Taxation under the Articles of Confederation
The following are Thomas Jefferson's comments
on the method for assessing the "wealth" of each state
for the purpose of levying taxes permitted under the Articles
Confederation. In this passage, Jefferson and John Adams make a
number of interesting observations concerning the conditions of
labor in the North as opposed to that of slaves forced to labor
on southern plantations.
On Friday July 12. the Committee appointed to draw the articles of
confederation reported them, and on the 22d. the house resolved
themselves into a committee to take them into consideration.
On the 30th. & 31st. of that month & 1st. of the ensuing,
those articles were debated which determined the proportion or quota
of money which each state should furnish to the common treasury, and
the manner of voting in Congress.
The first of these articles was expressed in the original draught in
these words. "Art. XI. All charges of war & all other
expenses that shall be incurred for the common defence, or general
welfare, and allowed by the United States assembled, shall be defrayed
out of a common treasury, which shall be supplied by the several
colonies in proportion to the number of inhabitants of every age, sex
& quality, except Indians not paying taxes, in each colony, a true
account of which, distinguishing the white inhabitants, shall be
triennially taken & transmitted to the Assembly of the United
Mr. [Samuel] Chase moved that the quotas should be fixed, not by the
number of inhabitants of every condition, but by that of the "white
inhabitants." He admitted that taxation should be alwais in
proportion to property, that this was in theory the true rule, but
that from a variety of difficulties, it was a rule which could never
be adopted in practice. The value of the property in every State could
never be estimated justly & equally. Some other measure for the
wealth of the State must therefore be devised, some standard referred
to which would be more simple. He considered the number of inhabitants
as a tolerably good criterion of property, and that this might alwais
be obtained. He therefore thought it the best mode which we could
adopt, with one exception only.
He observed that negroes are property, and as such cannot be
distinguished from the lands or personalities held in those States
where there are few slaves, that the surplus of profit which a
Northern farmer is able to lay by, he invests in cattle, horses, &c.
whereas a Southern farmer lays out that same surplus in slaves. There
is no more reason therefore for taxing the Southern states on the
farmer's head, & on his slave's head, than the Northern ones on
their farmer's heads & the heads of their cattle, that the method
proposed would therefore tax the Southern states according to their
numbers & their wealth conjunctly, while the Northern would be
taxed on numbers only: that negroes in fact should not be considered
as members of the state more than cattle & that they have no more
interest in it.
Mr. John Adams observed that the numbers of people were taken by this
article as an index of the wealth of the state, & not as subjects
of taxation, that as to this matter it was of no consequence by what
name you called your people, whether by that of freemen or of slaves.
That in some countries the labouring poor were called freemen, in
others they were called slaves; but that the difference as to the
state was imaginary only. What matters it whether a landlord employing
ten labourers in his farm, gives them annually as much money as will
buy them the necessaries of life, or gives them those necessaries at
short hand. The ten labourers add as much wealth annually to the
state, increase it's exports as much in the one case as the other.
Certainly 500 freemen produce no more profits, no greater surplus for
the paiment of taxes than 500 slaves. Therefore the state in which are
the labourers called freemen should be taxed no more than that in
which are those called slaves.
Suppose by any extraordinary operation of nature or of law one half
the labourers of a state could in the course of one night be
transformed into slaves: would the state be made the poorer or the
less able to pay taxes? That the condition of the laboring poor in
most countries, that of the fishermen particularly of the Northern
states, is as abject as that of slaves. It is the number of labourers
which produce the surplus for taxation, and numbers therefore
indiscriminately, are the fair index of wealth. That it is the use of
the word "property" here, & it's application to some of
the people of the state, which produces the fallacy.
How does the Southern farmer procure slaves? Either by importation or
by purchase from his neighbor. If he imports a slave, he adds one to
the number of labourers in his country, and proportionably to it's
profits & abilities to pay taxes. If he buys from his neighbor it
is only a transfer of a labourer from one farm to another, which does
not change the annual produce of the state, & therefore should not
change it's tax. That if a Northern farmer works ten labourers on his
farm, he can, it is true, invest the surplus of ten men's labour in
cattle: but so may the Southern farmer working ten slaves. That a
state of one hundred thousand freemen can maintain no more cattle than
one of one hundred thousand slaves. Therefore they have no more of
that kind of property. That a slave may indeed from the custom of
speech be more properly called the wealth of his master, than the free
labourer might be called the wealth of his employer: but as to the
state, both were equally it's wealth, and should therefore equally add
to the quota of it's tax.