Monday, March 19, 2007

Direct Taxes and the Three-Fifths Clause II

The Three-Fifths Clause cleverly tied that formula to both "direct" taxation and representation, creating the impression that the northern States were getting something as well as giving something. Although the slave owning States would receive increased representation, at least they would also be paying a similarly increased portion of the national taxes, reducing the taxes to be paid by northern States with no or few slaves.

In American Taxation, American Slavery, Robin Einhorn reviews the evidence that powerfully and, I think, conclusively, demonstrates that this impression was, and was calculated to be, a sham. Everyone at the Constitutional Convention knew perfectly well that all or virtually all federal revenue would be raised via the impost or tariff (as in fact it was). They cared about "direct" taxes so little that they did not even know what they were.

I have mentioned in an earlier post Gouverneur Morris' reference to direct taxes as a bridge to span "a certain Gulph." Professor Einhorn also cites an unsuccessful mid-September effort
by John Dickinson (Delaware) and James Wilson to remove the apportionment of direct taxes from the three-fifths clause. The words "and direct taxes," they argued, were "improperly placed in a clause relating merely to the Constitution of the House of Representatives." Morris, who had suggested this change earlier ("having passed the gulph the bridge may be removed"), now defended the inclusion of direct taxes with the same argument Wilson made initially. The point was to divert attention. Direct taxes should remain in the clause "in order to exclude the appearance of counting the Negroes in the Representation -- The including of them may now be referred to the object of direct taxes, and incidentally only to that of Representation."

American Taxation, American Slavery at 168-69.

I should emphasize that the argument that everyone knew that the impost or tariff would fund the federal government is not based solely on a few snippets from the Constitutional Convention. The experience of the founders-to-be from 1776 on had demonstrated that other forms of funding were wildly impractical and contentious (e.g., land valuation) or promptly provoked nasty arguments about slavery (e.g., poll taxes).

That experience ultimately led to the realization that the impost was the perfect federal tax. It was easily administered and collected, requiring no cumbersome and intrusive machinery to value property and equalize those values. Because it simply increased the price of imported goods, it was largely invisible to ordinary citizens, and the argument could always be made that payment of the tax was voluntary -- if you don't want to pay it, don't buy imported goods. And for similar reasons, it was impossible to know who exactly was bearing the tax or whether the citizens of particular States were bearing an undue portion, eliminating State claims of unfairness.

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