Honest to God– the question of whether or not the Federal government had the right to impose "imposts, duties and tariffs" for any purpose other revenue collection was the central debate of American politics from the country's founding until the adoption of the 16th Amendment. The issue of protectionist vs. ad valorem import duties dwarfed even the question of slavery in the volume and scope of legislation and Congressional debate. I would argue that this "tariff question" even shaped the resolution of the argument over slavery itself. The "equal protection clause" owes its specific language to the very words that Secretary of the Treasury Walker and Joseph Story (probably our greatest legal mind) had used in their arguments used against protectionist tariffs. Those same men, along with Grant and many, many others, would have found the very idea of a "progressive" income tax an abomination because it violated what they considered to be the essential Constitutional principle– equal protection under law.

Congress should allow "no duty (to) be imposed on any article above the lowest rate which will yield the largest amount of revenue…..A partial and a total prohibition are alike in violation of the true object of the taxing power. They only differ in degree, and not in principle. If the revenue limit may be exceeded one per cent., it may be exceeded one hundred. If it may be exceeded upon any one article, it may be exceeded on all; and there is no escape from this conclusion, but in contending that Congress may lay duties on all articles so high as to collect no revenue, and operate as a total prohibition." - Treasury Secretary Robert Walker (1845)

(yet another cotton speculator):

"It is true, that the eighth section of the first article of the constitution authorizes congress to lay and collect an impost duty; but it is granted, as a tax power, for the sole purpose of revenue; a power, in its nature, essentially different from that of imposing protective, or prohibitory duties. The two are incompatible; for the prohibitory system must end in destroying the revenue from imports."

- Joseph Story [1833]

Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States


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