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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Tariff the Proper Source of National Revenue

By Oliver Ellsworth (1745–1807)

[Born in Winslow, Conn., 1745. Died there, 1807. Speech in the Connecticut Convention, 7 January, 1788.]

THROUGH the whole of this debate, I have attended to the objections which have been made against this clause; and I think them all to be unfounded. The clause is general; it gives the general legislature “power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States.” There are three objections against this clause—first, that it is too extensive, as it extends to all the objects of taxation; secondly, that it is partial; thirdly, that Congress ought not to have power to lay taxes at all.

The first objection is, that this clause extends to all the objects of taxation. But though it does extend to all, it does not extend to them exclusively. It does not say that Congress shall have all these sources of revenue, and the States none. All excepting the impost, still lie open to the States. This State owes a debt; it must provide for the payment of it. So do all the other States. This will not escape the attention of Congress. When making calculations to raise a revenue, they will bear this in mind. They will not take away that which is necessary for the States. They are the head, and will take care that the members do not perish. The State debt, which now lies heavy upon us, arose from the want of powers in the federal system. Give the necessary powers to the national government, and the State will not be again necessitated to involve itself in debt for its defence in war. It will lie upon the national government to defend all the States, to defend all its members, from hostile attacks. The United States will bear the whole burden of war. It is necessary that the power of the general legislature should extend to all the objects of taxation, that government should be able to command all the resources of the country; because no man can tell what our exigencies may be. Wars have now become rather wars of the purse than of the sword. Government must, therefore, be able to command the whole power of the purse; otherwise a hostile nation may look into our Constitution, see what resources are in the power of government, and calculate to go a little beyond us; thus they may obtain a decided superiority over us, and reduce us to the utmost distress. A government which can command but half its resources is like a man with but one arm to defend himself.

The second objection is, that the impost is not a proper mode of taxation; that it is partial to the Southern States. I confess I am mortified when I find gentlemen supposing that their delegates in Convention were inattentive to their duty, and made a sacrifice of the interests of their constituents. If, however, the impost be a partial mode, this circumstance, high as my opinion of it is, would weaken my attachment to it; for I abhor partiality. But I think there are three special reasons why an impost is the best way of raising a national revenue.

The first is, it is the most fruitful and easy way. All nations have found it to be so. Direct taxation can go but little way toward raising a revenue. To raise money in this way, people must be provident; they must constantly be laying up money to answer the demands of the collector. But you cannot make people thus provident. If you do anything to the purpose, you must come in when they are spending, and take a part with them. This does not take away the tools of a man’s business, or the necessary utensils of his family: it only comes in when he is taking his pleasure, and feels generous; when he is laying out a shilling for superfluities, it takes twopence of it for public use, and the remainder will do him as much good as the whole….

The experiments, which have been made in our own country, show the productive nature of indirect taxes. The imports into the United States amount to a very large sum. They will never be less, but will continue to increase for centuries to come. As the population of our country increases, the imports will necessarily increase….

It is a strong argument in favor of an impost, that the collection of it will interfere less with the internal police of the States than any other species of taxation. It does not fill the country with revenue officers, but is confined to the sea-coast, and is chiefly a water operation. Another weighty reason in favor of this branch of the revenue is, if we do not give it to Congress, the individual States will have it. It will give some States an opportunity of oppressing others, and destroy all harmony between them. If we would have the States friendly to each other, let us take away this bone of contention, and place it, as it ought in justice to be placed, in the hands of the general government.

“But,” says an honorable gentleman near me, “the impost will be a partial tax; the Southern States will pay but little in comparison with the Northern.” I ask, What reason is there for this assertion? “Why,” says he, “we live in a cold climate, and want warming.” Do not they live in a hot climate, and want quenching? Until you get as far South as the Carolinas, there is no material difference in the quantity of clothing which is worn. In Virginia, they have the same course of clothing that we have; in Carolina, they have a great deal of cold, raw, chilly weather; even in Georgia, the river Savannah has been crossed upon the ice. And if they did not wear quite so great a quantity of clothing in those States as with us, yet people of rank wear that which is of a much more expensive kind. In these States, we manufacture one-half of our clothing, and all our tools of husbandry; in those, they manufacture none, nor ever will. They will not manufacture, because they find it much more profitable to cultivate their lands, which are exceedingly fertile. Hence they import almost everything, not excepting the carriages in which they ride, the hoes with which they till the ground, and the boots which they wear. If we doubt of the extent of their importations, let us look at their exports. So exceedingly fertile and profitable are their lands, that a hundred large ships are every year loaded with rice and indigo from the single port of Charleston. The rich return of these cargoes of immense value will be all subject to the impost. Nothing is omitted; a duty is to be paid upon the blacks which they import From Virginia, their exports are valued at a million sterling per annum; the single article of tobacco amounts to seven or eight hundred thousand. How does this come back? Not in money; for the Virginians are poor, to a proverb, in money. They anticipate their crops; they spend faster than they earn; they are ever in debt. Their rich exports return in eatables, in drinkables, and in wearables. All these are subject to the impost. In Maryland, their exports are as great in proportion as those in Virginia. The imports and exports of the Southern States are quite as great in proportion as those of the Northern. Where, then, exists this partiality, which has been objected? It exists nowhere but in the uninformed mind.

But there is one objection, Mr. President, which is broad enough to cover the whole subject. Says the objector, Congress ought not to have power to raise any money at all. Why? Because they have the power of the sword; and if we give them the power of the purse, they are despotic. But I ask, sir, if ever there were a government without the power of the sword and the purse? This is not a new coined phrase; but it is misapplied; it belongs to quite another subject. It was brought into use in Great Britain, where they have a king vested with hereditary power. Here, say they, it is dangerous to place the power of the sword and the purse in the hands of one man, who claims an authority independent of the people; therefore we will have a Parliament. But the King and Parliament together, the supreme power of the nation,—they have the sword and the purse. And they must have both; else how could the country be defended? For the sword without the purse is of no effect; it is a sword in the scabbard. But does it follow, because it is dangerous to give the power of the sword and purse to an hereditary prince, who is independent of the people, that therefore it is dangerous to give it to the Parliament—to Congress, which is your Parliament—to men appointed by yourselves, and dependent upon yourselves? This argument amounts to this: you must cut a man in two in the middle to prevent his hurting himself.