Constitution Sunday: Oliver Ellsworth defends the Taxing Power and Comments on Dual Sovereignties and Judicial Review

Connecticut Ratifying Convention

January 7, 1788

When the Connecticut Ratifying Convention assembled, there were objections against the draft Constitution on the basis that it was “despotic” in its bestowing great power upon Congress: to the objectors, Congress having both the power of the purse and the power of the sword was intolerable. Oliver Ellsworth, however, defended the Constitution as written. Ellsworth, who would later become a United States Senator and a Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, had seen the ineffectiveness of those United States as existed under the Articles of Confederation and thus saw the draft Constitution as remedying the defects that caused that ineffectiveness.

The subject of the debate was the draft Constitution’s Article I, Section 8, Clause 1, which stated that Congress had the 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.” One of the fundamental objections at the convention was that the power was too extensive, too broad-reaching. Ellsworth said that, in fact, the Constitution’s language did empower Congress to raise revenue through these methods but did not prohibit states from doing the same (with the exception of imposts). At its core, the Constitution was providing the federal government with the “necessary powers” to manage the country as a whole; states would no longer need to be involved in managing their debts to defend a war as had happened during the Revolutionary War: “The United States will bear the whole burden of war.” Limiting the national government’s reach in raising funds mitigated the risk of future events. When another war would come, Ellsworth reasoned, that war would be more a “war of the purse, than of the sword,” and to allow an adversary to “look into our constitution, see what resources are in the power of Government, and calculate to go a little beyond us; then they may obtain a decided superiority over us, and reduce us to the utmost distress.” Then, Ellsworth’s simile: “A government, which can command but half its resources, is like a man with but one arm to defend himself.”

Uncomfortable though the objectors were with the draft Constitution’s framework having an occasional coercive effect, Ellsworth noted that this was a feature that lent itself to the government succeeding for not just years but centuries. Ellsworth said,

Hence we see, how necessary for the union is a coercive principle. No man pretends the contrary. We all see and feel this necessity. The only question is, shall it be a coercion of Law, or a coercion of arms: There is no other possible alternative. Where will those who oppose a coercion of Law, come out? where will they end? A necessary consequence of their principles is a war of the States one against another. I am for coercion by Law, that coercion which acts only upon delinquent individuals. This constitution does not attempt to coerce sovereign bodies, STates in their political capacity. No coercion is applicable to such bodies, but that of an armed force. If we should attempt to execute the Laws of the Union by sending an armed force against a delinquent State, it would involve the good and bad, the innocent and guilty, in the same calamity. But this legal coercion singles out the guilty individual, and punishes him for breaking the Laws of the union. All men will see the reasonableness of this, they will acquiesce, and say, let the guilty suffer. How have the morals of the people been depraved for the want of an efficient government which might establish justice and righteousness. For the want of this, iniquity has come in upon us like an overflowing flood. If we wish to prevent this alarming evil, if we wish to protect the good citizen in his right, we must lift up the standard of justice, we must establish a national government, to be enforced by the equal decisions of Law, and the peaceable arm of the magistrate.

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