Hamilton: Taxation and Finance: Report on Impost Duty

Alexander Hamilton was a Founding Father, soldier, economist, political philosopher, one of America’s first constitutional lawyers and the first United States Secretary of the Treasury.

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Alexander Hamilton: The Works of Alexander Hamilton, Volume 1, 1774

Taxation and Finance: Report on Impost Duty

By the United States in Congress [Continental Congress, under the Articles of Confederation] assembled,

December 16, 1782.

The Committee, consisting of Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Madison, and Mr. Fitzsimmons, to whom was referred the letter of the thirtieth of November, from the Honorable William Bradford, Speaker of the lower House of Assembly of the State of Rhode Island, containing, under three heads, the reasons of that State for refusing their compliance with the recommendation of Congress for a duty on imports and prize goods, report:

That they flatter themselves the State, on a reconsideration of the objections they have offered, with a candid attention to the arguments which stand in opposition to them, will be induced to retract their dissent, convinced that the measure is supported on the most solid grounds of equal justice, policy, and general utility. The following observations, contrasted with each head of the objections successively, will furnish a satisfactory answer to the whole.

First Objection.—“That the proposed duty would be unequal in its operation, bearing hardest upon the most commercial States, and so would press peculiarly hard upon that State which draws its chief support from commerce.”

The most common experience, joined to the concurrent opinions of the ablest commercial and political observers, have established, beyond controversy, this general principle: “That every duty on imports is incorporated with the price of the commodity, and ultimately paid by the consumer, with a profit on the duty itself as a compensation to the merchant for the advance of his money.”

The merchant considers the duty demanded by the State on the imported article in the same light with freight or any similar charge, and, adding it to the original cost, calculates his profit on the aggregate sum. It may happen that, at particular conjunctures, where the markets are overstocked, and there is a competition among the sellers, this may not be practicable; but, in the general course of trade, the demand for consumption preponderates; and the merchant can with ease indemnify himself, and even obtain a profit on the advance. As a consumer, he pays his share of the duty, but it is no further a burthen upon him. The consequence of the principle laid down is that every class of the community bears its share of the duty in proportion to its consumption; which last is regulated by the comparative wealth of the respective classes, in conjunction with their habits of expense or frugality. The rich and luxurious pay in proportion to their riches and luxury; the poor and parsimonious, in proportion to their poverty and parsimony. A chief excellence of this mode of revenue is that it preserves a just measure to the abilities of individuals, promotes frugality, and taxes extravagance. The same reasoning, in our situation, applies to the intercourse between two States: if one imports and the other does not, the latter must be supplied by the former. The duty, being transferred to the price of the commodity, is no more a charge on the importing State for what is consumed in the other, than it is a charge on the merchant for what is consumed by the farmer or artificer. Either State will only feel the burthen in a ratio to its consumption; and this will be in a ratio to its population and wealth. What happens between the different classes of the same community, internally, happens between the two States; and as the merchant, in the first case, so far from losing the duty himself, has a profit on the money he advances for that purpose, so the importing State, which, in the second case, is the merchant with respect to the other, is not only reimbursed by the non-importing State, but has a like benefit on the duty advanced.

It is, therefore, the reverse of a just position, that the duty imposed will bear hardest on the most commercial States; it will, if any thing, have a contrary effect, though not in a sufficient degree to justify an objection on the part of the non-importing States. For it is as reasonable that they should allow an advance on the duty paid as on the first cost, freight, or any incidental charge. They have also other advantages in the measure fully equivalent to this disadvantage. Overnice and minute calculations, in matters of this nature, are inconsistent with national measures, and, in the imperfect state of human affairs, would stagnate all the operations of government. Absolute equality is not to be attained: to aim at it is pursuing a shadow at the expense of the substance; and, in the event, we should find ourselves wider of the mark than if, in the first instance, we were content to approach it with moderation.

Second Objection.—“That the recommendation proposes to introduce into that and the other States, officers unknown and unaccountable to them, and so is against the constitution of the State.”

It is not to be presumed that the constitution of any State could mean to define and fix the precise numbers and descriptions of all officers to be permitted in the State, excluding the creation of any new ones, whatever might be the necessity derived from that variety of circumstances incident to all political institutions. The Legislature must always have a discretionary power of appointing officers, not expressly known to the constitution; and this power will include that of authorizing the Federal Government to make the appointments in cases where the general welfare may require it. The denial of this would prove too much: to wit, that the power given by the Confederation to Congress, to appoint all officers in the post-office, was illegal and unconstitutional.

The doctrine advanced by Rhode Island would, perhaps, prove also, that the Federal Government ought to have the appointment of no internal officers whatever; a position that would defeat all the provisions of the Confederation, and all the purposes of the Union. The truth is that no Federal Constitution can exist without powers that, in their exercise, affect the internal police of the component members. It is equally true that no government can exist without a right to appoint officers for those purposes which proceed from, and concentrate in, itself; and therefore the Confederation has expressly declared that Congress shall have authority to appoint all such “civil officers as may be necessary for managing the general affairs of the United States under their direction.” All that can be required is that the Federal Government confine its appointments to such as it is empowered to make by the original act of union, or by the subsequent consent of the parties. Unless there should be express words of exclusion in the constitution of a State, there can be no reason to doubt that it is within the compass of legislative discretion to communicate that authority.

The propriety of doing it upon the present occasion is founded on substantial reasons.

The measure proposed is a measure of necessity. Repeated experiments have shown that the revenue to be raised within these States is altogether inadequate to the public wants. The deficiency can only be supplied by loans. Our applications to the foreign powers, on whose friendship we depend, have had a success far short of our necessities. The next resource is to borrow from individuals. These will neither be actuated by generosity nor reasons of State. ‘T is to their interest alone we must appeal. To conciliate this, we must not only stipulate a proper compensation for what they lend, but we must give security for the performance. We must pledge an ascertained fund; simple and productive in its nature, general in its principle, and at the disposal of a single will. There can be little confidence in a security under the constant revisal of thirteen different deliberatives. It must, once for all, be defined and established on the faith of the States solemnly pledged to each other, and not revocable by any without a breach of the general compact.

It is by such expedients that nations, whose resources are understood, whose reputations and governments are erected on the foundation of ages, are enabled to obtain a solid and extensive credit. Would it be reasonable in us to hope for more easy terms, who have so recently assumed our rank among the nations? Is it not to be expected, that individuals will be cautious in lending their money to a people in our circumstances, and that they will at least require the best security we can give?

We have an enemy vigilant, intriguing, well acquainted with our defects and embarrassments. We may expect that he will make every effort to instil diffidences into individuals; and, in the present posture of our internal affairs, he will have too plausible ground on which to tread. Our necessities have obliged us to embrace measures, with respect to our public credit, calculated to inspire distrust. The prepossessions on this article must naturally be against us, and it is therefore indispensable we should endeavor to remove them, by such means as will be the most obvious and striking.

It was with these views Congress determined on a general fund; and the one they have recommended must, upon a thorough examination, appear to have fewer inconveniences than any other.

It has been remarked, as an essential part of the plan, that the fund should depend on a single will. This will not be the case, unless the collection, as well as the appropriation, is under the control of the United States; for it is evident, that after the duty is agreed upon, it may, in a great measure, be defeated by an ineffectual mode of levying it. The United States have a common interest in a uniform and equally energetic collection; and not only policy, but justice to all the parts of the Union, designates the utility of lodging the power of making it where the interest is common. Without this, it might, in reality, operate as a very unequal tax.

Third Objection.—“That by granting to Congress a power to collect moneys from the commerce of these States, indefinitely as to time and quantity, and for the expenditure of which they are not to be accountable to the States, they would become independent of their constituents; and so the proposed impost is repugnant to the liberty of the United States.”

Admitting the principle of this objection to be true, still it ought to have no weight in the present case, because there is no analogy between the principle and the fact.

Firstly. The fund proposed is sufficiently definite as to time, because it is only co-extensive with the existence of the debt contracted, and to be contracted, in the course of war. Congress are persuaded that it is as remote from the intention of their constituents to perpetuate that debt, as to extinguish it at once by a faithless neglect of providing the means to fulfil the public engagements. Their ability to discharge it in a moderate time, can as little be doubted as their inclination; and the moment that debt ceases, the duty, so far as respects the present provision, ceases with it.

The resolution recommending the duty specifies the object of it to be the discharge of the principal and interest of the debts already contracted, or which may be contracted, on the faith of the United States, for supporting the present war.

Secondly. The rate per cent. is fixed; and it is not at the option of the United States to increase it. Though the product will vary according to the variations in trade, yet, as there is this limitation of the rate, it cannot be properly said to be indefinite as to quantity.

By the Confederation, Congress have an absolute discretion in determining the quantum of revenue requisite for the national expenditure. When this is done, nothing remains for the States, separately, but the mode of raising. No State can dispute the obligation to pay the sum demanded, without a breach of the Confederation; and when the money comes into the treasury, the appropriation is the exclusive province of the Federal Government. This provision of the Confederation (without which it would be an empty form) comprehends in it the principle, in its fullest latitude, which the objection under consideration treats as repugnant to the liberty of the United States,—to wit, an indefinite power of prescribing the quantity of money to be raised, and of appropriating it when raised.

If it be said that the States, individually, having the collection in their own hands, may refuse a compliance with exorbitant demands, the Confederation will answer, that this is a point of which they have no constitutional liberty to judge. Such a refusal would be an exertion of power, not of right; and the same power which could disregard a requisition made on the authority of the Confederation, might at any time arrest the collection of the duty.

The same kind of responsibility which exists with respect to the expenditure of money furnished in the forms hitherto practised, would be equally applicable to the revenue from the imports.

The truth is, the security intended to the general liberty in the Confederation consists in the frequent election, and in the rotation, of the members of Congress, by which there is a constant and an effectual check upon them. This is the security which the people in every State enjoy against the usurpations of their internal governments; and it is the true source of security in a representative republic. The government, so constituted, ought to have the means necessary to answer the end of its institution. By weakening its hands too much, it may be rendered incapable of providing for the interior harmony or the exterior defence of the State.

The measure in question, if not within the letter, is within the spirit, of the Confederation. Congress, by that, are empowered to borrow money for the use of the United States; and, by implication, to concert the means necessary to accomplish the end. But without insisting upon this argument, if the Confederation has not made proper provision for the exigencies of the States, it will be at all times the duty of Congress to suggest further provisions; and when their proposals are submitted to the unanimous consent of the States, they can never be charged with exceeding the bounds of their trust. Such a consent is the basis and sanction of the Confederation, which expressly, in the thirteenth article, empowers Congress to agree to, and propose, such additional provision.

The remarks hitherto made have had reference, principally, to the future prosecution of the war. There still remains an interesting light in which the subject ought to be viewed.

The United States have already contracted a debt in Europe and in this country, for which their faith is pledged. The capital of this debt can only be discharged by degrees; but a fund for this purpose, and for paying the interest annually, on every principle of policy and justice, ought to be provided. The omission will be the deepest ingratitude and cruelty to a large number of meritorious individuals, who, in the most critical periods of the war, have adventured their fortunes in support of our independence. It would stamp the national character with indelible disgrace.

An annual provision for the purpose will be too precarious. If its continuance and application were certain, it would not afford complete relief. With many, the regular payment of interest by occasional grants would suffice; but with many more it would not. These want the use of the principal itself; and they have a right to it; but since it is not in our power to pay off the principal, the next expedient is to fund the debt, and render the evidences of it negotiable.

Besides the advantage to individuals from this arrangement, the active stock of the nation would be increased by the whole amount of the domestic debt, and of course the abilities of the community to contribute to the public wants; the national credit would revive, and stand hereafter on a secure basis.

This was another object of the proposed duty.

If it be conceded that a similar fund is necessary, it can hardly be disputed that the one recommended is the most eligible. It has been already shown that it affects all parts of the community in proportion to their consumption, and has therefore the best pretensions to equality. It is the most agreeable tax to the people that can be imposed, because it is paid insensibly, and seems to be voluntary.

It may, perhaps, be imagined that it is unfavorable to commerce; but the contrary can easily be demonstrated. It has been seen that it does not diminish the profit of the merchant, and of course can be no diminution of his inducements to trade. It is too moderate in its amount to discourage the consumption of imported goods, and cannot, on that account, abridge the extent of importations. If it even had this effect, it would be an advantage to commerce, by lessening the proportion of our imports to our exports, and inclining the balance in favor of this country.

The principal thing to be consulted for the advancement of commerce is to promote exports. All impediments to these, either by way of prohibition, or by increasing the prices of native commodities, decreasing by that means their sale and consumption at foreign markets, are injurious. Duties on exports have this operation. For the same reason taxes on possessions and the articles of our own growth or manufacture, whether in the form of a land-tax, excise, or any other, are more hurtful to trade than impost duties. The tendency of all such taxes is to increase the prices of those articles which are the objects of exportation, and to enable others to undersell us abroad. The farmer, if he pays a heavy land-tax, must endeavor to get more for the products of his farm; the mechanic and laborer, if they find the necessaries of life grow dearer by an excise, must endeavor to exact higher wages: and these causes will produce an increase of prices within, and operate against foreign commerce.

It is not, however, to be inferred that the whole revenue ought to be drawn from imports; all extremes are to be rejected. The chief thing to be attended to is that the weight of the taxes fall not too heavily, in the first instance, upon particular parts of the community. A judicious distribution to all kinds of taxable property, is a first principle in taxation. The tendency of these observations is only to show that taxes on possessions, on articles of our own growth and manufacture, are more prejudicial to trade than duties on imports.

The observations which conclude the letter on which these remarks are made, naturally lead to reflections that deserve the serious attention of every member of the Union. There is a happy mean between too much confidence and excessive jealousy, in which the health and prosperity of a State consist. Either extreme is a dangerous vice. The first is a temptation to men in power, to arrogate more than they have a right to; the latter enervates government, prevents system in the administration, defeats the most salutary measures, breeds confusion in the State, disgusts and discontents among the people, and may eventually prove as fatal to liberty as the opposite temper.

It is certainly pernicious to leave any government in a situation of responsibility disproportioned to its power.

The conduct of the war is intrusted to Congress, and the public expectation turned upon them without any competent means at their command to satisfy the important trust. After the most full and solemn deliberation, under a collective view of all the public difficulties, they recommended a measure which appears to them the corner-stone of the public safety: they see this measure suspended for nearly two years; partially complied with by some of the States; rejected by one of them, and in danger, on that account, to be frustrated; the public embarrassments every day increasing; the dissatisfaction of the army growing more serious; the other creditors of the public clamoring for justice; both irritated by the delay of measures for their present relief or future security; the hopes of our enemies encouraged to protract the war; the zeal of our friends depressed by an appearance of remissness and want of exertion on our part; Congress harassed; the national character suffering; and the national safety at the mercy of events.

This state of things cannot but be extremely painful to Congress; and appears to your Committee to make it their duty to be urgent, to obviate the evils with which it is pregnant.

Resolved, That Congress agree to the said report.

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The Moral Liberal recommends you supplement this read with Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay’s constitutional classic: The Federalist: The Famous Papers on the Principles of American Government

The Works of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Henry Cabot Lodge (Federal Edition) (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904). In 12 vols. The copyright for the original of this document is held in the Public Domain. Font, formatting, spelling modernizations, typo/transcription corrections, and explanatory footnotes for this version of  ”The Works of Alexander Hamilton” Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell and The Moral Liberal.