therefore of the highest importance that the line of jurisdiction should be accurately drawn; it is necessary, sir, in order to maintain harmony between the governments, and to prevent the constant interference which must either be the cause of perpetual differences, or oblige one to yield, perhaps unjustly, to the other. I conceive the system cannot operate well, unless it is so contrived as to preserve harmony. If this be not done, in every contest, the weak must submit to the strong. The clause before us is of the greatest importance: it respects the very vital principle of government. The power is the most efficient and comprehensive that can be delegated, and seems in some measure to answer for all others. I believe it will appear evident that money must be raised for the support of both governments. If, therefore, you give to one or the other a power which may, in its operation, become exclusive, it is obvious that one can exist only at the will of the other, and must ultimately be sacrificed. The power of the general government extends to the raising of money, in all possible ways, except by duties on exports; to the laying taxes on imports, lands, buildings, and even on persons. The individual states, in time, will be allowed to raise no money at all: the United States will have a right to raise money from every quarter. The general government has, moreover, this advantage—all disputes relative to jurisdiction must be decided in a federal court.

It is a general maxim, that all governments find a use for as much money as they can raise. Indeed, they have commonly demands for more. Hence it is that all, as far as we are acquainted, are in debt. I take this to be a settled truth, that they will all spend as much as their revenue; that is, will live at least up to their income. Congress will ever exercise their powers to levy as much money as the people can pay. They will not be restrained from direct taxes by the consideration that necessity does not require them. If they forbear, it will be because the people cannot answer their demands. There will be no possibility of preventing the clashing of jurisdictions, unless some system of accommodation is formed. Suppose taxes are laid by both governments on the same article. It seems to me impossible that they can operate with harmony. I have no more conception, that, in taxation, two powers can act together, than that two bodies can occupy the same place. They will therefore not only interfere, but they will be hostile to each other. Here are to be two lists of all kinds of officers—supervisors, assessors, constables, &c., employed in this business. It is unnecessary that I should enter into a minute detail, to prove that these complex powers cannot operate peaceably together, and without one being overpowered by the other. On one day, the continental collector calls for the tax; he seizes a horse: the next, the state collector comes, procures a replevin, and retakes the horse, to satisfy the state tax. I just mention this to show that the people will not submit to such a government, and that finally it must defeat itself.

It must appear evident that there will be a constant jarring of claims and interests. Now, will the states, in this contest, stand any chance of success? If they will, there is less necessity for our amendment. But consider the superior advantages of the general government. Consider their extensive, exclusive revenues, the vast sums of money they can command, and the means they thereby possess of supporting a powerful standing force. The states, on the contrary, will not have the command of a shilling or a soldier. The two governments will be like two men contending for a certain property. The one has no interest but that which is the subject of the controversy, while the other has money enough to carry on the lawsuit for twenty years. By this clause unlimited powers in taxation are given. Another clause declares that Congress shall have power to make all laws necessary to carry the Constitution into effect. Nothing, therefore, is left to construction; but the powers are most express. How far the state legislatures will be able to command a revenue, every man, on viewing the subject, can determine. If he contemplates the ordinary operation of causes, he will be convinced that the powers of the confederacy will swallow up those of the members. I do not suppose that this effect will be brought about suddenly. As long as the people feel universally and strongly attached to the state governments, Congress will not be able to accomplish it. If they act prudently, their powers will operate and be increased by degrees. The tendency of taxation, though it be moderate, is to lessen the attachment of the citizens. If it becomes oppressive, it will certainly destroy their confidence. While the general taxes are sufficiently heavy, every attempt of the states to enhance them will be considered as a tyrannical act and the people will lose their respect and affection for a government which cannot support itself without the most grievous impositions upon them. If the Constitution is accepted as it stands, I am convinced that in seven years as much will be said against the state governments as is now said in favor of the proposed system.

Sir, I contemplate the abolition of the state constitutions as an event fatal to the liberties of America. These liberties will not be violently wrested from the people; they will be undermined and gradually consumed. On subjects of the kind we cannot be too critical The investigation is difficult, because we have no examples to serve as guides. The world has never seen such a government over such a country. If we consult authorities in this matter, they will declare the impracticability of governing a free people on such an extensive plan. In a country where a portion of the people live more than twelve hundred miles from the centre, I think that one body cannot possibly legislate for the whole. Can the legislature frame a system of taxation that will operate with uniform advantages? Can they carry any system into execution? Will it not give occasion for an innumerable swarm of officers, to infest our country and consume our substance? People will be subject to impositions which they cannot support, and of which their complaints can never reach the government.

Another idea is in my mind, which I think conclusive against a simple government for the United States. It is not possible to collect a set of representatives who are acquainted with all parts of the continent. Can you find men in Georgia who are acquainted with the situation of New Hampshire, who know what taxes will best suit the inhabitants, and how much they are able to bear? Can the best men make laws for the people of whom they are entirely ignorant? Sir, we have no reason to hold our state governments in contempt, or to suppose them incapable of acting wisely. I believe they have operated more beneficially than most people expected, who considered that those governments were erected in a time of war and confusion, when they were very liable to errors in their structure. It will be a matter of astonishment to all unprejudiced men hereafter, who shall reflect upon our situation, to observe to what a great degree good government has prevailed. It is true some bad laws have been passed in most of the states; but they arose from the difficulty of the times rather than from any want of honesty or wisdom. Perhaps there never was a government which, in the course of ten years, did not do something to be repented of. As for Rhode Island, I do not mean to justify her; she deserves to be condemned. If there were in the world but one example of political depravity, it would be hers; and no nation ever merited, or suffered, a more genuine infamy than a wicked administration has attached to her character. Massachusetts also has been guilty of errors, and has lately been distracted by an internal convulsion. Great Britain, notwithstanding her boasted constitution, has been a perpetual scene of revolutions and civil war. Her Parliaments have been abolished; her kings have been banished and murdered. I assert that the majority of the governments in the Union have operated better than any body had reason to expect, and that nothing but experience and habit is wanting to give the state laws all the stability and wisdom necessary to make them respectable, if these things be true, I think we ought not to exchange our condition, with a hazard of losing our state constitutions. We all agree that a general government is necessary; but it ought not to go so far as to destroy the authority of the members. We shall be unwise to make a new experiment, in so important a matter, without some known and sure grounds to go upon. The state constitutions should be the guardians of our domestic rights and interests, and should be both the support and the check of the federal government.

The want of the means of raising a general revenue has been the principal cause of our difficulties. I believe no man will doubt that, if our present Congress had money enough, there would be but few complaints of their weakness. Requisitions have perhaps been too much condemned. What has been their actual operation? Let us attend to experience, and see if they are such poor, unproductive things as is commonly supposed. If I calculate right, the requisitions for the ten years past have amounted to thirty-six millions of dollars; of which twenty-four millions, or two thirds, have been actually paid. Does not this fact warrant a conclusion that some reliance is to be placed on this mode? Besides, will any gentleman say that the states have generally been able to collect more than two thirds of their taxes from the people? The delinquency of some states, has arisen from the fluctuations of paper money, &c. Indeed, it is my decided opinion, that no government, in the difficult circumstances which we have passed through, will be able to realize more than two thirds of the taxes it imposes. I might suggest two other considerations which have weight with me. There has probably been more money called for than was actually wanted, on the expectation of delinquencies; and it is equally probable that, in a short course of time, the increasing ability of the Country will render requisitions a much more efficient mode of raising a revenue. The war left the people under very great burdens, and oppressed with both public and private debts. They are now fast emerging from their difficulties. Many individuals, without doubt, still feel great inconveniences; but they will find a gradual remedy.

Sir, has any country which has suffered distresses like ours exhibited, within a few years, more striking marks of improvement and prosperity? How its population has grown! How its agriculture, commerce, and manufactures have been extended and improved! How many forests have been cut down! How many wastes have been cleared and cultivated! How many additions have been made to the extent and beauty of our towns and cities! I think our advancement has been rapid. In a few years, it is to be hoped that we shall be relieved from our embarrassments, and, unless new calamities come upon us, shall be flourishing and happy. Some difficulties will ever occur in the collection taxes by any mode whatever. Some states will pay more, some less. If New York lays a tax, will not one county or district furnish more, another less, than its proportion? The same will happen to the United States as happens in New York, and in every other country. Let them impose a duty equal and uniform, those districts where there is plenty of money will pay punctually. Those in which money is scarce will be in some measure delinquent. The idea that Congress ought to have unlimited powers is entirely novel. I never heard it till the meeting of this Convention. The general government once called on the states to invest them with the command of funds adequate to the exigencies of the Union; but they did not ask to command all the resources of the states. They did not wish to have a control over all the property of the people. If we now give them this control, we may as well give up the state governments with it. I have no notion of setting the two powers at variance; nor would I give a farthing for a government which could not command a farthing. On the whole, it appears to me probable, that, unless some certain specific source of revenue is reserved to the states, their governments, with their independency, will be totally annihilated.

Mr. WILLIAMS. Yesterday I had the honor of laying before the committee objections to the clause under consideration, which I flatter myself were forcible. They were, however, treated by the gentlemen on the other side as general observations, and unimportant in their nature. It is not necessary, nor indeed would it consist with delicacy, to give my opinion as to what cause their silence is imputable. Let them now step forward, and refute the objections which have been stated by an honorable gentleman from Duchess, who spoke last, and those which I expect will be alleged by gentlemen more capable than myself—by gentlemen who are able to advance arguments which require the exertion of their own great abilities to overcome. In the meantime, I request the indulgence of the committee, while I make a few recapitulatory and supplementary remarks.

Sir, I yesterday expressed my fears that this clause would tend to annihilate the state governments. I also observed, that the powers granted by it were indefinite, since the Congress are authorized to provide for the common defence and general welfare, and to pass all laws necessary for the attainment of those important objects. The legislature is the highest power in a government. Whatever they judge necessary for the proper administration of the powers lodged in them, they may execute without any check or impediment. Now, if the Congress should judge it a proper provision, for the common defence and general welfare, that the state governments should be essentially destroyed, what, in the name of common sense, will prevent them? Are they not constitutionally authorized to pass such laws? Are not the terms, common defence and general welfare, indefinite, undefinable terms? What checks have the state governments against such encroachments? Why, they appoint the senators once in six years. So do the electors of Germany appoint their emperor. And what restraint have they against tyranny in their head? Do they rely on any thing but arms, the ultima ratio? And to this most undesirable point must the states recur, in order to secure their rights. But have they the means necessary for the purpose? Are they not deprived of the command of the purse and the sword of their citizens? Is not the power, both over taxation and the militia, wrested from their hands by this Constitution, and bestowed upon the general government? Yes, sir, it is. But it may be said (I expect to be answered) that the states have concurrent jurisdiction with Congress, as to taxation. I answer, that the Constitution does not say so: it is a mere opinion, a mere construction, a thins of too much uncertainty to risk the rights of the states upon, which I have he heard, with peculiar pleasure, an honorable gentleman from New York acknowledge to be of great utility to the people. The Constitution grants the power of taxation to Congress, but is silent with regard to the power in the states. If it is inferred from this that it is not taken away from the states, we may, sir, with equal justice, deduce, from the positive establishment of the trial by jury in criminal cases, that it is annihilated in civil. Ingenious men may assign ingenious reasons for opposite constructions of the same clause. They may heap refinement upon refinement, and subtilty upon subtilty, until they construe away every republican principle, every right sacred and dear to man. I am, sir, for certainty in the establishment of a constitution which is not only to operate upon us, but upon millions yet unborn. I would wish that little or no latitude might be left to the sophistical constructions of men who may be interested in betraying the rights of the people, and elevating themselves upon the ruins of liberty. Sir, it is an object of infinitely too much importance to be committed to the sport of caprice, and the construction of interested men. If we adopt this Constitution, it is impossible, absolutely impossible, to know what we give up, and what we retain. I wish that this may, as far forth as possible, be ascertained; and, for this purpose, it is absolutely necessary that this clause should be amended.

Suppose, however, that the states have concurrent jurisdiction with Congress in taxation; it is evident, as the laws of Congress are the supreme laws of the land, that their taxes, whenever they interfere with the taxes laid by the states, must and will claim a priority as to the collection; in fact, that they may, in order to pass the laws necessary for the end, abolish the state taxes; and that they may constitutionally monopolize every source of revenue, and thus indirectly overturn the state governments; for how can the latter exist without revenue? How can they exist, I say, when they cannot raise one sixpence for their support, without the sovereign will and pleasure of Congress? Let us suppose, however, that both governments have and exercise the right of taxation; will there not be a struggle between them continually? Will there not be jealousies, contentions, and animosities? Every man that knows human nature will answer in the affirmative. Is this, then, a desirable thing? Will it promote the public good, the great end of all government? Sir, the questions admit of easy answers. This must evidently be the result of two taxing powers—either that the people are doubly taxed, or that the state governments are destroyed. Both will be pernicious. There must necessarily be a double set of revenue officers if the first happens, which will be an enormous expense. I know, sir, that these ideas will be considered by some as bugbears; but, sir, if we reason from the practice of all governments, we must acknowledge at least the probability of the thing. In England, for instance, the people are not only oppressed with a variety of other heavy taxes, but, if my information is right, absolutely pay taxes for births, marriages, and deaths, for the light of heaven, and even for paying their debts. What reason have we to suppose that our rulers will be more sympathetic, and heap lighter burdens upon their constituents than the rulers of other countries? If crossing the Atlantic can make men virtuous and just, I acknowledge that they will be forever good and excellent rulers; but otherwise, I must consider them as I do the magistrates of all other countries. Sir, a capitation is an oppressive species of tax. This may be laid by the general government. Where an equality in property exists, it is a just and good tax; it is a tax easy to assess, and on this account eligible; but, where a great disparity of fortune exists, as in this state, I insist upon it, that it is a most unjust, unequal, and ruinous tax. It is heaping all the support of the government upon the poor; it is making them beasts of burden to the rich; and it is probable it will be laid, if not stifled in the womb; because I think it almost morally certain that this new government will be administered by the wealthy. Will they not be interested in the establishment of a tax that will cause them to pay no more, for the defraying the public expenditures, than the poorest man in America?

The great Montesquieu says, that a poll tax upon the person is indicative of despotism, and that a tax upon property is congenial with the spirit of a free government. These, sir, are a few of the many reasons that render the clause defective, in my mind. I might here mention the dangers to freedom from an excise; but I forbear. I ought not to engross the attention of the committee, when it can be more usefully improved by gentlemen of more abilities than myself—gentlemen who, I trust, will paint in the clearest colors the impropriety and danger of this, as well as they have done of the other paragraphs. Sir, as I remarked before, if this power is given to the general government, without some such amendment as I proposed, it will annihilate all the powers of the state governments. There cannot be a greater solecism in politics than to talk of power in government without the command of any revenue: it is as absurd as to talk of an animal without blood, or of subsistence without food.

Mr. Chancellor LIVINGSTON. Mr. Chairman, I shall readily agree with the honorable member from Duchess, that no government can exist without revenues; that we ought to avoid a consolidation of the states; and that the extent of our country will not admit of a representation upon principles in any great degree democratic. These concessions are entirely indifferent to the point of dispute. But, sir, we will examine the amendment particularly, and adduce only such principles as immediately apply to it.

The first proposition in the amendment is, that no excise shall be laid on the manufactures of the United States; the second, that a requisition shall precede the imposition of a direct tax. The object of the first is to prevent our infant manufactures from being overburdened. Sir, if the manufactures of this country were always to be in a state of infancy, if the amendment were only a temporary expedient, the provision might consist with good policy; but, at a future day, an enlarged population will render us a manufacturing people. The imposts will then necessarily lessen, and the public wants will call for new sources of revenue. These sources will be multiplied with the increase of our wealth; and necessity, as well as policy, will induce us to improve them. We may naturally suppose that wines, brandy, spirits, malt liquors, &c., will be among the first subjects of excise. These are proper objects of taxation, not only as they will be very productive, but as charges on them will be favorable to the morals of the citizens. It should be considered that the burdens of government will be supported by the United States. They are to pay the interest of loans; they are to maintain the army and navy, and the most expensive civil establishment. If the individual states had any concern in these capital expenses, it would be proper that they should command the means of defraying them. But if you impose upon the Union all the burdens, and take from them a principal resource, what will they do when the imposts diminish, and the expenses of government increase? Why, they must have recourse to direct taxes; that is, taxes on land, and specific duties. Will this be a mode of raising money the most agreeable and satisfactory to the people? The gentlemen seem to calculate only from present appearances: they would insert in the Constitution a clause which in time may deprive the United States of a fruitful and indispensable branch of revenue. I presume, sir, that, on deliberate reflection, they will see the impropriety of this part of the amendment.

The second part is of the greatest importance; its object is to prevent Congress from laying direct taxes in any of the states till they have previously made requisitions. Let us examine whether this measure will be compatible with sound policy: let us reason from experience. We have seen something of requisitions—enough, one would suppose, to make us exceedingly suspicious of them. We all know how they have hitherto operated. There are no arguments so forcible as those drawn from facts within our own knowledge. We may form as many conjectures and hypotheses as we please, but shall ever recur at last to experience as a sure guide. The gentlemen will, without doubt, allow that the United States will be subject to the same kind of expenses, and will have the same demand for money, as other nations. There are no governments that have not been obliged to levy direct taxes, and even procure loans, to answer the public wants; there are no governments which have not, in certain emergencies, been compelled to call for all the capital resources of the country. This may be the situation of the United States: we hope not in our day; but we must not presume it will never happen. Indeed, the motion itself is made upon the contemplation of this event. We conclude, therefore, that the gentleman who brought it forward is convinced that the necessities of government will call for more money than external and indirect taxation can produce. Our business, then, is to consider the mode recommended by the gentleman, and see whether it can possibly furnish supplies adequate to the exigencies of government. He says, Let requisitions precede coercion. Sir, what are these requisitions? What are these pompous petitions for public charity, which have made so much noise, and brought so little cash into the treasury? Have we not sported with the bubble long enough to discover its emptiness? What have requisitions done? Have they paid off our foreign and domestic debts? Have they supported our civil and small military establishments? The gentleman declares that a great sum has been paid; he includes the bounties given to the soldiers. Were not these obtained by coercion on individuals? Let him deduct these bounties, and he will find the amount actually paid to be extremely small. We know that the states which have paid most have not fully complied with the requisitions: some have contributed little, and some nothing. The gentleman also says, that delinquencies have been occasioned by the distresses of the war. Facts Drove the contrary. New Hampshire has hardly felt the calamities of the war, and yet that state has paid little or nothing to the treasury. These circumstances show that the motives for compliance, which, during the contest, were as strong as they could be in any possible situation, have never been sufficient to produce any considerable exertions. Necessity of circumstances, which operates with almost a physical energy, alone procured any tolerable supplies. Thus the state of New York, which was continually the seat of war, was more punctual than the other states. The neighboring states afforded something, apparently in proportion to their sense of danger. When the enemy appeared in any state, we find them making efforts, and wearing at once a very federal complexion. If we look at the accounts of South Carolina, we shall find that they are credited for supplies furnished in their own state, and furnished only while the enemy were in the midst of them.

I imagine, sir, that indirect taxes will be generally sufficient in time of peace. But a constitution should be calculated for all circumstances—for the most critical and dangerous conjunctures. Let us suppose a sudden emergency, in which the ordinary resources are entirely inadequate to the public wants, and see what difficulties present themselves on the gentleman’s plan. First, a requisition is to go out to all the states. It is by no means probable that half their legislatures will be in session; perhaps none of them. In the next place, they must be convened solely to consider the requisition. When assembled, some may agree to it; some may totally refuse; others may be dilatory, and contrive plausible excuses for delay. This is an exact picture of the proceedings on this subject which have taken place for a number of years. While these complicated and lingering operations are going on, the crisis may be passed, and the Union may be thrown into embarrassments, or involved in ruin. But immediately on refusal, the amendment proposes compulsion. This supposes that a complete establishment of executive officers must be constantly maintained, and that they will have firmness enough to oppose and set aside the law of the state. Can it be imagined, by any rational man, that the legislature of a state, which has solemnly declared that it will not grant a requisition, will suffer a tax for the same to be immediately levied on its citizens? We are then brought to this dilemma—either the collectors could not be so hardy as to disregard the laws of the states, or an internal war will take place. But, on either of these events, what becomes of the requisition and the tax? Sir, is there a people finder heaven, who, countenanced and imboldened by the voice of their state legislatures, will ever pay a farthing of such a tax? They will resist it as they would a foreign tribute, or the invasion of an enemy. Under such circumstances, will Congress be able to borrow? We all know what has been the difficulty of procuring loans: we are sensible that foreign loans could not have been procured at all, had not the lenders been greatly interested in the success of the revolution, Besides, they undoubtedly expected such a change in our government as would enable the United States to provide efficient funds. Now, we are forming a constitution for ages, which will forever preclude the establishment of any certain funds. What hopes have we of borrowing, unless we have something to pledge for payment? And the avails of direct taxes are the only positive fund which can be pledged. I presume the impost and excise will not be more than sufficient to fund the debts we now owe. If future wars should lead us into extraordinary expenses, it will be necessary not only to lay direct taxes, but to procure new loans, to support those expenses.

Sir, if these reflections should have little weight with other states, they ought certainly to influence us, as we are a navigating state, and, from our local situation, shall be the first to suffer. This state will probably be the theatre of war. Gentlemen should remember that for a time we were compelled to bear almost the whole weight of the last war. If we form this Constitution so as to take away from the Union the means of protecting us, we must, in a future war, either be ruined by the enemy, or mined by our exertions to protect ourselves, If the gentlemen acknowledge the necessities I have described may exist, they should be willing to give Congress the fullest power to provide for them.

But the point on which gentlemen appear to dwell with most attention and concern, is the jurisdiction of the united and individual states, in taxation. They say a concurrent jurisdiction cannot exist, and that the two powers will clash, and one or the other must be overpowered. Their arguments are considerably plausible; but if we investigate this matter properly, we shall see that the dangers they apprehend are merely ideal. Their fears originate in a supposed corruption of Congress; for, if the state governments are valuable and necessary to the system, it cannot be imagined that the representatives of the people, while they have a single principle of honesty, will consent to abolish them. If I proceeded here to prove the improbability of corruption, I should only repeat arguments which the committee have already heard most clearly and copiously detailed. The fact is, that, in our present state of society, and under the operation of this Constitution, interest and integrity will be connected by the closest ties. Interest will form a check which nothing can overcome. On interest, sir, we rest our principal hopes of safety. Your state government has the unlimited power over the purse and the sword: why do you not fear that your rulers will raise armies, to oppress and enslave the citizens? Clearly, because you feel a confidence in the men you elect; and that confidence is founded on the conviction you have that tyranny is totally inconsistent with their interest. You will give up to your state legislatures every thing dear and valuable; but you will give no power to Congress, because it may be abused; you will give them no revenue, because the public treasures may be squandered. But do you not see here a capital check? Congress are to publish, from time to time, an account of their receipts and expenditures. These may be compared together; and if the former, year after year, exceed the latter, the corruption will be detected, and the people may use the constitutional mode of redress. The gentleman admits that corruption will not take place immediately: its operations can only be conducted by a long series and a steady system of measures. These measures will be easily defeated, even if the people are unapprised of them. They will be defeated by that continual change of members, which naturally takes place in free governments, arising from the disaffection and inconstancy of the people. A changeable assembly will be entirely incapable of conducting a system of mischief; they will meet with obstacles and embarrassments on every side.

It is observed that, if the general government is disposed, they can levy taxes exclusively. But, sir, they have not an exclusive right, except in a few specific cases. Their right is only concurrent. Let us see if the taxes will be exclusive in their operation. Whatever the gentleman may conjecture, I think it hardly possible that, when a state has laid a large duty upon a particular article, the Congress will be so unwise as to impose another upon the same, unless in extraordinary emergencies. There are certain capital subjects of taxation, which both the general and state governments must improve. But it is remarked that two taxes cannot operate together without confusion. Sir, experience has proved the contrary. We have state taxes, county taxes, and corporation taxes. How do these operate together? It is true that in some places they are collected by the same man; and probably also the federal and state taxes will be. But this is not material. It is the taxes, not the collectors, that are to contend; and if the taxes are incompatible with each other, a single collector, acting in different capacities, must go through the same ceremony of seizure, replevin, &c., which the gentleman has so humorously described. If the state collector gets the horse first, I suppose he will have the first satisfaction; and so the federal collector. Of what importance is it, whether a man pays forty shillings to one, or twenty shillings each, to two officers? I have never learned that there has been any clashing or confusion in the collection of our taxes. It is to be supposed that we have resources sufficient for the support of both the general and state governments: if this be not true, we may as well discard the system altogether, and either dissolve our Union, or form a simple consolidated government. But we presume, very justly, that the system will find ample resources for its support, as it stands. If this be acknowledged, I see no difficulty in the matter. The people have so much to pay; if they can afford this, if it be ready for the proper officers, what should occasion a quarrel between them? As for the gentleman’s principle, that every government can raise more money than it can use, I confess I do not understand it.

It appears to me that the people cannot be very anxious about the particular channel through which their money flows into the federal treasury, They have such and such taxes to pay: can it be a matter of concern to them whether they are levied by a law of their state, or by a law of Congress? If they have any preference, one would suppose it would be for the latter mode; for that will be the least expensive.

In this argument, sir, I have endeavored to confine myself to the true point of dispute, and have taken notice of those observations only which appeared to me to be applicable. I beg the committee to keep in mind, as an important idea, that the accounts of the general government are, “from time to time,” to be submitted to the public inspection.

Hon. Mr. SMITH remarked, that “from time to time.” might mean from century to century, or any period of twenty or thirty years.

The CHANCELLOR asked if the public were anxious about any thing under heaven than the expenditure of money. Will not the representatives, said he, consider it as essential to their popularity, to gratify their constituents with full and frequent statements of the public accounts? There can be no doubt of it.

The Hon. Mr. HAMILTON. This is one of those subjects, Mr. Chairman, on which objections very naturally arise, and assume the most plausible shape. Its address is to the passions, and its first impressions create a prejudice, before cool examination has an opportunity for exertion. It is more easy for the human mind to calculate the evils than the advantages of a measure; and vastly more natural to apprehend the danger than to see the necessity of giving powers to our rulers. Hence I may justly expect that those who hear me will place less confidence in those arguments which oppose, than in those which favor, their prepossessions.

After all our doubts, our suspicions, and speculations, on the subject of government, we must return at last to this important truth—that, when we have formed a constitution upon free principles, when we have given a proper balance to the different branches of administration, and fixed representation upon pure and equal principles, we may, with safety, furnish it with all the powers necessary to answer, in the most ample manner, the purposes of government. The great desiderata are, free representation and mutual checks. When these are obtained, all our apprehensions of the extent of power are unjust and imaginary. What, then, is the structure of this Constitution? One branch of the legislature is to be elected by the people—by the same people who choose your state representatives. Its members are to hold their offices two years, and then return to their constituents. Here, sir, the people govern; here they act by their immediate representatives. You have also a Senate, constituted by your state legislatures, by men in whom you place the highest confidence, and forming another representative branch. Then, again, you have an executive magistrate, created by a form of election which merits universal admiration. In the form of this government, and in the mode of legislation, you find all the checks which the greatest politicians and the best writers have ever conceived. What more can reasonable men desire? Is there any one branch in which the whole legislative and executive powers are lodged? No. The legislative authority is lodged in three distinct branches, properly balanced; the executive is divided between two branches; and the judicial is still reserved for an independent body, who hold their office during good behavior. This organization is so complex, so skillfully contrived, that it is next to impossible that an impolitic or wicked measure should pass the scrutiny with success. Now, what do gentlemen mean by coming forward and declaiming against this government? Why do they say we ought to limit its power, to disable it, and to destroy its capacity of blessing the people? Has philosophy suggested, has experience taught, that such a government ought not to be trusted with every thing necessary for the good of society? Sir, when you have divided and nicely balanced the departments of government; when you have strongly connected the virtue of your rulers with their interest; when, in short, you have rendered your system as perfect as human forms can be,—you must place confidence; you must give power.

We have heard a great deal of the sword and the purse. It is said our liberties are in danger, if both are possessed by Congress. Let us see what is the true meaning of this maxim, which has been so much used, and so little understood. It is, that you shall not place these powers either in the legislative or executive, singly; neither one nor the other shall have both, because this would destroy that division of powers on which political liberty is founded, and would furnish one body with all the means of tyranny. But where the purse is lodged in one branch, and the sword in another, there can be no danger. All governments have possessed these powers: they would be monsters without them, and incapable of exertion. What is your state government? Does not your legislature command what money it pleases? Does not your executive execute the laws without restraint? These distinctions between the purse and the sword have no application to the system, but only to its separate branches. Sir, when we reason about the great interests of a free people, it is high time that we dismiss our prejudices, and banish declamation. In order to induce us to consider the powers given by this Constitution as dangerous, in order to render plausible an attempt to take away the life and spirit of the most important power in government, the gentleman complains that we shall not have a true and safe representation. I asked him what a safe representation was; and he has given no satisfactory answer. The Assembly of New York has been mentioned as a proper standard; but if we apply this standard to the general government, our Congress will become a mere mob, exposed to every irregular impulse, and subject to every breeze of faction. Can such a system afford security? Can you have confidence in such a body? The idea of taking the ratio of representation, in a small society, for the ratio of a great one, is a fallacy which ought to be exposed. It is impossible to ascertain to what point our representation will increase; it may vary from one, to two, three, or four hundred: it depends upon the progress of population. Suppose it to rest at two hundred; is not this number sufficient to secure it against corruption? Human nature must be a much more weak and despicable thing than I apprehend it to be, if two hundred of our fellow-citizens can be corrupted in two years. But suppose they are corrupted; can they, in two years, accomplish their designs? Can they form a combination, and even lay a foundation for a system of tyranny, in so short a period. It is far from my intention to wound the feelings of any gentleman; but I must, in this most interesting discussion, speak of things as they are, and hold up opinions in the light in which they ought to appear; and I maintain that all that has been said of corruption, of the purse and the sword, and of the danger of giving powers, is not supported by principles or fact; that it is mere verbiage and idle declamation. The true principle of government is this—make the system complete in its structure, give a perfect proportion and balance to its parts, and the powers you give it will never affect your security. The question, then, of the division of powers between the general and state governments, is a question of convenience: it becomes a prudential inquiry, what powers are proper to be reserved to the latter; and this immediately involves another inquiry into the proper objects of the two governments. This is the criterion by which we shall determine the just distribution of powers.

The great leading objects of the federal government, in which revenue is concerned, are to maintain domestic peace, and provide for the common defence. In these are comprehended the regulation of commerce,—that is, the whole system of foreign intercourse,—the support of armies and navies, and of the civil administration. It is useless to go into detail. Every one knows that the objects of the general government are numerous, extensive, and important. Every one must acknowledge the necessity of giving powers, in all respects, and in every degree, equal to these objects. This principle assented to, let us inquire what are the objects of the state governments. Have they to provide against foreign invasion? Have they to maintain fleets and armies? Have they any concern in the regulation of commerce, the procuring alliances, or forming treaties of peace? No. Their objects are merely civil and domestic—to support the legislative establishment, and to provide for the administration of the laws.

Let any one compare the expense of supporting the civil list in a state with the expense of providing for the defense of the Union. The difference is almost beyond calculation. The experience of Great Britain will throw some light on this subject. In that kingdom, the ordinary expenses of peace to those of war are as one to fourteen. But there they have a monarch, with his splendid court, and an enormous civil establishment, with which we have nothing in this country to compare. If, in Great Britain, the expenses of war and peace are so disproportioned, how wide will be their disparity in the United States! How infinitely wider between the general government and each individual state! Now, sir, where ought the great resources to be lodged? Every rational man will give an immediate answer. To what extent shall these resources be possessed? Reason says, As far as possible exigencies can require; that is, without limitation. A constitution cannot set bounds to a nation’s wants; it ought not, therefore, to set bounds to its resources. Unexpected invasions, long and ruinous wars, may demand all the possible abilities of the country. Shall not your government have power to call these abilities into action? The contingencies of society are not reducible to calculations. They cannot be fixed or bounded, even in imagination. Will you limit the means of your defence, when you cannot ascertain the force or extent of the invasion? Even in ordinary wars, a government is frequently obliged to call for supplies, to the temporary oppression of the people.

Sir, if we adopt the idea of exclusive revenues, we shall he obliged to fix some distinguished line, which neither government shall overpass. The inconvenience of this measure must appear evident on the slightest examination. The resources appropriated to one may diminish or fail, while those of the other may increase beyond the wants of government. One may be destitute of revenues, while the other shall possess an unnecessary abundance; and the Constitution will be an eternal barrier to a mutual intercourse and relief. In this case, will the individual state stand on so good a ground as if the objects of taxation were left free and open to the embrace of both the governments? Possibly, in the advancement of commerce, the imposts may increase to such a degree as to render direct taxes unnecessary. These resources, then, as the Constitution stands, may be occasionally relinquished to the states; but on the gentleman’s idea of prescribing exclusive limits, and precluding all reciprocal communication, this would be entirely improper. The laws of the states must not touch the appropriated resources of the United States, whatever may be their wants. Would it not be of much more advantage to the states to have a concurrent jurisdiction, extending to all the sources of revenue, than to be confined to such a small resource, as, on calculation of the objects of the two governments, should appear to be their due proportion? Certainly you cannot hesitate on this question. The gentleman’s plan would have a further ill effect; it would tend to dissolve the connection and correspondence of the two governments, to estrange them from each other, and to destroy that mutual dependence which forms the essence of union.

Sir, a number of arguments have been advanced by an honorable member from New York, which to every unclouded mind must carry conviction. He has stated that, in certain emergencies, it may be necessary to borrow; and that it is impossible to borrow, unless you have funds to pledge for the payment of your debts. Limiting the powers of government to certain resources is rendering the fund precarious; and obliging the government to ask, instead of empowering them to command, is to destroy all confidence and credit. If the power of taxing is restricted, the consequence is, that, on the breaking out of a war, you must divert the funds, appropriated to the payment of debts, to answer immediate exigencies. Thus you violate your engagements, at the very time you increase the burden of them. Besides, sound policy condemns the practice of accumulating debts. A government, to act with energy, should have the possession of all its revenues to answer present purposes. The principle for which I contend is recognized in all its extent by our old constitution. Congress is authorized to raise troops, to call for supplies without limitation, and to borrow money to any amount. It is true they must use the form of recommendations and requisitions; but the states are bound by the solemn ties of honor, of justice, of religion, to comply without reserve.

Mr. Chairman, it has been advanced as a principle, that no government but a despotism can exist in a very extensive country. This is a melancholy consideration indeed. If it were founded on truth, we ought to dismiss the idea of a republican government, even for the state of New York. This idea has been taken from a celebrated writer, who, by being misunderstood, has been the occasion of frequent fallacies in our reasoning on political subjects. But the position has been misapprehended; and its application is entirely false and unwarrantable: it relates only to democracies, where the whole body of the people meet to transact business, and where representation is unknown. Such were a number of ancient and some modern independent cities. Men who read without attention have taken these maxims respecting the extent of country, and, contrary to their meaning, have applied them to republics in general. This application is wrong in respect to all representative governments, but especially in relation to a confederacy of states, in which the supreme legislature has only general powers, and the civil and domestic concerns of the people are regulated by the laws of the several states. This distinction being kept in view, all the difficulty will vanish, and we may easily conceive that the people of a large country may be represented as truly as those of a small one. An assembly constituted for general purposes may be fully competent to every federal regulation, without being too numerous for deliberate conduct. If the state governments were to be abolished, the question would wear a different face; but this idea is inadmissible. They are absolutely necessary to the system. Their existence must form a leading principle in the most perfect constitution we could form.

I insist that it never can be the interest or desire of the national legislature to destroy the state governments. It can derive no advantage from such an event; but, on the contrary, would lose an indispensable support, a necessary aid in executing the laws, and conveying the influence of government to the doors of the people. The Union is dependent on the will of the state governments for its chief magistrate, and for its Senate. The blow aimed at the members must give a fatal wound to the head; and the destruction of the states must be at once a political suicide. Can the national government be guilty of this madness? What inducements, what temptations, can they have? Will they attach new honors to their station? Will they increase the national strength? Will they multiply the national resources? Will they make themselves more respectable in the view of foreign nations, or of their fellow-citizens, by robbing the states of their constitutional privileges? But imagine, for a moment, that a political frenzy should seize the government; suppose they should make the attempt. Certainly, sir, it would be forever impracticable. This has been sufficiently demonstrated by reason and experience. It has been proved that the members of republics have been, and ever will be, stronger than the head. Let us attend to one general historical example: in the ancient feudal governments of Europe, there were, in the first place, a monarch; subordinate to him, a body of nobles; and subject to these, the vassals, or the whole body of the people. The authority of the kings was limited, and that of the barons considerably independent. A great part of the early wars in Europe were contests between the king and his nobility. In these contests, the latter possessed many advantages derived from their influence, and the immediate command they had over the people; and they generally prevailed. The history of the feudal wars exhibits little more than a series of successful encroachments on the prerogatives of monarchy. Here, sir, is one great proof of the superiority which the members in limited governments possess over their head. As long as the barons enjoyed the confidence and attachment of the people, they had the strength of the country on their side, and were irresistible. I may be told that, in some instances, the barons were overcome; but how did this happen? Sir, they took advantage of the depression of the royal authority, and the establishment of their own power, to oppress and tyrannize over the vassals. As commerce enlarged, and as wealth and civilization increased, the people began to feet their own weight and consequence: they grew tired, of their oppressions, united their strength with that of the prince, and threw off the yoke of aristocracy. These very instances prove what I contend for. They prove that in whatever direction the popular weight leans, the current of power will flow; wherever the popular attachments lie, there will rest the political superiority. Sir, can it be supposed that the state will become the oppressors of the people? Will they forfeit their affections? Will they combine to destroy the liberties and happiness of their fellow-citizens, for the sole purpose of involving themselves in ruin? God forbid! The idea, sir, is shocking. It outrages every feeling of humanity, and every dictate of common sense.

There are certain social principles in human nature, from which we may draw the most solid conclusion with respect to the conduct of individuals and of communities. We love our families more than our neighbors; we love our neighbors more than our countrymen in general. The human affections, like the solar heat, lose their intensity as they depart from the centre, and become languid in proportion to the expansion of the circle in which they act. On these principles, the attachment of the individual will be first and forever secured by the state governments: they will be a mutual protection and support. Another source of influence, which has already been pointed out, is the various official connections in the states. Gentlemen endeavor to evade the force of this by saying that these officers will be insignificant. This is by no means true. The state officers will ever be important, because they are necessary and useful. Their powers are such as are extremely interesting among the people; such as affect their property, their liberty, and life. What is more important than the administration of justice and the execution of the civil and criminal laws? Can the state governments become insignificant while they have the power of raising money independently, and without control? If they are really useful, if they are calculated to promote the essential interests of the people, they must have their confidence and support. The states can never lose their powers fill the whole people of America are robbed of their liberties. These must go together; they must support each other, or meet one common fate. On the gentleman’s principle we may safely trust the state governments, though we have no means of resisting them; but we cannot confide in the national government, though we have an effectual constitutional guard against every encroachment. This is the essence of their argument, and it is false and fallacious beyond conception.

With regard to the jurisdiction of the two governments, I shall certainly admit that the Constitution ought to be so formed as not to prevent the states from providing for their own existence; and I maintain that it is so formed, and that their power of providing for themselves is sufficiently established. This is conceded by one gentleman, and in the next breath the concession is retracted. He says, Congress have but one exclusive right in taxation—that of duties on imports; certainly, then, their other powers are only concurrent. But, to take off the force of this obvious conclusion, he immediately says that the laws of the United States are supreme; and that where there is one supreme, there cannot be concurrent authority; and further, that where the laws of the Union are supreme, those of the states must be subordinate, because there cannot be two supremes. This is curious sophistry. That two supreme powers cannot act together, is false. They are inconsistent only when they are aimed at each other, or at one indivisible object. The laws of the United States are supreme, as to all their proper, constitutional objects: the laws of the states are supreme in the same way. These supreme laws may act on different objects without clashing, or they may operate on different parts of the same object, with perfect harmony. Suppose both governments should lay a tax of a penny on a certain article: had not each an independent and uncontrollable power to collect its own tax? The meaning of the maxim, there cannot be two supremes, is simply this—two powers cannot be supreme over each other. This meaning is entirely perverted by the gentleman. But it is said, disputes between collectors are to be referred to the federal courts. This is again wandering in the field of conjecture. But suppose the fact certain; is it not to be presumed that they will express the true meaning of the Constitution and the laws? Will they not he bound to consider the concurrent jurisdiction; to declare that both the taxes shall have equal operation; that both the powers, in that respect, are sovereign and coextensive? If they transgress their duty, we are to hope that they will be punished. Sir, we can reason from probabilities alone. When we leave common sense, and give ourselves up to conjecture, there can be no certainty, no security in our reasonings.

I imagine I have stated to the committee abundant reasons to prove the entire safety of the state governments and of the people. I would go into a more minute consideration of the nature of the concurrent jurisdiction, and the operation of the laws, in relation to revenue; but at present I feel too much indisposed to proceed. I shall, with the leave of the committee, improve another opportunity of expressing to them more fully my ideas on this point. I wish the committee to remember that the Constitution under examination is framed upon truly republican principles; and that, as it is expressly designed to provide for the common protection and the general welfare of the United States, it must be utterly repugnant to this Constitution to subvert the state governments, or oppress the people.

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Contents

General Overview

In 1787 and 1788, following the Constitutional Convention, a great debate took place throughout America over the Constitution that had been proposed.

In-Doors Debate

View in-depth studies of the Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York state ratifying conventions.

The Federal Pillars

View drawings of the federal pillars rising published by the Massachusetts Centinel during the ratification debate.

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The Stages of Ratification: An Interactive Timeline

View the six stages of the ratification of the Constitution with links to many other features on this site.

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Interactive Ratification Map

View interactive maps showing the breakdown of Federalist-Antifederalist strength at the state level during the Ratification debate.

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