Elliot’s Debates: Volume 2
Convention of New York
Saturday, June 28, 1788.
The Hon. Mr. HAMILTON. Mr. Chairman, in the course of these debates, it has been suggested that the state of New York has sustained peculiar misfortune from the mode of raising revenues by requisitions. I believe we shall now be able to prove that this state, in the course of the late revolution, suffered the extremes of distress on account of this delusive system. To establish these facts, I shall beg leave to introduce a series of official papers, and resolutions of this state, as evidence of the sentiments of the people during the most melancholy periods of the war. I shall request the secretary to read these papers, in the order in which I point them out.
His excellency, Gov. CLINTON. I presume the introduction of this kind of evidence is occasioned by a conversation I had with one of the gentlemen yesterday. It would have been fair to mention to me, at that time, the intention of bringing these matters forward. Some new lights might then have been thrown on the subject, relative to the particular circumstances which produced the resolutions alluded to. An opportunity would also have been given of showing what the sense of Congress and of this state was, after those circumstances were changed. I believe these resolutions were previous to the accession of all the states to the Confederation. I could wish that these matters might be set in a clear point of light.
The Hon. Mr. DUANE. I hope the honorable member will not suppose that I have dealt unfairly. It is true I had some conversation with him yesterday, which led me to a conclusion that it would be fair and proper that these papers should be produced. But independently of that conversation, sir, I should have thought it my duty to bring them forward, because I believe that the melancholy experience of our country ought to have more influence on our conduct, than all the speculations and elaborate reasonings of the ablest men. I trust that this evidence will come home; that it will be felt. I am convinced that our greatest misfortunes originated in the want of such a government as is now offered to us. I assure the gentleman that the Conversation I had with him yesterday was not the cause of bringing these papers into view. I declare that, if I know my own heart, I have no intention of acting uncandidly.
Gov. CLINTON. I do not mean to create any dispute respecting the subject of these resolutions. I did inform the gentleman that there were several papers which would throw light on this question. All I say is, it would have been fair to produce all of them together, that the committee might not be deceived by a partial statement. I observed that all these resolutions were at a period antecedent to the completion of the Union, when Congress had no power at all. The gentlemen are mistaken if they suppose I wish to prevent the reading of them.
Mr. DUANE. I believe we shall find that there are resolutions subsequent, as well as antecedent, to the completion of the Confederation. This we shall endeavor to show. I am clear, sir, that these exhibits will furnish more effectual arguments than all that can be said. But I shall not enlarge. The papers will speak for themselves.
Mr. M. SMITH. I shall not oppose the reading of any papers the gentlemen may think proper to produce. But we shall reserve to ourselves the privilege of giving what we think to be the true explanation of them.
Mr. HAMILTON. We shall make the same reservation. By the indisputable construction of these resolutions, we shall prove that this state was once on the verge of destruction, for want of an energetic government. To this point we shall confine ourselves.
Mr. TREDWELL. It appears to me useless to read these papers. If I understand the matter, they are produced to prove a point which is not contested. It is on all hands acknowledged that the federal government is not adequate to the purpose of the Union.
The papers were then read by the secretary, in the following order:
1st. An extract from Governor Clinton’s speech to the legislature, September 7, 1780.
2d. Extract from the answer of the Senate, September 9, 1780.
3d. Resolve of the Assembly, October 10, 1780.
4th. Resolve of both houses, October 10, 1780, respecting the Hartford Convention.
5th. A letter from the legislature of New York to Congress, dated Albany, February 5, 1781, describing the distresses of the state.
6th. A message from the governor to the legislature, March 9, 1781, announcing the establishment of the Confederation.
7th. Resolve of the legislature, dated March 29, 1781, relative to the Hartford Convention.
8th. Resolve of the legislature, November 21, 1781, recommending a five per cent impost.
9th. A resolution of 20th July, 1782, lamenting the want of powers in Congress, and pointing out the defect of the Confederation.
After these papers were read,
Gov. CLINTON rose, and observed, that there could be no doubt that the representations made in them were true, and that they clearly expressed the sentiments of the people at those periods. Our severe distresses, he said, naturally led us into an opinion that the Confederation was too weak. It appears to me, the design of producing these papers is something more than to show the sentiments of the state during the war; that it is to prove that there now exists an opposition to an energetic government. I declare, solemnly, that I am a friend to a strong and efficient government. But, sir, we may err in this extreme: we may erect a system that will destroy the liberties of the people. Sir, at the time some of these resolves were passed, there was a dangerous attempt to subvert our liberties, by creating a supreme dictator. There are many gentlemen present who know how strongly I opposed it. My opposition was at the very time we were surrounded with difficulties and danger. The people, when wearied with their distresses, will, in the moment of frenzy, be guilty of the most imprudent and desperate measures. Because a strong government was wanted during the late war, does it follow that we should now be obliged to accept of a dangerous one? I ever lamented the feebleness of the Confederation, for this reason, among others, that the experience of its weakness would one day drive the people into an adoption of a constitution dangerous to our liberties. I know the people are too apt to vibrate from one extreme to another. The effect of this disposition are what I wish to guard against. If the gentleman can show me that the proposed Constitution is a safe one, I will drop all opposition. The public resolves, which have been read to you, are only expressive of the desire that once prevailed to remove present difficulties. A general impost was clearly intended, but it was intended as a temporary measure. I appeal to every gentleman present, if I have not been uniformly in favor of granting an impost to Congress. I confess, the manner in which that body proposed to exercise the power, I could not agree to. I firmly believed, that, if it were granted in the form recommended, it would prove unproductive, and would also lead to the establishment of dangerous principles. I believed that granting the revenue, without giving the power of collection, or a control over our state officers, would be the most wise and prudent measure. These are and ever have been my sentiments. I declare that, with respect to the papers which have been read, or any which I have in my possession, I shall be ready to give the committee all the information in my power.
Mr. DUANE. As I am sensible the gentleman last on the floor was in the confidence of the commander-in-chief, I would wish to ask if he did not, at different times, receive communications from his excellency, expressive of this ideathat, if this state did not furnish supplies to the army, it must be disbanded.
Gov. CLINTON. It is true, sir, I have received such communications more than once. I have been sent for to attend councils of war, where the state of the army was laid before me; and it was melancholy indeed. I believe that, at one period, the exertions of this state, in impressing flour from the people, saved the army from dissolution.
Mr. HAMILTON. The honorable gentleman from Ulster has given a turn to the introduction of those papers which was never in our contemplation. He seems to insinuate that they were brought forward with a view of showing an inconsistency in the conduct of some gentleman; perhaps of himself. Sir, the exhibition of them had a very different object. It was to prove that this state once experienced hardships and distresses to an astonishing degree, for want of the assistance of the other states. It was to show the evils we suffered since, as well as before, the establishment of the Confederation, from being compelled to support the burden of the war; that requisitions have been unable to call forth the resources of the country; that requisitions have been the cause of a principal part of our calamities; that the system is defective and rotten, and ought, forever to be banished from our government. It was necessarywith deference to the honorable gentlemanto bring forward these important proofs of our argument, without consulting the feelings of any man.
That the human passions should flow from one extreme to another, I allow, is natural. Hence the mad project of creating a dictator. But it is equally true that this project was never ripened in to a deliberate and extensive design. When I heard of it, it met my instant disapprobation. The honorable gentleman’s opposition, too, is known and applauded. But why bring these things into remembrance? Why affect to compare this temporary effusion with the Serious sentiments our fellow-citizens entertained of the national weaknesses? The gentleman has made a declaration of his wishes for a strong federal government. I hope this is the wish of all. But why has he not given us his ideas of the nature of this government, which is the object of his wishes? Why does he not describe it? We have proposed a system which we supposed would answer the purposes of strength and safety. The gentleman objects to it, without pointing out the grounds on which his objections are founded, or showing us a better form. These general surmises never lead to the discovery of truth. It is to be desired that the gentleman would explain particularly the errors in this system, and furnish us with their proper remedies. The Committee, remember that a grant of an impost to the United States, for twenty-five years, was requested by Congress. Though it was a very small addition of power to the federal government, it was opposed in this state, without any reasons being offered. The dissent of New York and Rhode Island frustrated a most important measure. The gentleman says he was for granting the impost; yet he acknowledges he could not agree to the mode recommended. But it is well known that Congress had declared that they could not receive the accession of the states upon any other plan than that proposed. In such cases, propositions for altering the plan amounted to a positive rejection. At this time, sir, we were told it was dangerous, to grant, powers to Congress; did this general argument indicate a disposition to grant the impost in any shape? I should myself have been averse to the granting of very extensive powers; but the impost was justly considered as the only means of supporting the Union. We did not then contemplate a fundamental change in government. From my sense of the gentlemen’s integrity, I am bound to believe that they are attached to a strong, united government; and yet I find it difficult to draw this conclusion from their conduct or their reasonings.
Sir, with respect to the subject of revenue, which was debated yesterday, it was asserted that, in all matters of taxation, except in the article of imposts, the united and individual states had a concurrent jurisdiction; that the state governments had an independent authority to draw revenues from every source but one. The truth of these positions will appear on a slight investigation. I maintain that the word supreme imports no more than thisthat the Constitution, and laws made in pursuance thereof, cannot be controlled or defeated by any other law. The acts of the United States, therefore, will be absolutely obligatory as to all the proper objects and powers of the general government. The states, as well as individuals, are bound by these laws; but the laws of Congress are restricted to a certain sphere, and when they depart from this sphere, they are no longer supreme or binding. In the same manner the states have certain independent powers, in which their laws are supreme; for example, in making and executing laws concerning the punishment of certain crimes, such as murder, theft, &c., the states cannot be controlled. With respect to certain other objects, the powers of the two governments are concurrent, and yet supreme. I instanced yesterday a tax on a specific article. Both might lay the tax; both might collect it without clashing or interference. If the individual should be unable to pay both, the first seizure would hold the property. Here the laws are not in the way of each other they are independent and supreme.
The case is like that of two creditors: each has a distinct demand; the debtor is held equally for the payment of both. Their suits are independent; and if the debtor cannot pay both, he who takes the first step secures his debt. The individual is precisely in the same situation, whether he pays such a sum to one, or to two. No more will be required of him to supply the public wants, than he has ability to afford. That the states have an undoubted right to lay taxes in all cases in which they are not prohibited, is a position founded on the obvious and important principle in confederated governments, that whatever is not expressly given to the federal head is reserved to the members. The truth of this principle must strike every intelligent mind. In the first formation of government, by the association of individuals, every power of the community is delegated, because the government is to extend to every possible object; nothing is reserved but the unalienable rights of mankind but, when a number of these societies unite for certain purposes, the rule is different, and from the plainest reasonthey have already delegated their sovereignty and their powers to their several governments; and these cannot be recalled, and given to another, without an express act. I submit to the committee whether this reasoning is not conclusive. Unless, therefore, we find that the powers of taxation are exclusively granted, we must conclude that there remains a concurrent authority. Let us, then, inquire if the Constitution gives such exclusive powers to the general government. Sir, there is not a syllable in it that favors this idea; not a word importing an exclusive grant, except in the article of imposts. I am supported in my general position by this very exception. If the states are prohibited from laying duties on imports, the implication is clear. Now, what proportion will the duties on imports bear to the other ordinary resources of the country? We may now say one third; but this will not be the case long. As our manufactures increase, foreign importations must lessen. Here are two thirds, at least, of the resources of our country open to the state governments. Can it be imagined, then, that the states will lose their existence or importance for want of revenues? The propriety of Congress possessing an exclusive power over the impost appears from the necessity of their having a considerable portion of our resources, to pledge as a fund for the reduction of the debts of the United States. When you have given a power of taxation to the general government, none of the states individually will be holden for the discharge of the federal obligations: the burden will be on the Union.
The gentleman says that the operation of the taxes will exclude the states on this groundthat the demands of the community are always equal to its resources; that Congress will find a use for all the money the people can pay. This observation, if designed as a general rule, is, in every view, unjust. Does he suppose the general government will want all the money the people can furnish, and also that the state governments will want all the money the people can furnish? What contradiction is this! But if this maxim be true, how does the wealth of the country ever increase? How are the people enabled to accumulate fortunes? Do the burdens regularly augment as its inhabitants grow prosperous and happy? But if, indeed, all the resources are required for the protection of the people, it follows that the protecting power should have access to them. The only difficulty lies in the want of resources. If they are adequate, the operation will be easy; if they are not, taxation must be restrained. Will this be the fate of the state taxes alone? Certainly not. The people will say, No. What will be the conduct of the national rulers? The consideration will not be, that our imposing the tax will destroy the states, for this cannot be effected; but that it will distress the people, whom we represent, and whose protectors we are. It is unjust to suppose they will be altogether destitute of virtue and prudence: it is unfair to presume that the representatives of the people will be disposed to tyrannize in one government more than in another. If we are convinced that the national legislature will pursue a system of measures unfavorable to the interests of the people, we ought to have no general government at all. But if we unite, it will be for the accomplishment of great purposes: these demand great resources and great powers. There are certain extensive and uniform objects of revenue which the United States will improve, and to which, if possible, they will confine themselves. Those objects which are more limited, and in respect to which the circumstances of the states differ, will be reserved for their use: a great variety of articles will be in this last class of objects, to which only the state laws will properly apply. To, ascertain this division of objects is the proper business of legislation: it would be absurd to fix it in the Constitution, both because it would be too extensive and intricate, and because alteration of circumstances must render a change of the division indispensable. Constitutions should consist only of general provisions: the reason is, that they must necessarily be permanent, and that they cannot calculate for the possible change of things. I know that the states must have their resources; but I contend that it would be improper to point them out particularly in the Constitution.
Sir, it has been said that a poll tax is a tyrannical tax; but the legislature of this state can lay it, whenever they please. Does, then, our Constitution authorize tyranny? I am as much opposed to capitation as any man. Yet who can deny that there may exist certain circumstances which will render this tax necessary? In the course of a war, it may be necessary to lay hold of every resource; and for a certain period, the people may submit to it. But on removal of the danger, or the return of peace, the general sense of the community would abolish it. The United Netherlands were obliged, on an emergency, to give up one twentieth of their property to the government. It has been said that it will be impossible to exercise this power of taxation: if it cannot be exercised, why be alarmed? But the gentlemen say that the difficulty of executing it with moderation will necessarily drive the government into despotic measures. Here, again, they are in the old track of jealousy and conjecture. Whenever the people feel the hand of despotism, they will not regard forms and parchments. But the gentlemen’s premises are as false as their conclusion. No one reason can be offered why the exercise of the power should be impracticable. No one difficulty can be pointed out which will not apply to our state governments. Congress will have every means of knowledge that any legislature can have. From general observation, and from the revenue systems of the several states, they will derive information as to the most eligible modes of taxation. If a land tax is the object, cannot Congress procure as perfect a valuation as any other assembly? Can they not have all the necessary officers for assessment and collections? Where is the difficulty? Where is the evil? They never can oppress a particular state by an unequal imposition; because the Constitution has provided a fixed ratio, a uniform rule, by which this must be regulated. The system will be founded upon the most easy and equal principlesto draw as much as possible from direct taxation; to lay the principal burdens on the wealthy, &c. Even ambitions and unprincipled men will form their system so as to draw forth the resources, of the country in the most favorable and gentle methods, because such will be ever the most productive. They never can hope for success by adopting those arbitrary modes which have been used in some of the states.
A gentleman yesterday passed many encomiums on the character and operations of the state governments. The question has not been, whether their laws have produced happy or unhappy effects. The character of our confederation is the subject of our controversy. But the gentleman concludes too hastily. In many of the states, government has not had a salutary operation. Not only Rhode Island, but several others, have been guilty of indiscretions and misconductof acts which have produced misfortunes and dishonor. I grant that the government of New York has operated well, and I ascribe it to the influence of those excellent principles in which the proposed Constitution and our own are so congenial. We are sensible that private credit is much lower in some states than it is in ours. What is the cause of this? Why is it, at the present period, so low, even in this state? Why is the value of our land depreciated? It is said that there is a scarcity of money in the community. I do not believe this scarcity to be so great as is represented. It may not appear; it may be retained by its holders; but nothing more than stability and confidence in the government is requisite to draw it into circulation. It is acknowledged that the general government has not answered its purposes. Why? We attribute it to the defects of the revenue system. But the gentlemen say, the requisitions have not been obeyed, because the states were impoverished. This is a kind of reasoning that astonishes me. The records of this statethe records of Congressprove that, during the war, New York had the best reason to complain of the noncompliance of the other states. I appeal to the gentleman. Have the states who have suffered least contributed most? No, sir; the fact is directly the reverse. This consideration is sufficient entirely to refute the gentleman’s reasoning. Requisitions will ever be attended with the same effects. This depends on principles of human nature that are as infallible as any mathematical calculations. States will contribute or not, according to their circumstances and interests. They will all be inclined to throw off their burdens of government upon their neighbors. These positions have been so fully illustrated and proved in former stages of this debate, that nothing need be added. Unanswerable experiencestubborn factshave supported and fixed them.
Sir, to what situation is our Congress now reduced! It is notorious that with the utmost difficulty they maintain their ordinary officers, and support the mere form of a federal government. How do we stand with respect to foreign nations? It is a fact that should strike us with shame, that we are obliged to borrow money in order to pay the interest of our debts. It is a fact that these debts are every day accumulating by compound interest. This, sir, will one day endanger the peace of our country, and expose us to vicissitudes the most alarming. Such is the character of requisitionssuch the melancholy, dangerous condition to which they have reduced us! Now, sir, after this full and fair experiment, with what countenance do gentlemen come forward to recommend the ruinous principle, and make it the basis of a new government? Why do they affects to cherish this political demon, and present it once more to our embraces? The gentleman observed, that we cannot, even in a single state, collect the whole of a tax; some Counties will necessarily be deficient. In the same manner, says he, some states will be delinquent. If this reasoning were just, I should expect to see the states pay, like the counties, in proportion to their ability, which is not the fact.
I shall proceed now more particularly to the proposition before the committee. This clearly admits that the unlimited power of taxation, which I have been contending for, is proper. It declares that, after the states have refused to comply with the requisitions, the general government may enforce its demands. While the gentlemen’s proposition and principle admit this, in its fullest latitude, the whole course of the states is against it. The mode they point out would involve many inconveniences against which they would wish to guard. Suppose the gentleman’s scheme should be adopted; would not all the resources of the country be equally in the power of Congress? The states can have but one opportunity of refusal. After having passed through the empty ceremony of a requisition, the general government can enforce all its demands, without limitation or resistance. The states will either comply, or they will not. If they comply, they are bound to collect the whole of the tax from the citizens. The people must pay it. What, then, will be the disadvantage of its being levied and collected by Congress, in the first instance? It has been proved, as far as probabilities can go, that the federal government will, in general, take the laws of the several states as its rule, and pursue those measures to which the people are most accustomed. But if the states do not comply, what is the consequence? If the power of a compulsion be a misfortune to the state, they must now suffer it without opposition or complaint. I shall show, too, that they must feel it in an aggravated degree. It may frequently happen that, though the states formally comply with the requisitions, the avails will not be fully realized by Congress: the states may be dilatory in the collection and payment, and may form excuses for not paying the whole. There may also be partial compliances, which will subject the Union to inconveniences. Congress, therefore, in laying the tax, will calculate for these losses and inconveniences. They will make allowances for the delays and delinquencies of the states, and apportion their burdens accordingly. They will be induced to demand more than their actual wants.
In these circumstances, the requisitions will be made upon calculations in some measure arbitrary. Upon the constitutional plan, the only inquiry will be, How much is actually wanted? and how much can the object bear, or the people pay? On the gentleman’s scheme, it will be, what will be the probable deficiencies of the states? for we must increase our demands in proportion, whatever the public wants may be, or whatever may be the abilities of the people. Now, suppose the requisition is totally rejected; it must be levied upon the citizens without reserve. This will be like inflicting a penalty upon the states. It will place them in the light of criminals. Will they suffer this? Will Congress presume so far? If the states solemnly declare they will not comply, does not this imply a determination not to permit the exercise of the coercive power? The gentlemen cannot escape the dilemma into which their own reasoning leads them. If the states comply, the people must be taxed; if they do not comply, the people must equally be taxed. The burden, in either case, will be the samethe difficulty of collecting the same. Sir, if these operations are merely harmless and indifferent, why play the ridiculous farce? If they are inconvenient, why subject us to their evils? It is infinitely more eligible to lay a tax originally, which will have uniform effects throughout the Union, which will operate equally and silently. The United States will then be able to ascertain their resources, and to act with vigor and decision. All hostility between the governments will be prevented. The people will contribute regularly and gradually for the support of government; and all odious, retrospective inquiries will be precluded.
But the ill effects of the gentleman’s plan do not terminate here. Our own state will suffer peculiar disadvantages from the measure. One provision in the amendment is, that no direct taxes shall be laid till after the impost and excise shall be found insufficient for the public exigencies; and that no excise shall be laid on articles of the growth or manufacture of the United States. Sir, the favorable maritime situation of this state, and our large and valuable tracts of unsettled land, will ever lead us to commerce and agriculture as our proper objects. Unconfined, and tempted by the prospect of easy subsistence and independence, our citizens, as the country populates, will retreat back, and cultivate the western parts of our state. Our population, though extensive, will never be crowded; and consequently we shall remain an importing and agricultural state. Now, what will be the operation of the proposed plan? The general government, restrained by the Constitution from a free application to other resources, will push imposts to an extreme. Will excessive impositions on our commerce be favorable to the policy of this state? Will they not directly oppose our interests? Similar will be the operation of the other clause of the amendment, relative to excise. Our neighbors, not possessed of our advantages for commerce and agriculture, will become manufacturers: their property will, in a great measure, be vested in the commodities of their own productions; but a small proportion will be in trade or in lands. Thus, on the gentleman’s scheme, they will be almost free from burdens, while we shall be loaded with them. Does not the partiality of this strike ever one? Can gentlemen, who are laboring for the interest of their state, seriously bring forward such propositions? It is the interest of New York that those articles should be taxed, in the production of which the other states exceed us. If we are not a manufacturing people, excises on manufactures will ever be for our advantage. This position is indisputable. Sir, I agree that it is not good policy to lay excises to any considerable amount, while our manufactures are in their infancy; but are they always to be so? In some of the states, they already begin to make considerable progress. In Connecticut, such encouragement is given as will soon distinguish that state. Even at the present period, there is one article from which a revenue may very properly be drawn: I speak of ardent spirits. New England manufactures more than a hundred gallons to our one; consequently, an excise on spirits at the still-head would make those states contribute inn vastly greater proportion than ourselves. In every view, excises on domestic manufactures would benefit Near York. But the gentlemen would defeat the advantages of our situation, by drawing upon us all the burdens of government. The nature of our union requires that we should give up our state impost. The amendment would forfeit every other advantage. This part of the Constitution should not be touched. The excises were designed as a recompense to the importing states for relinquishing their imposts. Why, then, should we reject the benefits conferred upon us? Why should we run blindly against our own interest?
Sir, I shall no further enlarge on this argument: my exertions have already exhausted me. I have persevered from an anxious desire to give the committee the most complete conception of this subject. I fear, however, that I have not been so successful as to bestow upon it that full and clear light of which it is susceptible. I shall conclude with a few remarks by way of apology. I am apprehensive, sir, that, in the warmth of my feelings, I may have uttered expressions which were too vehement. If such has been my language, it was from the habit of using strong phrases to express my ideas; and, above all, from the interesting nature of the subject. I have ever condemned those cold, unfeeling hearts, which no object can animate. I condemn those indifferent mortals, who either never form opinions, or never make them known. I confess, sir, that on no subject has my breast been filled with stronger emotions, or more anxious concern. If any thing has escaped me, which may be construed into a personal reflection, I beg the gentlemen, once for all, to be assured that I have no design to wound the feelings of any one who is opposed to me.
While I am making these observations, I cannot but take notice of some expressions which have fallen in the course of the debate. It has been said that ingenious men may say ingenious things, and that those who are interested in raising the few upon the ruins of the many, may give to every cause an appearance of justice. I know not whether these insinuations allude to the characters of any who are present, or to any of the reasonings in this house. I presume that the gentlemen would not ungenerously impute such motives to those who differ from themselves. I declare I know not any set of men who are to derive peculiar advantages from this Constitution. Were any permanent honors or emoluments to be secured to the families of those who have been active in this cause, there might be some grounds for suspicion. But what reasonable man, for the precarious enjoyment of rank and power, would establish a system which would reduce his nearest friends and his posterity to slavery and ruin? If the gentlemen reckon me amongst the obnoxious few, if they imagine that I contemplate with ambitious eye the immediate honors of the government, yet let them consider that I have my friends, my family, my children, to whom ties of nature and of habit have attached me. If, to-day, I am among the favored few, my children, to-morrow, may be among the oppressed; these dear pledges of my patriotism may, at a future day, be suffering the severe distresses to which my ambition has reduced them. The changes in the human condition are uncertain and frequent: many, on whom Fortune has bestowed her favors, may trace their family to a more unprosperous station; and many, who are now in obscurity, may look back upon the affluence and exalted rank of their ancestors. But I will no longer trespass on your indulgence. I have troubled the committee with these observations, to show that it can, not be the wish of any reasonable man to establish a government unfriendly to the liberties of the people. Gentlemen ought not, then, to presume that the advocates of this Constitution are influenced by ambitious views. The suspicion, sir, is unjust; the charge is uncharitable.
The Hon. Mr. LANSING. This clause, Mr. Chairman, is, by every one, considered as one of the most important in the Constitution. The subject has been treated in a very diffusive manner. Among all the ingenious remarks that have been made, some are little more than repetitions; others are not very applicable or interesting. I shall beg leave to pass a few strictures on the paragraph; and, in my reply, shall confine myself to the arguments which have been advanced. The committee have been informed that it embraces a great variety of objects, and that it gives the general government a power to lay all kinds of taxes; that it confers a right of laying excises on all articles of American manufacture, of exacting an impost, in which the state governments cannot interfere, and of laying direct taxes without restriction. These powers reach every possible source of revenue. They will involve a variety of litigations, which can come only under the cognizance of the judiciary of the United State. Hence it must appear that these powers will affect, in an unlimited manner, the property of the citizens; that they will subject them, in a great degree, to the laws of the Union, and give an extensive jurisdiction to the federal courts. The objects of the amendment are, to prevent excises from being laid on the manufactures of the United States, and to provide that direct taxes shall not be imposed till requisitions have been made and proved fruitless.
All the reasoning of the gentlemen goes to prove that government ought to possess all the resources of a country. But so far as it respects government in general, it does not apply to this question. Giving the principle its full force, it does not prove that our federal government ought to have all the resources; because this government is but a part of a system, the whole of which should possess the means of support. It has been advanced repeatedly by the gentleman, that the powers of the United States should, like their objects, be national and general. It appears to him proper, therefore, that the nature of their resources should be correspondent. Sir, it has been declared that we can no longer place confidence in requisitions. A great deal of argument has been spent on this point. The gentlemen, constantly consider the old mode of requisitions, and that proposed, in the same view. But not one of us has ever contended for requisitions in the form prescribed in the existing Confederation: hence the reasoning about the inefficacy of the ancient mode has no application to the one recommended; which rests on different principles, and has a sanction of which the other is totally destitute. In the one instance, it is necessary to execute the requisitions of Congress on the states collectively. There is no way of doing this but by coercing a whole community, which cannot be effected. But the amendment proposes to carry the laws of Congress to the doors of individuals. This circumstance will produce an entire change in the operation of requisitions, and will give them an efficiency which otherwise they could not have. In this view, it will appear that the gentleman’s principles respecting the Character and effects of requisitions can have no application in this dispute. Much pains has been taken to show that requisitions have not answered the public exigencies. All this has been fully admitted in former stages of the debate. It was said by a gentleman yesterday, that though considerable sums of money had been paid by the people, it was by way of bounties to the soldiers; which was a coercion on individuals. If, then, this coercion had its effect, certainly its operation, upon the proposed plan, will be much more forcible. It has been said that, in sudden emergencies, all the resources of the country might be required; and that the supreme head ought to possess the power of providing for the public wants, in every degree. It is an undoubted fact, that, in all government, it is extremely difficult, on the spur of the occasion, to raise money by taxes. Nor is it necessary. In a commercial country, persons will always be found to advance money to the government, and to wait the regular operation of the revenue laws. It depends on the security of the taxes, and the certainty of being refunded. This amendment does not diminish the security or render the fund precarious. The certainty of repayment is as well established as if the government could levy the taxes originally on individuals.
Sir, have the states ever shown a disposition not to comply with the requisitions? We shall find that, in almost every instance, they have, so far forth as the passing a law of compliance, been carried into execution. To what, then, are the delinquencies to be attributed? They must be to the impoverished state of the country. If the state governments have been unable to compel the people to obey their laws, will Congress be able to coerce them? Will the federal taxes be better paid? But, sir, no reasonable man will be apprehensive of the non-compliance of the states, under the operation of the proposed plan. The right of enforcing the requisitions will furnish the strongest motive for the performance of the federal duty. With this powerful inducement, there is hardly a possibility of failure. It has been asked, why give the individual states the preference? Why not suffer the general government to apply to the people in the first instance, without the formality of a requisition? This question has been repeatedly asked, and as often answered. It is because the state legislatures are more nearly connected with the people, and more acquainted with their situation and wants. They better know when to enforce or relax their laws; to embrace objects or relinquish them, according to change of circumstances: they have but a few varying interests to comprehend in general provisions. Congress do not possess these advantages; they cannot have so complete an acquaintance with the people; their laws, being necessarily uniform, cannot be calculated for the great diversity of objects which present themselves to government. It is possible that the men delegated may have interests different from those of the people. It is observed that we have had experience of different kinds of taxes, which have been executed by different officers,for instance, county and state taxes,and that there has been no clashing or interference. But, sir, in these cases, if any dispute arises, the parties appeal to a common tribunal; but if collectors are appointed by different governments, and authorized by different laws, the federal officer will appeal to a federal court; his adversary will appeal to the state court. Will not this create contests respecting jurisdiction? But the Constitution declares that the laws of the United States shall be supreme. There is no doubt, therefore, that they must prevail in every controversy; and every thing which has a tendency to obstruct the force of the general government must give way.
An honorable gentleman from New York has remarked that the idea of danger to state governments can only originate in a distempered fancy: he stated that they were necessary component parts of the system, and informed us how the President and senators were to be elected; his conclusion is, that the liberties of the people cannot be endangered. I shall only observe, that, however fanciful these apprehensions may appear to him, they have made serious impressions upon some of the greatest and best men. Our fears arise from the experience of all ages and our knowledge of the dispositions of mankind. I believe the gentleman cannot point out an instance of the rights of a people remaining for a long period inviolate. The history of Europe has afforded remarkable examples of the loss of liberty by the usurpations of rulers. In the early periods of the government of the United Netherlands, the magistrates were elected by the people; but now they have become hereditary. The Venetians are, at this day, governed by an aristocracy. The senators, once the representatives of the people, were enabled, by gradual encroachments, at last to declare themselves perpetual. The office has since become hereditary, and the government entirely despotic. The gentleman has adduced one historical example, to prove that the members of a government, in the contests with the head, generally prevail. He observed that, in the struggles between the feudal sovereigns of Europe and their barons, the latter were usually victorious. If this were true, I believe the operations of such a system as the feudal will not warrant the general inference he draws. The feudal barons were obliged to assist the monarch, in his wars, with their persons and those of their vassals. This, in the early periods, was the sovereign’s sole dependence. Not possessed of pecuniary revenues, or a standing military force, he was, whenever the barons withdrew their aid, or revolted against his authority, reduced to a very feeble situation. While he possessed not the means of carrying on his wars, independently of his nobles, his power was insignificant, and he was unsuccessful. But, sir, the moment he gained the command of revenues and an army, as soon as he obtained the sword and the purse, the current of success was turned; and his superiority over his barons was regularly augmented, and at last established. The barons, in their early wars, possessed other peculiar advantages: their number was small, they were actuated by one principle, and had one common object; it was to reduce still lower the feeble powers of the monarch: they were therefore easily brought to act in concert. Sir, wherever the revenues and the military force are, there will rest the power: the members or the head will prevail, as one or the other possesses these advantages. The gentleman, in his reasoning, has taken the wrong part of the examplethat part which bears no resemblance to our system. Had he come down to a later period, he would indeed have seen the resemblance, and his historical facts would have directly militated against his argument. Sir, if you do not give the state governments a power to protect themselves, if you leave them no other check upon Congress than the power of appointing senators, they will certainly be overcome, like the barons of whom the gentleman has spoken. Neither our civil nor militia officers will afford many advantages of opposition against the national government: if they have any powers, it will ever be difficult to concentrate them, or give them a uniform direction. Their influence will hardly be felt, while the greater number of lucrative and honorable places, in the gift of the United States, will establish an influence which will prevail in every part of the continent.
It has been admitted by an honorable gentleman from New York, (Mr. Hamilton,) that the state governments are necessary to secure the liberties of the people. He has urged several forcible reasons why they ought to be preserved under the new system; and he has treated the idea of the general and state governments being hostile to each other as chimerical. I am, however, firmly persuaded that an hostility between them will exist. This was a received opinion in the late Convention at Philadelphia. That honorable gentleman was then fully convinced that it would exist, and argued, with much decision and great plausibility, that the state governments ought to be subverted, at least so far as to leave them only corporate rights, and that, even in that situation, they would endanger the existence of the general government. But the honorable gentleman’s reflections have probably induced him to correct that sentiment.[Mr. Hamilton here interrupted Mr. Lansing, and contradicted, in the most positive terms, the charge of inconsistency included in the preceding observations. This produced a warm personal altercation between those gentlemen, which engrossed the remainder of the day.]